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; email@example.com
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.”
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.
Lithograph postcards for tourists were a potent and public expression of the Bezalel School’s ideas about the nature of Jewish settlement of Palestine. As public displays of Zionist sensibility they could simultaneously promote their ideas abroad and confirm their worldview at home. Meir Gur-Arie produced a beautiful set of silhouettes of Palestine around 1925 and continued to specialize in them in the years to come. “Ya–Halili” (“Oh, My Flute” in Hebrew or “Oh, Make my World Sweet” as an Arabic love song), pictures the shepherd flutist in a vision of almost pagan but romantic rural life. At the Well is likewise an image of the simplicity of age-old peasantry with the faithful shepherd providing water by hand for his flock. It is important to note that the Zionist programs of agricultural communities, aka kibbutzim, increasingly using mechanical and automated means, were effectively designed to end this primitive way of life forever. Also typical of this work is his romantic view of Palestinian Judaism. In Almsgiving the classic virtue of giving charity is encapsulated in a silhouette image of a Yemenite Jew receiving tzedakah from a young Ashkenazi. In its simplistic way the image both confirms the European hegemony over oriental Jews and the everlasting needy role of pious Jewry in Palestine. Both issues have continued to haunt the Zionist enterprise.
In December 1918, Boris Schatz was forced into exile in the Galilee by the Turks just as the British liberated Jerusalem. For 2 years he could not return to the Bezalel School he had founded. During that time he wrote a utopian novella, Jerusalem Rebuilt. His bizarre vision of Jerusalem and the Land of Israel in the year 2018 combined socialism, “science fiction, traditional Jewish belief, euthanasia, free love, communal ownership of property, moving sidewalks, solar energy and a rebuilt Third Temple.” Equally fantastic was his vision that fully 30% of the population would be engaged in artistic production and that this would be the nation’s principle industry! Most telling is Ze’ve Raban’s drawing for the cover of Schatz’s book that shows the confrontation between Schatz and the original Bezalel ben Uri, casually leaning against the famous Raban menorah (copied from the biblical model) on the roof of the Bezalel building. Again the biblical confronts the contemporary, but the reality as it unfolded is of course much more complex than either.
Israel has not become an industrial artistic complex. The agrarian shepherd model has only persisted in the most backward portions of Israeli society. While aspects of pious Judaism in fact hewed to the ancient model, nonetheless many Jews adopted a much more modern, progressive and productive piety. And perhaps most tellingly, the original Bezalel School went bankrupt in 1929, and three years later its founder tragically died while fundraising in America.
Boris Schatz’s concept of Jewish nationalist art, though visionary and an expression of an aspect of early Zionism ultimately did not reflect the historical reality as it unfolded in his time. According to Israeli art historian Dr. Gideon Ofrat, Schatz’s Bezalel was “divorced from the dynamic development of the Jewish community in Palestine, and equally remote from the languages of modern European art…was doomed to an early end.” Perhaps more to the point was that aspects of the Bezalel project had a greater belief in simple Zionism than in the content of Judaism or the uniquely Jewish struggle to reclaim our ancient homeland in exclusively Jewish terms.
(I am indebted to curator David Wachtel for his learned exhibition notes and wall texts)
Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com
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