The Far East in the Middle East

Yechiel Nahari Museum of Far Eastern Art in Ramat Gan houses a wealthy Polish immigrant’s collection of artwork from China, Japan, India, Nepal.

Yechiel Nahari Museum of Far Eastern Art 521 (photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Yechiel Nahari Museum of Far Eastern Art 521
(photo credit: Carl Hoffman)
Life is full of amusing little anomalies. There are things that turn up out of the blue, in places where you would least expect to find them. What, for example, is an Egyptian pyramid doing on the back of the US one dollar bill? And for that matter, what is a human eye doing on top of the pyramid? How did coins from ancient Rome find their way into an Indian burial mound dating from 800 CE in the wilds of Round Rock, Texas? And as long as we are talking about the unexpected, what is a museum dedicated to Far Eastern art doing in a nondescript building on a nondescript street in the middle of, well, a nondescript neighborhood of Ramat Gan? 
Unbeknownst to many, since 1988, Ramat Gan has been the proud host of the Yechiel Nahari Museum of Far Eastern Art. Featuring art in various media from China and Japan, the Nahari Museum is one of several little-known but appealing museums run by the Ramat Gan Municipality, including the Maria and Mikhail Museum of Russian Art, the Beit Aharon Kahana Museum of Ceramic Art and the Joseph Constant Sculpture Gallery. All of these institutions are small, hidden treasures and all are, surprisingly enough, in Ramat Gan.
“Well, why not Ramat Gan?” demands Rufina Valery Valsky, as she smiles and squares her shoulders in a look of mock combat. Valsky, 28, is the spokeswoman for all four of these museums.
“Look at it this way,” she says. “If you think of Tel Aviv as Manhattan, then Ramat Gan is kind of like Brooklyn.”
Asked if she has ever been to either Manhattan or Brooklyn, Valsky laughs and admits that she has not. She does, however, have a point.
However overshadowed poor old Brooklyn may be by its much more glamorous neighbor on the other side of the East River, the place does have a remarkable amount of art and culture.
Perhaps because it had been a separate city that was not incorporated into a greater New York City until almost the turn of the 20th century, Brooklyn had both the time and wealth to create such treasures as the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, the Brooklyn Public Library and, last but certainly not least, the lost and still lamented Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team.
So when we factor in such institutions as the Beit Zvi School of Performing Arts, the Ramat Gan Theater and even the iconic, weirdly beautiful Spiral Apartment House by architects Zvi Hecker and Shmuel Groberman, we can imagine how Ramat Gan might remind Miss Valsky of a Brooklyn she dreams about but has yet to see.
Like the much more famous Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art in Haifa, the Nahari Museum in Ramat Gan began with the donation to the city of a private art collection.
YECHIEL NAHARI was a wealthy timber merchant who immigrated to Israel from Poland in 1938. Upon learning that his entire family had perished in the Holocaust, he returned to Europe after the war to aid Holocaust survivors. According to Nahari Museum curator Oded Avramovsky, 55, that is where the collection began.
“He was very clever. As you may know, most of the big collectors started to collect things after the Second World War, because it was a good time to do it. People were trying to get rid of their collections because they needed the money. Nahari was a businessman, he moved around a lot, and he managed to acquire several collections in those days, in addition to the Far East art collection.”
Far Eastern art was Nahari’s special love, and he made several trips to Asia during the postwar years to add to his holdings.
“Nahari wasn’t an expert in the field,” Avramovsky admits.
“He collected what he liked, or what people in Asia told him was important.”
One happy result of Nahari’s eclecticism was a significant purchase of artworks in carved ivory which, according to Avramovsky, were not considered to be high art at that time and were thus very inexpensive. Today, they are in great demand and sought after by both museums and private collectors.
Even the material is now rare and often prohibited from being exported from its country of origin. Fortunately however, Nahari “went with his gut” and bought these artworks while they were still plentiful and relatively cheap.
Consequently, says Avramovsky, “We have a very good collection of ivory sculpture from China from the beginning of the 20th century.”
Nahari died in 1962 and willed his collection to the Municipality of Ramat Gan, where he had lived for several years. Ramat Gan accepted the collection, kept it in storage in several places and officially opened it to the public in 1988.
THE MUSEUM’S collection of artwork is mostly from China and Japan, with a few pieces from India and Nepal.
The works range from the 13th to the 20th centuries, with the greatest concentration from the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Aside from the ivory sculpture, the collection includes works in porcelain, decorative metal, lacquer ware, enamel work and textile art. There are, of course, swords; various types of furniture; carvings in bamboo, wood and stone; bronze vessels; brass statuary; and Japanese woodblock prints.
There are, in particular, many out-of-the-ordinary Buddhist statues and votive objects in wood and metal, and even a small but predictably amusing collection of Japanese netsuke.
According to Avramovsky, around 70 percent of the museum’s total collection is actually on display at any one time, and enough changes are made to the permanent exhibition that, sooner or later, everything the museum gets shown. In addition to the permanent exhibition, the museum mounts two or three temporary shows each year.
The current exhibition – ongoing, Avramovsky says, until “sometime in November” – is “Inner Fire,” by sculptor Nobuya Yamaguchi.
Born in Tokyo in 1963, Yamaguchi received a BA from Tamagawa University, where he studied metal sculpture. He moved to Israel in 1989 and became a member of the Ein Hod Artists’ Village in 1991. At Ein Hod, the young artist developed his talents in different forms of metal sculpture, notably large environmental installations, sound sculpture and kinetic works.
Yamaguchi arrived at a life-changing moment in 1998, when a huge fire in the Carmel forest spread to Ein Hod, burned his house to the ground, and left the surrounding natural area charred and blackened. Since then, he has merged burnt wood with metal to create works that evoke a range of different emotions and moods. By unpleasant coincidence, the “Inner Fire” exhibition was conceived and prepared last winter, at the same time as another major fire raged once again in the Carmel.
The Yechiel Nahari Museum of Far Eastern Art shares its building with the Maria and Mikhail Zetlin Museum of Russian Art. One admission fee covers entrance to both museums.
At present, the entirety of the Zetlin Museum’s exhibition space is being given over to “Mountains, Water,” a temporary exhibition of superb landscape photography by Leonid Padrul.
Padrul, who came to Israel in 1994 as a master photographer from Ukraine, is internationally famous, a multi-award winner, and a frequent contributor to National Geographic.
The museum’s permanent exhibition will return to the galleries at the conclusion of the current show.
The Yechiel Nahari Museum of Far Eastern Art is located at Rehov Hibbat Zion 18, Ramat Gan. For further information, call (03) 618-8243.