In your face

The irreverant Zeev Engelmayer is perfectly suited to participate in a group exhibition of thought-provoking cartoons and comics at Holon’s Israeli Cartoon Museum.

Zeev Engelmayer (photo credit: Courtesy)
Zeev Engelmayer
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Zeev Engelmayer is unrepentant. At 51 years young, the illustrator and comic-book artist is still churning out visual and written material that is as provocative, stimulating and entertaining as at any time in his three-decade-plus career, and counting.
In case it is not already abundantly clear from his ongoing creations in publications like Yediot Aharonot, and the motley range of books he puts out, not to mention the exhibitions to which he contributes and his solo shows, Engelmayer happily pokes fun at anything going. Politics, religion, sex, you-name-it are all areas that he targets on a regular basis, and that he lampoons with gay abandon. That happy-go-lucky approach will come across in no uncertain manner at a new group exhibition of thoughtprovoking cartoons and comics in which Engelmayer is participating, suitably titled “Pitzei Bagrut” (Acne), which opens at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon on October 10, closing on March 1.
Engelmayer first encountered the world of comics at the age of five, when he went with his parents from their Kiryat Ono home to Moshav Kfar Syrkin near Petah Tikva, to buy free-range eggs. While his mom and dad were busy taking care of the transaction, the child found a pile of crumpled Donald Duck comics that the henhouse owner happily gave to him.
Not being proficient in English at the time, after returning home Engelmayer and his sister, Galia, made up stories to go with the captivating Disney visuals while their mom prepared shakshuka with said eggs.
“That was the first time I encountered the hypnotic magic of comics… and shakshuka,” notes Engelmayer with a chuckle.
The first time the world was introduced to the young artist’s burgeoning talents was in a poem called “Harata” – Regret – which he sent in to the Davar Leyeladim children’s publication when he was in fourth grade. “I trod on an anthill and felt very sorry that I’d killed so many ants,” he recalls.
By the time he was 12, the youngster’s mischievous side began to emerge.
“I made a small booklet of drawings with a picture of a fully dressed woman on the first page and a nude woman on the last, so that when you flicked through the pages quickly, she appeared to be undressing,” explains Engelmayer.
There was also some significant social added value to be gained by demonstrating his incipient skills.
“There was a sort of game in class whereby we took turns going up to the blackboard and drawing all sorts of things in sequence. There were kids who were better at drawing than me, but I always came up with great ideas. I became very popular through that.”
His imagination was further fired by the modest offerings on Israeli TV in the early ’70s. “Every Wednesday there was an animation slot that I loved – things like Popeye, Mickey Mouse and Goofy. I really liked the Fleischer Studios stuff, all in black and white,” he says, adding that the latter left a lasting impression on his art. “My contour illustration style, and the strong linear colors I use, are influenced by animation. And the acrylic transparency technique I use is a classic animation technique.”
Engelmayer’s robust social life in Kiryat Ono was wiped out in one fell swoop when the family relocated to Winnipeg for three years, when he was 14. “That was a terrible blow for me,” recalls the artist, who now lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and two daughters.
“Overnight, I changed from being a real socialite to a social outcast. I just didn’t connect with any of the other kids there. What made it worse was that my sister, who is a year and 10 months younger than me, fit in really well, right from the start.”
But the teenager’s societal loss fueled a highly creative formative phase.
“I’d come home from school and I’d draw obsessively, for hours, every single day,” he says. “They were sort of romantic things, and nudity,” he adds with a mischievous laugh.
THINGS BEGAN to get serious on the professional front after Engelmayer returned to Israel, where he served in the IDF as a combat engineer. “I had an exhibition at Beit Hahayal [in Tel Aviv],” he says. “I got a month off from the army to get the show ready. The corps commander saw it and was impressed. [Then-defense minister] Arik Sharon came out of a conference there and walked straight past my drawings, but I think he was too engrossed in conversation to really relate to the exhibition. It was around the time of the First Lebanon War, and he probably had other things on his mind than my pretty poor drawings.”
The works from the IDF event later helped get Engelmayer into the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, even though he’d planned a different academic pursuit. “After the army I registered for film studies at university.
Completely by chance, someone told me about graphic design studies at Bezalel, so I went for that instead. The studies there really shook me up and introduced me to the wonderland of visual communications, and I have been there ever since.”
Engelmayer has been a highly prominent inhabitant of that wonderland for many years now, testing taboo waters at almost every turn. His work often displays an oxymoronic blend of images that tend toward the street-level side together with highbrow Hebrew, and vice versa.
The artist explains the seemingly disparate fusion by way of harking back to that childhood gastronomic event: “I try to mix things up, to create a visual shakshuka. I once defined myself as a ‘visual DJ.’ I am intrigued my unexpected connections between basic figures and cultured language, and between classic images and slang.”
Over the years, Engelmayer has put out a quantitatively and qualitatively impressive body of work. In the ’80s, he had a no-holds-barred weekly piece in the Kol Ha’ir Jerusalem newspaper called “Soteh Ha’ir” – a play on words which references the phrase for “town fool,” but actually means “the town pervert.” It is a typical Engelmayer semantic exercise.
The enfant terrible’s works have also appeared in such underground vehicles as Stiyot Shel Pingwinim (Penguin Deviations), in the 1990s; Kompot, which ensued from a fruitful Polish-Israeli synergy; and Syrup, awarded the singular title of Best Non-institutional Publication. He also had a regular slot in the Hadashot daily newspaper, which ran from 1984 to 1993.
While such a poking-fun attitude toward life and his work might be expected to keep Engelmayer firmly in the sidelines of society and fame, he also produces more easily digestible work, and has had the odd smash hit. His alternative Passover Haggada, which he created in 1999, three months before the holiday, brought him an unexpected media star turn and commercial success. “It came out about six days before the holiday and the first edition sold out in five days,” he recalls. “It was amazing.” Word of the whimsical tome spread far and wide. “There were loads of responses, including from members of Knesset. Some were pretty caustic.”
Negative reaction notwithstanding, the Haggada achieved unprecedented success, and was not universally panned in mainstream religious circles either. “I had an Orthodox rabbi who ordered 26 copies,” says Engelmayer. “I purposely told him about all the daring stuff in it, but he went ahead and bought the copies anyway.” The Haggada was also exhibited at the Tel Aviv Museum and, to date, five editions have been published. He has also had ienquiries from publishers in the US about putting out a Stateside copy.
Engelmayer says he was delighted that the Haggada accessed such a wide readership. “As an artist, my aim is to speak and to communicate through my work. The fact that the Haggada got to so many people is the realization of my fantasy, especially as I did not pander to the general public’s taste. I made the Haggada as I saw and understood the original, and it is very significant for me that it was such a success. I am used to letting rip with the stuff I do for alternative publications, so this was a great boon.”
PITZEI BAGRUT,” which is curated by Maya Devash, focuses on Israeli comics from 1975 to 1995. The two decades in question span most of the period between two events that sent seismic shock waves through Israeli society – the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin on November 4, 1995. In addition to Engelmayer, the stellar roster of contributing artists includes Dudu Geva, Uri Fink, Michel Kishka, Ido Amin, Shay Charka and Tzachi Ferber.
Engelmayer says the 20 years covered by “Pitzei Bagrut” were replete with events that provided plenty of creative nutrition for him and his professional colleagues. “It was an incredibly interesting time for creativity, because there were all sorts of topics that were previously considered taboo that suddenly opened for discussion. The national character became more vulnerable, holy cows simply asked to be slaughtered and the postmodern style that allowed us to mix quotes with other kinds of visuals was perfect for the creative process. There was a sense of innovation after the Yom Kippur War that opened the door to more daring forms of expression. People like [playwright] Hanoch Levin, with [1970 anti-war play] Queen of the Bathtub, and Dudu Geva and his [leftwing Ha’olam Hazeh publication] Zoo-Aretz-Zoo, and [seminal ’70s pop-rock] Kaveret influenced me and fired my imagination.”
Does Engelmayer have any red lines? Is there any area that even he would consider as beyond the pale? “Once I bought a piece of Bazooka Joe chewing gum and the comic inside said, ‘You have a sense of humor, but you sometimes don’t know when to stop’ – and that’s absolutely true. There is nothing you can’t make fun of, because laughter is the right and true response to our existence. Anything is funny – funerals, human tragedies, the lot. When something terrible happens I get told a week later, so that my laughing doesn’t embarrass the family.”
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