The Jerusalem syndrome
The current exhibition at Stern Gallery brings Jerusalem to Tel-Aviv. This is an almost subversive act, considering the invisible yet established artistic barrier that has existed for the past century between sacred Jerusalem and profane Tel-Aviv. Jerusalem has long lost its utopian halo and today is more like a time bomb – heavily loaded with religious and political significance. Unfortunately, it is the focus of dispute – not unity.
This exhibition, “Jerusalem – sacred and profane” presents a modest selection of artworks depicting the changes that occurred in the artistic portrayal of Jerusalem from the 19th century till today. If you wish – from Jerusalem of above to Jerusalem of below, from sanctity to profanity.
Jerusalem in the 19th century
The show was inspired by an amazing collection of 19th century art works, created by pilgrim artists that came to the Holy land in that period. The amount of artists and their commercial success back in their homelands wasn’t surprising, considering the popularity of of the orient in Europe at the time. The Holy land of the 19th century aroused the imagination of the Western culture. The translation of Arabian nights to English contributed to the fantasy of romance and mystery that enveloped the near but far east. Delacroix’s journey to north Africa and the opening of the Suez canal in 1869 were other factors that encouraged travel to the Holy land. Travel journals were a popular literary genre, providing both inspiration and adventure – in a pre television/ cinema era. Many of the paintings and drawings created on those journeys were used as illustrations for books. David Roberts’ albums of the Holy land were funded by pre – orders of the print series he created on his return from Egypt and Palestine. Their popularity was such that Queen Victoria herself also subscribed and her set of prints is still part of the Royal collection.
The journey to Jerusalem was long and rough. A road from Jaffa port to Jerusalem was paved only in 1868. That was when the first hotels were established. Till then, the travelers slept in tents or under the stars. There were many reports of filth, crowds and lepers but none of this is visible in the paintings depicting the city. The pilgrim artists came equipped with their artistic heritage of romance and the sublime and of course, their religion, coloring Jerusalem with divinity. Their point of view was touristic and some will say condescending. They came from afar and painted from afar and from an angle looking down, but also with awe as Jerusalem was an object of desire, a dream come true. The light in these paintings is not the strong Mediterranean light but a religious symbolic light, glowing with divinity. Biblical architecture and dress – turbans and robes – were emphasized to satisfy the fantasy of the orient, as imagined in Europe. On the other hand, as mentioned, anything that didn’t coincide with the romantic image was omitted. The aim was to romanticize a disappearing world that needed to be documented. Some of the orientalists didn’t actually make the journey but joined the trend based on other works and some photographs which began to appear in the second half of the 19th century.
1906 – the official birth of Israeli art
Israeli art history doesn’t take this period into account. Its official birth is in 1906, when the Bezalel academy of arts was established. The art created in Bezalel was Zionist art, that also portrayed Jerusalem and Zion as an ideal utopia. The 1920’s brought a large wave of Jewish artists, known today as the “Eretz Israeli” artists. Most of them settled in Tel-Aviv and proposed a secular alternative to the Zionistic utopia. The 1930’s brought immigrants from Germany and among them, a new generation of artists that settled in Jerusalem – Ludvig Blum, Jacob Steinhardt, Anna Ticho (from Vienna) and others. They had to cope with life in a n historically charged city and were obliged to choose their own view point. Blum chose not to choose. On one hand he created paintings that copy the same dramatic panoramas that were characteristic of the 19th century pilgrim art but he also dealt with the city from the inside – the streets and alleys and their inhabitants. Shmuel Melnick, a relatively unknown artist, presents in this exhibition a different view of the ancient old city wall. It is painted from below, from a path running parallel to it, giving the feeling of a mundane stroll that happens to pass the wall as part of daily life. There is no splendor or pathos.
It is most interesting to observe how contemporary artists that live in Jerusalem today approach it as a subject for their art. The most prominent element is the point of view, which is narrow and mundane – an alley, a corner, a construction site – the exact opposite of the 19th century viewpoint. Some, like Lena Zaidel , adopt a political and slightly cynical stand, taking one of the most charged icons of Jerusalem – the dome of the rock, frequently used by the 19th century artists. She centers the image on a red background, splitting it into a diptych, suggesting the divided city. Wolves surround it, perhaps dancing or falling to their death. They bring motion to the frozen icon. Oded Zaidel exhibits four very secular works that could have been painted anywhere. One work, depicting a construction site resembles the shape of the dome of the rock, although the artist was not aware of this. Israel Rabinovitch, another local artist, presents an object titled “and Jerusalem” which is the ending of the Israeli national anthem. The letters are hung across two pieces of an ancient stone, – holding them together, the political implications clear. Nava Gidanian is a graduate of the Jerusalem Studio School, established by figurative artist Israel Hershberg in 1998. Hershberg contributed to the artistic representation of contemporary Jerusalem, creating a particular style of painting that is associated with his school – one could define it as a secular spirituality, vague and impressionist – not wanting to portray a particular place – more of an atmosphere that describes the city.
Varda Sand and Margarita Naot are two artists that do not actually live in Jerusalem. Varda presents a view point from the Arab village of Silwan, she moves away, almost apologetically from the icons of Jerusalem but the atmosphere is still spiritual. Margarita turns her back on the old city and faces the new city as a contemporary statement as if saying – enough of all that.
One thing is certain – Jerusalem will never be just another city. It’s history is evident everywhere you look and it’s spirituality is felt by all. The fact that Jerusalem has lost its’ sex appeal as a subject in art is both interesting and sad. My mission in this exhibition is to illuminate its rise and fall.