Israeli Art in Berlin Out of the Shtetl, into the Brave New World

It's been a hectic month for German-Israeli relations, with the opening of the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the concentration camps. But before dignitaries get any ideas about filing away their "we're all friends now" speeches, a major exhibition of Israeli art in Berlin is giving them another chance to declare their mutual affection. And show a bit of decent art too.

By Damien McGuinness in Berlin


Lost Youth by Nir Hod forms part of a unique collection of Israeli art on exhibit in Berlin until September 5
Nir Hod

Lost Youth by Nir Hod forms part of a unique collection of Israeli art on exhibit in Berlin until September 5

The exhibition, entitled "New Hebrews: A Century of Art in Israel," opened on Thursday in the monumental splendor of the Martin-Gropius-Bau in central Berlin. The show, which features 700 works of art by over 100 artists, is the largest exhibition of Israeli art to be held outside its native country. And although a century of art in a state only 57 years old sounds like a contradiction in terms, the aim is also to show how Jews imagined and planned their new country decades before it actually came into existence.

The fact that all this is happening in Germany, just a stone's throw away from where Hitler's bunker once stood, could have created an uproar. It didn't. Although the exhibition's reception has been subdued in certain quarters -- with Israeli being seen by some as a synonym for anti-Palestinian -- the Berlin show is also being welcomed as a sign of how far the relationship between Germany and Israel has come.

Photo Gallery

6  Photos
The New Hebrews: A Century of Art in Israel

And come a long way it certainly has. Today Israel is Germany's biggest business partner in the Middle East, while Germany is Israel's most important trading partner in Europe. Countless towns in both countries are twinned together, and although Germany is unlikely to be the top travel destination of many older Israelis, Berlin's reputation as a center of edgy creativity is increasingly attracting the young, hip and the cool. And now, in honor of the 40th anniversary of German-Isreali diplomatic relations, the German capital is playing host to this major exhibition of Israeli art.

Doreet LeVitte Harten, chief curator of the exhibition and initiator of the whole project, wants the show to increase this interaction still further by opening up the market for Israeli art. She believes that "for art to succeed you need an extensive urban area and you need a market. We have neither of these in Israel. Even though Tel Aviv thinks it can provide that, we know it can't."

Don't Mention the War

But LeVitte Harten's primary goal in setting up the exhibition was to portray Israel in a more balanced manner. Away from guilt-laden political correctness concerning the Holocaust or one-sided views about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "I have lived in Germany for a long time and I have noticed that people here are just not informed about Israel," the curator said. "Germans have learned what to say and what not say, and still think in terms of perpetrator and victim. Nowadays we are put in the role of the bad guys. But the situation is much more complicated than that, as can be seen by the fact that a lot of the artists in the exhibition are against much of what the Israeli government does."

An image Leni would have loved
Liselotte Grjebina

An image Leni would have loved

In order to show this diversity the exhibition is divided into 15 thematic areas: from religion and war, to Zionism and homeland. Chronologically the show starts its journey in the idealistic days of the early 20th century. Idealized images of muscular, pick-axe wielding pioneers, reminiscent of Soviet social realism, illustrate the nascent state's desire to rid itself of the centuries-old stereotype of the subservient shtetl-dweller. Photos of bronzed discus-throwing athletes in the 40s glow with such mythological strength that Leni Riefenstahl, rather worryingly, springs to mind.

This early show of strength is mitigated somewhat by the time we reach the present day: soldiers weep in Nir Hod's moving painting "Lost Youth", and chandeliers made of machine guns and bullets demonstrate how all-pervasive the conflict has become.

Comprehensive or just confusing?

The difficulty in presenting an exhibition of such ambitious scope, fascinating as it may be, is that the end result could be seen as lacking cohesion. Such eclecticism of topic and form not only reduces the impact of individual pieces, but also takes some getting used to visually: paintings, photos, videos, installations and even a segment of the Dead Sea Scrolls all battle for attention, and the only cohesive aspect of the entire exhibition is country of origin. But then, that is the nature of the beast, and it would be unfair to go to an exhibition covering a century of national art and then complain that the focus is too broad.

The show certainly succeeds in not only acting as a showcase for Israeli art, but also giving a comprehensive overview of the country's history, culture and political development. Naturally, in view of the Jewish people's tortured past, insecure present and uncertain future, the mood is not exactly jolly. Shmuel Hirszenberg's tragic late 19th century painting, "The Wandering Jew," for example, depicts a terrified Jewish man running through a field of crosses, setting the tone at the beginning of the exhibition. The Shoah is an ominous thread running through the show and the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes up either the background or the main theme of many of the contemporary pieces.

Where does art end and reality begin?
Miki Kratsman

Where does art end and reality begin?

One example is the work of Argentinean-born photo-journalist Miki Kratsman, who has covered the West Bank since 1986. His photo, "Gilo", from 2001 shows a simple landscape. It takes a minute to realize that half of the picture is actually a concrete wall with the rest of the view painted on. The wall was built to protect the Israeli neighborhood of Gilo, in Jerusalem, from the fighting in the Palestinian area. Because the beautiful view had now been spoilt by the wall, Israeli residents brought in Russian immigrants to paint the obscured landscape onto it. "When I first saw the wall, I sat there smoking a cigarette, and just couldn't believe what I was seeing," says Kratsman. "It is hard to tell what is reality. As if somebody is telling you what to see. If you look closely, you notice that the houses in the wall painting are more European than what is really there. A lot of them don't even exist any more because we bombed them. It's an illusion that has nothing to do with the real situation."

Despite the serious tone of the exhibition, many pieces still manage to demonstrate a wicked sense of humor. Such as the short film "The Cherry Season", made in 1991 by Chaim Buzaglo, where an army jeep with massive angel wings, containing an operatically singing soldier, rises elegantly over the horizon accompanied by the almost camp strains of Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. Or the installation at the main entrance stairway: opposite a giant screen showing aerial shots of Israel a wrought-iron chuppah, the canopy which is used in Jewish weddings, is in the shape of a phallus. "I like to think of it as our national hard-on," said the 25 year-old artist Itamar Jobani. "It's what happens when we Israelis look at our landscape."

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