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Schatz’s Gambit

Tunisian Boy (late 1930s), silver cast plaque with filigree silver frame by Moshe Murro Collection of Ira and Brigitte Rezak

Tunisian Boy (late 1930s), silver cast plaque with filigree silver frame by Moshe Murro Collection of Ira and Brigitte Rezak

Bezalel: Art, Craft & Jewish National Identity
Herbert & Eileen Bernard Museum of Judaica
One East 65th Street
Sunday – Thursday 10am – 4:30pm or by appointment
212 744 1400 x 313; museum@emanuelnyc.org
emanuelnyc.org/exhibits/bezalel
Until August 31, 2012

Boris Schatz (1866 – 1932) had a revolutionary vision. He believed that the creation of a new modern Jewish visual culture would become a major force to both articulate a Jewish national identity and sustain the Zionist enterprise. In 1904 he approached Zionist leader Theodor Herzl with the proposal to establish a national arts and crafts school in Palestine and got his blessing. Tragically Herzl died later that year, but the Zionist leadership in Vienna assumed responsibility for the project and its funding. In 1906 Schatz arrived in Palestine with two teachers and two students and set about to create not only a national school that would inspire the new Jewish identity, but also help sustain the fledgling pioneers by promoting tourism and creating an export commodity – Jewish craft. His heroic vision is expertly explicated for us by curator David Wachtel at the current exhibition at the Bernard Museum of Judaica at Temple Emanu-El.

And what to call the new Zionist art school? “Bezalel,” of course, after the first Jewish craftsman who had the “spirit of God, in wisdom and in understanding and in knowledge and in all kinds of workmanship” (Shemos 31:2) to fashion God’s dwelling place in the wilderness. Schatz established the cultural model wherein the biblical past authorized the future vision for a Jewish homeland and modern culture. Interestingly enough, as radical as his Zionist Art project seemed, it was at its core deeply conservative as a cultural movement, openly spurning the modernist revolution that was sweeping Europe in the early 20th century. The attempt to create a Jewish nationalist art needed other tools.

Schatz was born in Lithuania, went to yeshiva and then art school. While he was drawn to the early Zionist movement he studied art in Vilnius, Warsaw and Paris and developed into an accomplished sculptor. 1n 1895 he was invited by the King of Bulgaria to become the official court sculptor and establish the Royal Academy of Art, working to forge a Bulgarian national identity through art workshops and home craft industries. In the tumult following the horrifying 1903 Kishinev massacre, Schatz turned his attention again to Zionism, but this time with a vision of an art and craft movement that would lead the Jews to their homeland. Boris Schatz exclaimed “Art is the soul of the nation,” and this could have easily been the anthem of the new movement.

The school he established in Jerusalem promoted a late 19th century academic style in combination with aspects of Art Nouveau. It espoused a romantic view of Jewish life in Palestine, promoting an oriental exoticism of Jews in “biblical” garb, espousing the traditional religion even though the artists were mostly estranged from traditional practice or sensibility.

Tunisian Boy (late 1930s) by Moshe Murro (1888 – 1957) is typical of the style and craft produced by the Bezalel School. These plaques concentrated on Jewish themes and Jewish “types,” emphasizing the young man’s peyosand exotic turban as framed by arabesques of braided filigree silver. The school featured many different departments including workshops for metalwork, carving in wood, stone, ivory, and shell, ceramics, carpet weaving, basketry, lithography and photography. The initial goal was to provide employment for the “impoverished Jews of Ottoman-ruled Jerusalem by producing goods for local tourists as well as export to the Jews of the Diaspora.”

Damascene Vase & Plate (1913), Brass, silver & copper. Bezalel School Moldovan Family Collection

Highly skilled craft was a hallmark of the Bezalel style and this Damascene Vase & Plate (1913) is no exception. Inlayed silver and copper on a brass base and the intricate floral patterns evoke an eastern opulence within a sensuous Turkish form making it a very handsome export item. Good for business but questionable as the expression of a new Jewish sensibility.

Ephraim Moshe Lilien (1874-1925), one of the best known Jewish artists of the time, was an accomplished illustrator when he joined Bezalel as its first instructor. Although he only stayed in Palestine for a short while, he was extremely influential in forming the school’s dominant graphic style. The drawing, Sabbath (1906), seems to be emblematic of some aspects of the Bezalel approach. It depicts “the seventh day of Creation: ensconced in the celestial realm, the enthroned figure of God is flanked by two angels whose mighty wings obscure the Divine Countenance.” Adam and Eve below, here nude are sheltered “by the Tree of Knowledge.” The work is filled with contradictions, nudity aside. Adam and Eve were first expelled from Eden, had to clothe themselves and then came the first Sabbath, outside the Garden and away from the Tree of Knowledge. Either Lilian is representing a vision of an ultimate return to Eden or simply a confused chronology. Regardless, his idiosyncratic use of biblical imagery is radically outside the realm of traditional Judaism. And yet this is proposed as the basis of a new Jewish art for Palestine.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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