Roads not taken

‘In the Studio,’ an intriguing exhibition at the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art, comprises portraits of Jewish artists.

Nahum Gutman museum 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Nahum Gutman museum 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Venture into the narrow labyrinthine streets of Neveh Tzedek in Tel Aviv, and sooner or later you will arrive at the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art.
If you are familiar with the area and actually know where you are going, you will arrive there more or less directly. If not, you are likely to reach the museum after many twists, turns and tiring circumnavigations. You might even stumble upon the place by accident while trying to go somewhere else.
In whatever manner you arrive there, however, you are in for pleasant surprise. Tucked away in the disorienting maze of this charming little neighborhood where even Tel Aviv taxi drivers become hopelessly lost, the Gutman Museum offers a small but select sampling of some of the best Israeli art of both the past and the present.
Born in Bessarabia in 1898, Nahum Gutman immigrated to Israel with his family at the age of seven. He grew up to become one of our country’s pioneering artists who, along with others like Reuven Rubin, Ziona Tager and Pinhas Litvinovsky, decided to break with European influences and create what came to be known as the “Eretz Yisrael style” of art.
Following his death in 1980, Gutman’s family donated a large collection of his paintings, sculpture and written works for a commemorative museum, which was opened in 1988.
The Gutman Museum is comfortably ensconced in one of the oldest houses in Neveh Zedek, built by the Schulman family in 1887 and then used as the editorial offices of the periodical Hapoel Hatza’ir. It was the residence of writers Yosef Haim Brenner and Dvora Baron, a meeting place for Hebrew writers known as “the Writers’ House,” before being abandoned and condemned.
The Gutman Museum, like the previously blighted but now trendy little neighborhood that surrounds it, reflects the wisdom of a city choosing restoration over demolition when engaging in urban redevelopment.
ALTHOUGH CHIEF curator at the museum for no more than a month and a half, Monica Lavi, 50, has hit the ground running with an interesting new exhibition called “In the Studio.” The show presents a collection of self-portraits and portraits of Jewish artists who were active during the first half of the 20th century. Some of them died in the Holocaust, and others came to Israel by choice or necessity, bringing with them artistic influences, trends and traditions that did not become part of the local canon.
Lavi says, “You can see the way Israeli art began. You can see its roots. You can see different kinds of influences. But most importantly, you can see what influences Israeli art took and what influences Israeli art decided not to take. Many of the influences that you can see in the exhibition were options that were finally not taken or absorbed by the young art of Israel.”
These influences were not absorbed, or were actively rejected, because Israeli art chose to invent itself.
Says Lavi, “We cannot say that Israeli art developed naturally from what was going on in European art at that time. On the contrary, there was a deliberate break with the past.
Much thought was given to how to deliberately shape the new art of Israel.
“There were different ideas. One was to recreate some form of Canaanitic art. Artists favoring this idea sought to jump over 2,000 years of the Diaspora, back to the ‘Ancient East’ and employ some of those motifs in Israeli art.
“At the same time, there were artists who said, ‘We don’t want to be orientalistic; we want to be citizens of the world.’ These artists went international, into abstract art. There were many arguments here over what form to give Israeli art, over what shape it should take.
“And because, well, you know, they were Jewish, they argued all the time without being able to agree,” she concludes, laughing.
Lavi stresses that however iconoclastic the Israeli artists of the period may have been, they were by no means ignorant or unaware of the contemporary currents in European art.
“Israeli artists were aware of modern art.
Almost all of the artists that worked here at the beginning of the 20th century went to Paris, went to Vienna, studied abroad – even those who studied at the Bezalel Academy, which was founded in 1906. Gutman was one of the first students in Bezalel.
“But even they understood that they had to go to Europe to study more. And they were exposed to all of the modern currents in European art. So you cannot say that they didn’t know. They knew. But they chose, for a period, to create something new here in Israel.” For some of the artists in this exhibition, the resulting “art of Eretz Yisrael” became a world in which they could find no space.
Says Lavi: “You can see of many of the Jewish artists who lived in this period, that nothing they did was in any way ‘Jewish.’ They lived in their countries, among their respective artistic communities – in Russia, Holland, Paris and so on. They were cosmopolitans, influenced by the artistic movements of their times and wanting to be part of them. Some of them who came to Israel found an art that was trying to invent itself, using different approaches like naïve art and orientalism.
A GOOD example of the alienation that some of these artists experienced can be seen in two works by Miron Sima, a well-known German artist who had studied in Dresden with Otto Dix and garnered high status and numerous awards. With the rise of Nazism, he immigrated to Israel, joining a group of German artists whose social realism style of painting did not fit local artistic trends.
“I came to a bright, happy country, where construction was in full force and people were dancing in the streets. I was the only one who wasn’t smiling,” Sima wrote later.
In Self-Portrait 1940, Sima renders himself as a house painter – in workman’s clothing, holding a whitewasher’s broad brush – reflecting the way he was making his living during his first years in Israel.
Self-Portrait 1945 shows him as a painter working at an easel, after finally gaining a foothold in the local art scene.
By showing how these artists painted either themselves or their colleagues, “In the Studio” reveals the character of every artist on display, the way they dealt with art, and what they thought of themselves and their audiences.
Perhaps the strongest point made by this exhibition is the striking contrast between two paintings in particular: a self-portrait by Nahum Gutman and another by Leonid Pasternak, father of novelist Boris Pasternak and one of Russia’s earliest impressionists.
Says Lavi, “You can see in his 1915 self-portrait that Pasternak didn’t paint himself as a Jewish artist, or even as a Russian artist, but as a kind of French artist. The Russian intellectuals looked toward France, because that was their cultural center.
“You can see how Pasternak looks at himself in the mirror, how he shows the audience how important he thinks he is. He paints himself as a respected personage – the way he is standing, the way he’s dressed. This style option was not taken at all by Israeli artists.”
Quite the opposite is a 1960s self-portrait by Gutman.
“Gutman was aware of the modern currents in art, but he was also captivated by what he saw here – the orchards, the workers, the everyday life, the building of Tel Aviv,” Lavi explains.
“Here, he paints himself in a very Israeli manner. If you compare it to Pasternak, dressed formally in his shirt and tie, you’ll note immediately that Gutman is shirtless.
He paints himself with no artistic persona. It’s a hot day, so he’s not wearing a shirt.
“It’s very Israeli. He’s smiling. He isn’t trying to intimidate. He wants you to identify with him on a totally different level from the way Pasternak addresses his audience.”
As we wander around the gallery, we see an interesting array of what Lavi calls “dead ends.” A veritable spectrum of early 20th-century art motifs are on display, captured on canvas, that never entered the mainstream of Israeli art – either because they were rejected by the local art establishment, or because the artists simply died or were murdered before they could bring their styles to Israel.
In Roman Kramsztyk’s 1910 Portrait of the Painter Leopold Gottlieb, we can see how the artist chooses to represent Gottlieb, younger brother of Maurycy Gottlieb, one of the most famous Jewish artists of the turn of the century.
Leopold is portrayed, says Lavi, “as a Bohemian, kind of a dandy, and obviously very aware of the way he is dressed and his importance as a painter. You can see something in the way he is looking at us, some sadness that Kramsztyk was able to capture in his face.
“The only thing that is Jewish here are the Jewish features on Gottlieb’s face.”
Kramsztyk was Polish, living and working in Paris, until he returned home in 1939 to care for his ailing mother. Caught in Poland at the start of the war, Kramsztyk perished in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1942.
Bora Baruch’s Self Portrait, 1939 depicts the artist in a kind of post-Impressionistic Cézanne-like style of painting. We see something acutely sensitive, a look of worry and doubt on his face as he seems to be pondering the question of what lies ahead.
AS A Jew in Europe in 1939, he had every reason to worry. A native of Belgrade, Baruch was studying art in Paris until the outbreak of WWII. He returned home to join the Partisan guerrillas under Josip Broz Tito and was killed in action fighting against the Germans in 1942.
Lesser Ury was a very famous German artist of the early decades of the past century. He died a recluse in Berlin in 1931. Sometimes called the German version of Impressionism, Ury was famous for urban landscapes that featured nocturnal café scenes and streetlamps and car headlights reflected on rainy streets at night.
His self-portrait from the 1920s reflects the face of a dark and brooding spirit whose equally dark and brooding oeuvre could not have coexisted with the deliberately innocent, optimistic young art of Israel at that time. His work, like that of the other artists in this show, represent fascinating unexplored paths for Israeli art or, to borrow from poet Robert Frost, roads not taken.
A final and particularly appealing part of the “In the Studio” exhibition is the opportunity to see what goes on in an actual artist’s studio. Two young living and breathing artists, Ronit Levin Delgado and Gilit Fisher, have been given a small amount of space to set up a working studio at one end of the exhibition gallery.
Asked how being part of an exhibition is working out for them, Delgado, 26, replies, “It’s very challenging. First of all, the space is very small, compared to our private studios.
And it’s very interesting to have the interaction with the crowd, the people who come to talk to us, ask questions.
“Mostly, people are curious. It’s not every day that you see an artist in action. It’s interesting for them, and for us as well. At our own studios, it’s very intimate and very private.
We don’t get to interact with people. So this is very nice.”
Fisher, 33, adds, “The interaction between Ronit and me has been interesting. The space is very small, and so we have to work on a very small scale. It’s been challenging and productive.”
And finally, a reconstruction of Nahum Gutman’s studio, normally on the museum’s second floor, has been moved downstairs to be near the working studio of the two young artists.
“In the Studio” is showing until April 25 at the Gutman Museum of Art, Rehov 21 Shimon Rokach 21, Neveh Tzedek, Tel Aviv. Sun.-Wed.10 to 4; Thurs. 10 to 8; Fri. 10 to 2; Sat. 10 to 3. For further information, call (03) 516-1970 or visit