Zionism and Art
Bezalel Narkiss Speaks in 'Israel at 50' Series (August, 1998)
By JOHN SAYERS
Bezalel Narkiss, founder and professor emeritus of the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, delivered a lecture on "Zionism and Art" in the Library of Congress' Mumford Room on June 17. The event was co-sponsored by the Library's Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division, the Office of Scholarly Programs and the Embassy of Israel.
Currently serving as Samuel H. Kress Professor at the Center for Advanced Study in Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art, Mr. Narkiss is the author of such widely acknowledged works as Jewish Art: An Illustrated History, Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts and The Picture History of Jewish Civilization. He also wrote "The Art of the Washington Haggadah" for the Library's facsimile edition of The Washington Haggadah, a 15th century illuminated Hebrew manuscript housed at the Library.
"Come and See the Land of Israel" (1920s). This poster, designed by artists at Jerusalem's Bezalel School, called on Jews to visit the land of Israel and acquire works of local artists.
The speech was accompanied by a selection of posters from "Zionism: Images of a State in the Making," an exhibition by the Central Zionist Archives in Israel marking the first hundred years of the Zionist movement. Prior to the lecture, Israeli Cultural Attaché Rachel Marani announced the donation of the posters to the Library. Setting the scene for the advent of Zionist art, Mr. Narkiss observed, "The Jews had been on a quest for Zion since the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in A.D. 70. But it had only been a political quest since the mid-19th century."
As other nation-states came into being, many prominent Jewish thinkers and leaders promoted the concept of a Jewish state as well. Foremost among these was Theodor Herzl, the founder of the Zionist movement. In the years immediately following the First Zionist Congress at Basel, Switzerland, in 1897, a growing number of Jews around the world gave voice to the idea of Jewish national liberation.
Herzl promoted "political Zionism," the pragmatic strategy to alleviate the plight of Jews by establishing a Jewish state as expeditiously as possible. Other early Zionists, such as writer Asher Zvi Ginsberg, who used the pen name "Ahad Ha-Am" ("One of the People"), professed "cultural Zionism." To him, the critical threat to Jewish life was not political vulnerability, but the self-destructive penchant for assimilation that was fast consuming the Jewish spirit. To them, what was needed was the creation of a national spiritual center to serve as a rejuvenating cultural powerhouse to revitalize the Jewish people. The Zionist Ahad Ha-Am maintained that a political solution that established a Jewish state in Palestine would hardly solve the problems facing Jews if it did not also address questions of national culture, identity and spiritual existence.
One hundred years ago, an artist named Boris Schatz also grappled with the implications of political vs. cultural Zionism. Schatz befriended both Herzl and Ahad Ha-Am. Schatz, who was invited by King Ferdinand of Bulgaria to serve as court sculptor in Sofia, was an ardent Zionist and singleminded idealist. He was enthused by the regenerative philosophy of Ahad Ha-Am. In 1903 Schatz promoted to Herzl an addition to the Zionist agenda: the creation of a Jewish art school named "Bezalel," after the biblical figure who crafted the Tabernacle in the desert. Herzl was impressed, but his priority at the time was the establishment of a bank for the Zionist enterprise. Schatz headed to the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair instead, to exhibit his sculptures on behalf of Bulgaria.
At the fair, Schatz was inspired by the displayed arts and crafts representing the imaginative vitality of many nations. He was also drawn to the Jerusalem exhibit, a full-scale model of portions of the Holy City that occupied 11 acres at the center of the fairgrounds. Even though Schatz had not yet visited the real Jerusalem, he was moved at the time to envision a revived Jewish presence in the Holy City that would give substance to a reborn and uniquely Jewish creative spirit.
"Visual arts were an important part of this Jewish renewal," Mr. Narkiss said. "The concept of 'the new Jew' as a rugged pioneer in the land of Israel became key in the renovation of Jewish culture and the creation of a new national identity." Traveling to the Holy Land at the turn of the century, Schatz purchased three buildings built by a wealthy Arab. Living in one of the structures, he set up the other two buildings as the Bezalel School, based on the Russian concept of an arts and crafts school and workshop -- combining the formal fine arts institution with a free-lance artisan center. "Art is the bud, craft is the fruit," was Bezalel's motto.
"To a New Life in the Land of Israel" (Romania, 1930s). Reclaiming and reviving the land was the central motif of a Zionist motion picture produced for Diaspora communities. The school became the symbol of the artistic component of Cultural Zionism when it opened in Jerusalem in 1906. At first a source of illustrations and iconography promoting Palestine as a home for Jewish pioneers, the center soon became renowned for fine filigree silver work and bas relief sculpture. Zionist poster art from the Bezalel School celebrated as its subject farmers, road builders and factory workers -- all part of the vision of "the new Jew." With posters being a central medium of mass communications in the early 20th century, this work inspired and influenced Jews worldwide. Fine art from the school more often featured religious figures as subjects, but frequently garbed in contemporary local clothing influenced by native Arab dress. The artists of the Bezalel School successfully infused their passion for art and craftsmanship with their deep feelings for Jewish themes and a concept of nation, bringing cultural Zionism to its high point. There was such a closeness of purpose associated with the school that renowned Jewish teachers, scholars and artisans named their sons "Bezalel" -- including Mr. Narkiss's own father.
Mordechai Narkiss had originally planned to study fine art at the school. But this was all changed by Boris Schatz, who saw other talents in the elder Narkiss. At first serving as Schatz's right-hand man, Mordechai Narkiss went on to create and serve as first curator of the Bezalel Museum, which was the basis of today's Israel Museum. Bezalel Narkiss observed that as the Bezalel School matured it became influenced by movements shaking the international art world. Bezalel students visited Paris in the 1920s and returned with what were considered "wild" ideas. These rebels illustrated traditional Zionist subjects in new ways, influenced by the dadaist and other modern movements.
After 20 more years, the Bezalel artists had not only abandoned traditional artistic styles, but also departed from traditional Zionist subjects. "The propagandist art of Zionism vanished in favor of international influence," said Mr. Narkiss. "Recruited Zionist art had a short, though interesting life." Les Vogel of the Office of Scholarly Programs contributed to his article.