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Camels? Israeli art is about far more

Book shows how artistic landscape has changed radically over a century

    David Reeb, Camel Time, 1989, private collector, Tel Aviv
    David Reeb, Camel Time, 1989, private collector, Tel Aviv

    At first glance, Gil Shani’s 2006 painting Untitled appears completely abstract, a black expanse with white shapes scattered across it in a seemingly random fashion. But, after a while, your eyes begin to identify the shapes — camels passing through a rocky, desert landscape.

    “Many people think Israeli art is about camels and olive trees,” says Yigal Zalmona, a leading authority on the Israeli art scene after 40 years as a curator, critic and historian. “I would like them to understand that it is different. This painting is a critique of the idea.”

    Mr Zalmona’s new book does plenty to disabuse the myth that Israeli art has not progressed from patriotic
    posters depicting early Zionist settlers. Titled A Century of Israeli Art, the mammoth volume features images and analysis of the depiction of the Zionist journey in painting and sculpture — and how over recent decades Israeli art has become sought after by international collectors and exhibited in prestigious galleries the world over.

    An array of artistic genres is discussed, from graphic art to futurism, sculpture and installation work. But there is less in the way of traditional portraiture. Impressionism, for example, barely gets a look in. “It’s all very modern,” Mr Zalmona adds, explaining that this is in large part because of the natural symbiosis between the ideas of Zionism and modernism.

    “The early modernists wanted to forge a new experience. In a way, that’s the idea of Israel — to go to a new place, to live there and start a new society. It’s a social laboratory. Think of the idea of the kibbutz, it’s something that was unknown before.”

    Poster for an exhibit of Jewish artists In Jerusal-em, 1924
    Poster for an exhibit of Jewish artists In Jerusal-em, 1924

    In true Israeli style, the story does not even start in the Jewish state, but with Eastern European-born artists like Boris Schatz — founder of the Bezalel School in Jerusalem — and E M Lilien, at a time when Jews were first discussing ideas of nationhood.

    From the beginning, Israeli art was politically linked and even today replicates the political debate, with “post-Zionist” artists like Yael Bartana focusing their attention on identity in the diaspora.

    In Mr Zalmona’s opinion, the art scene has now well and truly arrived, with artists like Michal Na’aman redefining how the world views Israeli culture — a far cry from the olive trees and camels. The book has been a labour of love, four decades in the making. But, in 2113, will another curator be reflecting on a further century of Israeli art? Perhaps not. For Mr Zalmona says that, although Israeli art is excellent, there is “not really an ‘Israeli art’ that can be specified any more”.

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