A FRAME from the Oscar-nominated ‘Waltz with Bashir.’ (photo credit: David Polonsky)
A FRAME from the Oscar-nominated ‘Waltz with Bashir.’ (photo credit: David Polonsky)
Tel Aviv Museum opens exhibit on David Polonsky, illustrator known for 'Waltz with Bashir'

Illustration is well and truly on the national cultural map. The artistic discipline has not had the easiest of rides until now, struggling to gain traction in the upper echelons of the cultural sector. But things have begun to change. For the past six years, the Outline Festival has been displaying a wide range of illustrative works in downtown Jerusalem, and the annual Illustration Week in Tel Aviv has proven to be enduringly popular with the public.

But until now, the discipline has had a hard time entering the hallowed portals of the country’s leading museums. That makes “Illustrations: David Polonsky” a cause for much celebration. The exhibition opened at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art four weeks ago and is due to run through to February.

Polonsky is a bona fide pioneer. This isn’t about Zionist ideology, dredging malaria-infested swamps and building kibbutzim. This is “just” about art.

Polonsky is the first illustrator to have a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum.

Judging by the breadth of styles, not to mention the quality and storytelling attributes of the exhibits spread across two capacious display rooms, it’s a wonder it took so long.

THE 49-YEAR-OLD Kiev-born artist is one of the most prolific and celebrated illustrators we have around. He is best known for his stunning work, as designer and chief illustrator, on the groundbreaking animated film Waltz with Bashir, directed by Ari Folman, which won a Golden Globe and landed an Oscar nomination in 2009. But there is more, much more to Polonsky’s oeuvre.

 DAVID POLONSKY is the first illustrator to have a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum. (credit: Michael Faust) DAVID POLONSKY is the first illustrator to have a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum. (credit: Michael Faust)

When we met at the museum, clearly delighted to have a solo show hosted by one of the country’s most important repositories of artworks, Polonsky surprised me by differentiating between illustration and art.

“Are you saying, then, that illustration is not art?” I queried.

“Art is created for its own sake,” he advised. “Illustration tells a story. It serves something which already exists in verbal form, and illustration adds the visual dimension.”

Fair enough. Nonetheless, the exhibition makes for compelling viewing, and the works are clearly the fruits of a carefully crafted and inspired creative process.

One thing that strikes you as you enter the exhibition space is the variety of aesthetics and dynamics the artist puts out. Rather than developing and following a trademark line of expression, as is generally the case with illustrators and comics artists, Polonsky’s illustration style is uniquely adapted to the content and genre of the project on an ad hoc basis.

Presumably, when Tal Lanir began to address the task of curating the show, there was little doubt in her mind that Waltz with Bashir would open the proceedings.

In case you missed the film when it came out, it is an adult full-length animation film. Actually, animated documentary is a more accurate description, the world’s first. It is based on Folman’s own experiences as an IDF soldier in the First Lebanon War and his recollections of the massacre at the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in which hundreds of Palestinians and Lebanese Shi’ites were murdered by the militia of the Christian Lebanese Forces. While this was going on, IDF soldiers were stationed around the camp.

The dialogue, based on actual conversations, is evocative and emotive, but it is the visuals that really grab you from the outset. If you have seen the film, you will probably recall the opening scene in which a pack of ferocious-looking dogs, with murder in their eyes, jaws dripping and lean muscular torsos primed for attack, storms through downtown Tel Aviv, heading for the apartment building where one of the protagonists lives. The aesthetics have a palpable sense of foreboding and dystopia written all over them.

IT IS FASCINATING to view a breakdown of the pictorial creative process, which goes for all the Polonsky projects in the museum layout. The explanatory wall texts all do an excellent, enlightening job.

The Waltz with Bashir textual addendum, for example, notes: “The dogs’ eyes are painted in the yellow-orange hues of flares – the film’s dominant color, which represents obliviousness and repression and presents a threatening opposition (and complementary color) to the purple of the teeth-baring dogs.” That much, literally, stares you in the face.

But we also get some insight into the research Polonksy undertook before setting pen to paper, and the inspiration he drew from one of the pioneers of the field. We are told that the illustrations are based on a photograph of a running dog by Eadweard Muybridge, a 19th-century English snapper who used his camera as a means of studying motion, of people and animals, thereby paving the way for moving and animated films.

The Congress is another heavyweight in the bulging Polonsky portfolio which features in the illustration lineup. The 2013 movie, directed and written by Folman, marries live action with animation. Polonsky served as artistic director for the project, which is based on the sci-fi novel The Futurological Congress, written in 1971 by Jewish-born Polish writer Stanislaw Lem. The film received mixed reviews, but most critics lauded the animated part of the cinematic work.

Once again, Polonsky mined art history seams for inspiration, as well as feeding off more contemporary images and zeitgeist.

“I tried to create a universe whose connotations lead to all sorts of distant directions,” he explains. “I saw that paintings by [late 15th-early 16th century Dutch painter] Hieronymus Bosch work well with the 1930s animation style we had decided to build on, into which we integrated a new pop style, because some of the animated figures in the film – like Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Che Guevara and Yoko Ono – are from our time.”

The rough cuts Polonsky produced en route to the finished article let the viewer in on some of the machinations that went into crafting the animated characters that meld so seamlessly with the human actors. The star of the film, Robin Wright, gets a slew of illustrated makeovers, and we see images of other nuts-and-bolts components that compose the final on-screen product.

POLONSKY SAYS he is constantly doing his homework and dipping into rich referential sources from across the ages.

“I am always taking on influences and stealing from everyone,” he chuckles. “In particular, I like what they did in Europe and Eastern Europe in the late 19th century and early 20th century. I find myself going back to that, time and time again.”

That includes members of the Vienna Secession movement. “I love [Austrian symbolist painter and Secessionist movement member Gustav] Klimt. I copied some things by Klimt in a children’s book I illustrated,” he says.

Borrowing, or stealing, images from all sorts of artistic predecessors is common practice. But Polonsky never forgets where he came from. He made aliyah from Ukraine at the age of eight, and settled with his family in Haifa. The northern port town continues to inform his work. “I take from various artists and mix them with the landscapes of Haifa. I make connections between them, and that is what really interests me.”

That may be his personal and creative backdrop, but Polonsky has developed a highly agile capacity for meandering between styles, genres and cultural baggage and finding the perfect concoction for the venture on the agenda in question.

That came in handy when he made a living as an illustrator for various publications, and we get some idea of that line of work in the exhibition, too. All told, Polonsky contributed to newspapers and magazines for a decade and a half. In contrast with his work on longer-term projects, such as movies and books, the world of media comes with demanding deadlines and concomitant demands to produce high-quality products at high speed.

Here, too, we see the artist’s gift for chameleon-like transitions, ever adept at cutting his creative cloth to suit the professional apparel du jour. Whether it be a portrait of Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman or pop megastar Ninet, premier-to-be Benjamin Netanyahu or veteran pop-rocker Shlomo Artzi, Polonsky seems to be able to capture the essence of the persona, and also the underlying personality, and convey that succinctly. Politics, culture, current affairs and lifestyle topics all appear to be putty in Polonsky’s capable hands.

The thematic and stylistic canvas stretches even further in the section devoted to his work on the children’s book A Moonless Night, written by internationally renowned author Etgar Keret and his wife, Shira Geffen.

In the exhibition notes, Polonsky reiterates the inside-outside counterpoint inspirational mix that continues to fuel his muse. “I wanted to bring the style of the [late 19th-early 20th century] Ukrainian illustrator Heorhiy Narbut, together with the views of Haifa, along with Japanese flavors and a touch of American 1930s animation.”

There is a clear touch of early naive Disney about the illustrations, with subtle seasoning of images that reference the great American dream and its Zionist pioneer era counterpart.

POLONSKY AND FOLMAN are old sparring partners, and their confluence for Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, which came out in 2017, is in the museum show. The project was initiated by The Anne Frank Foundation, in an effort to make the diary and the Holocaust more accessible to modern youth. The foundation decided on the graphic novel format and turned to the Waltz with Bashir duo to get the job done.

In the past, graphic novels about the Holocaust – most notably Art Spiegelman’s landmark Maus comic book, which came out in 1980 – have predominantly been illustrated in black and white. Folman and Polonsky, however, chose color in order to evoke identification by children and youth.

Once again the illustrator turns to early-20th-century aesthetics, both European and American. That, of course, incorporates the time of the Holocaust and the period leading up to it. It is within this visual context that Polonsky captures Anne Frank’s emotions, flights of fancy and sharp wit, along with her anxieties and fears.

He even takes the narrative a step further and reimagines Frank years later, as an adult, thereby offering us a “what if” opportunity to see how things might have panned out had the Holocaust not taken place. Polonsky says he set out to impart something of the complexities of Frank’s personality, and was keen to sidestep the “Holocaust industry” approach. The Tel Aviv Museum spread shows that he managed that with aplomb.

His work on Geffen’s children’s book The Heart-Shaped Leaf and Nurit Zarhi’s Tinkertank is also showcased, and we get some insight into where Polonsky comes from and how his creative mindset got him to where he is today, with a fun selection of toys and other kids’ amusement artifacts he enjoyed as a youngster himself.

The Tel Aviv Museum’s illustration roll-out has gotten off to an auspicious start. Let’s hope there is more to come down the exhibition road. ■

For more information: www.tamuseum.org.il

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