Boris Schatz (1866-1932), “the Father of Israeli Art,” is best known as the founder of the Bezalel Academy of Arts, named after Bezalel ben Uri ben Chur, the legendary biblical artist and creator of the Mishkan. Schatz is credited with reviving a Jewish aesthetic consciousness and planting the seeds for artistic culture in Israel, and his vision of arts as a necessary component of Zionism played an important role in Israel’s singular commitment to the arts.
Schatz’s own work, which was heavily influenced by his traditional training in Europe, reflects romanticized, sublime, and sentimental visions of Jewish personalities, religious practices, and sites in Eretz Yisrael. His reliefs include The Blessing of the Candles, The Wailing Wall on the Ninth of Ab, and Havdalah, and his paintings include portraits of Zionist leaders including Herzl and Nordau, and biblical figures, including King David and Jeremiah. His art, however, was overshadowed by his founding of Bezalel.
Jewish art at the time was essentially related to the art of the Diaspora communities where the Jews happened to live, and Schatz changed that by establishing a distinctively Jewish art that employed Jewish themes and designs. Believing that a facility in Jerusalem would serve as a center for his novel Jewish art that would gather talented Jewish art students from around the world, he founded Bezalel to develop and promote an indigenous artistic tradition for Eretz Yisrael.
The stated goal of Bezalel, which originally opened on Ethiopia Street in Jerusalem in 1906 and moved to its permanent home on Shmuel Hanagid Street two years later, was “to train the people of Jerusalem in crafts, develop original Jewish art and support Jewish artists, and to find visual expression for the much yearned-for national and spiritual independence that seeks to create a synthesis between European artistic traditions and the Jewish design traditions of the East and West, and to integrate it with the local culture of the Land of Israel.”
Schatz developed a tripartite design for the Bezalel School: first, a school to train artists and artisans; second, a workshop in carpet-weaving, metal work, and woodcarving, where the students could use their talent and apply their growing skills; and third, an art museum, which was the foundation for the Bezalel Museum and later became the Israel Museum, which today contains thousands of paintings, sculpture, and other artistic works.
Schatz sought to express the national ethos through depictions of simple Jews at work and at prayer. Bezalel artists and craftsmen under his tutelage celebrated farmers, road builders, and factory workers, and the Bezalel artists became noted for combining their deep feelings for Jewish themes and nationalism with remarkable skill and craftsmanship. He planted the seeds for artistic culture in Israel, and Israel’s extraordinary commitment to the arts is in no small part due to his vision of arts as a necessary component of Zionism.
Exhibited here is an incredible one-of-a-kind document, an original student card for Bezalel’s first class. It is signed by both Schatz and secretary Chemda Ben-Yehuda, who married Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the “Father of the Modern Hebrew Language,” after the death of his first wife (who was Chemda’s sister). Chemda played an important role in creating “the first all-Hebrew speaking family” and in promoting her husband’s newspaper, for which she wrote a popular, but controversial, column promoting Hebrew as a national language.
Born the son of a cheder melamed in Lithuania, Schatz was sent to study at the yeshiva in Vilna, but after falling under the influence of the Haskalah (the so-called “Enlightenment”) movement, he broke from his religious upbringing and education to pursue his interests in art. Though no longer religiously observant, he remained closely tied to Judaism and continued to celebrate Jewish rites including, as shown here on this remarkable original document, the bar mitzvah of his son, Bezalel, on March 14, 1925, at his home. The invitation includes a drawing by Schatz of a young man putting on tefillin.
Moving to Warsaw in 1888, Schatz developed his philosophy that Jewish art should be tied to a national role, and he presented these concepts for the first time in an article he published in Ha-Tzefirah, a Hebrew language periodical published in Poland from 1874 to 1931. The next year, he moved to Paris, where he was trained as a sculptor and painter in the traditional, academic style before accepting an invitation from Prince Ferdinand to move to Bulgaria in 1895. As the Bulgarian court sculptor, he designed public monuments, founded the Royal Academy of Art in Sofia, and dedicated himself to creating a national Bulgarian artistic identity, an important precursor to his later work at Bezalel to establish a distinctly Jewish artistic identity.
In 1903, the Kishinev pogrom, which shook the entire Jewish world, reawakened Schatz’s Zionism and triggered a dramatic emotional transformation, as his art turned to salvaging collective Jewish memory and preserving an endangered Jewish community facing devastation. After meeting Theodor Herzl later that year, he became a passionate Zionist idealist and tried to convince Herzl that the Bezalel Academy should be added to the official Zionist agenda; however, though impressed by Schatz, Herzl’s priority at that time was the establishment of a bank for the Zionist enterprise.
In 1904, Schatz went to the St. Louis World’s Fair to exhibit his Bulgarian Pavilion sculpture at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. Drawn to the Jerusalem exhibit there – a full-scale model of the city that occupied 11 acres at the center of the fairgrounds – he imagined a revived Jewish artistic presence in Jerusalem. At the Seventh Zionist Congress held after Herzl’s death at Basle the following year, he proposed the idea of an art school in Jerusalem, which was approved by the Congress, and the founding of Bezalel was proclaimed on October 8, 1905.
A year later, Schatz moved to Eretz Yisrael and formally founded Bezalel, which became the symbol of the artistic component of cultural Zionism. He arranged exhibitions of Bezalel arts and crafts throughout Europe and the United States, which constituted the first time that artistic works from Eretz Yisrael were displayed abroad. He not only single-handedly revived Jewish art in Eretz Yisrael but, perhaps equally important, he provided a means of livelihood for many hundreds of young and talented Jewish artists. As such, he took most of Bezalel’s output at that point and in 1914 embarked on a tour of the United States to raise funds for his students.
Schatz had always thought of Bezalel in almost religious terms as a present-day Third Temple, a source of mystical, divine, spiritual and artistic power that would inspire a renewed national identity among the Jewish people in both Eretz Yisrael and the Diaspora. That view apparently became contagious during his American trip; for example, one analyst described him as “an old Hebrew Patriarch” who had become “the high priest in service of sacred art.” The Bezalel building in Jerusalem was characterized as a “temple of handicrafts,” and Bezalel works became beloved as much for their promise of a new, post-Diaspora era of hope as for their beauty and craftsmanship.
Moreover, Schatz’s exoticism and his extroverted personality endeared him to the public as much as the works that he brought to exhibit, and he was incredibly well received by the American Jewish community wherever he went, as he delivered public lectures, held press conferences, and met with political and civic leaders. Exhibitions of Bezalel works were held at large venues, such as Madison Square Garden in New York, and the New York Times, reflecting the public’s expansive embrace of Bezalel creations, wrote that its artistic output “bear[s] witness to the fact that the [Jewish] race has lost nothing since the days of [the original biblical] Bezalel.”
When the British Mandate began in 1920, Schatz, believing that the Mandate presented new opportunities for Bezalel and its artists, devoted most his energy to developing the potential of its workshops. In particular, he introduced the use of Bezalel ceramic tiles as decorations on the new public buildings and on private homes of Tel Aviv, which became very popular and generated significant income for the financially struggling school.
In this 12 Tevet 1925 handwritten letter on his Bezalel letterhead, Schatz works hard to obtain a ceramics order from the Vaad Hadar HaCarmel Committee:
In Thursday’s Haaretz, I read an announcement for the making of signs for the names of the streets in Har HaCarmel. I urge you not to make them from tin; in Tel Aviv, all the signs made of tin spoiled and you cannot read what is written in them. Rather, they should be made only from ceramics like the one that was sent to you for “Bezalel Street,” that you kindly came to call it, which came to rest in accordance with the Jaffa community in the Ministry of [ ].
The Jerusalem municipality is not overflowing with love to give work to Jews. Nonetheless, we received an order to do all the writing for the ceramics for all of Jerusalem, and many hundreds have been installed in the walls of Jerusalem. Also, Tel Aviv is retaining us to do all the numbers on the houses and the names of the streets. Moreover, ceramics are exceptionally beautiful and the writing looks good both by day and night. If placed at the center of the wall, it will last forever. This is certainly known to you from the ceramics of Egypt and Babylon found in museums that are thousands of years old.
It may be that in time you can find people who will do it for you at a cheaper price, but who can compare tin with ceramics? [Goes on to discuss prices for signs in one or multiple languages.]
I am certain that you know to distinguish between ceramics and tin and that you will know how to recognize the beauty of our work. And you will give us this order. Alongside the city of Jerusalem, [the signs] are in three languages for which we receive 120, and they ordered many hundreds of signs, and only for you have we set a [low] cost out of the ordinary. Whoever has been in Tel Aviv has seen the House of Hashem Kablakin and the Boy’s School [ ] that are decorated by us with ceramic. And now, we are working for Bialik, Herskowitz, Lederberg, Salzman, and up until the Community House.
All these are orders that involve hundreds of fonts. I hope that when you see our work, you will also want to decorate your homes with ceramics.
With great respect and love of Zion,
Founded before WWI and once the commercial center of Haifa, Hadar HaCarmel (“the Splendor of the Carmel”) is a district in Haifa located on the northern slope of Mount Carmel between the upper and lower city overlooking the Port of Haifa and Haifa Bay. One of its founders, Shmuel Pevzner, was head of its development committee (1922-1927) and was almost certainly the recipient of Schatz’s letter.
Exhibited here is the October 1, 1931, issue of The Modern View depicting Schatz (and his son, Bezalel) and originally signed by him. The Modern View, which was published from 1901 to 1943, was an illustrated English-language weekly that chronicled the St. Louis Jewish Reform movement. Schatz, who had become ill and was forbidden by his doctors to sculpt, devoted his remaining strength to painting, and this exhibition at the St. Louis Y.M.H.A. was likely his final one before passing (he died the following March).
Schatz published many works on Hebrew art and Jewish issues in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian and Bulgarian. One of his novels, The Rebuilt Jerusalem (1918), written in celebration of the Balfour Declaration, features Bezalel ben Uri, the biblical architect of the Mishkan, who takes him on a tour of Eretz Yisrael in 2018.
Schatz died in Denver while on a fundraising trip and, sadly, he died a pauper. With no Jewish organization willing to pay for a funeral for this great man, his body remained in the hospital morgue for six months until it could be sent to Eretz Yisrael for a proper burial on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. The Bezalel School was closed upon his death, but it was reestablished the following year with the aid of a government grant and it continues to thrive and to serve as a leading art institution to this day.