Published  16/09/2015

The Israel National Museum

The Israel National Museum

After 17 years of statehood Israel at last boasts a national museum. When one compares nearby countries, Greece for instance, where there are no national museums devoted to European painting, let alone modern art, it is no mean achievement. In part this is due to a genuine thirst for art. Indeed, Billy Rose, the American impresario who donated the nucleus of an impressive collection of 20th century sculpture, as well as commissioning a delightful garden setting for it, gave this as the principal reason for his gift.

Originally published in Studio International, 1965, Volume 170, pp64–67


Just as great sums of money and considerable ingenuity and energy are expended on exploring the rich archaeological past of this historic land-a retrospective nationalism common to new nations-so similar national resources are freely used to ensure Israel's place as a modern, progressive country, in the mainstream of contemporary technological and artistic achievement.

Lying in the dynamic crossroads between Europe and Africa, which were responsible for so much of Palestine's bloodstained history and spiritual vitality, modern Israel and her people are determined to be both European and international. Despite nationhood, Israelis have not cast off the cosmopolitan sophistication which marked the Jewish Diaspora, and contributed so much to European civilisation. The minority status, and indeed persecution, which drove Jews to an introspective curiosity and the need to prove themselves, is echoed in the striving for viability by this tiny nation of 21 millions, living on a narrow strip of mainly arid soil.

This psychological force has made the desert bloom, has seen a phenomenal rise in population, evoked a military superiority over numerically larger enemies. So in the arts Israel seems determined to provide its population with amenities which richer, older countries might envy, and its artists with outlets and opportunities few contemporary societies rival. The fact that for religious, historical and social reasons Jews were late in emerging as significant visual artists, a fact often commented upon by critics and historians, has also played its part in Israel's artistic activity.

All these factors make up the background to the creation of the new National Museum in Jerusalem. These remarkable buildings are neither an isolated effort, nor of a sudden, spontaneous phenomenon. The need for national culture, art education and the civilising role of the creative artist were all part of early Zionist philosophy. The new museum, indeed, is the direct descendant of the Bezalel Museum founded, with the famous art school of the same name, in 1906. Professor Boris Schatz (1866-1932) a sculptor and art historian of Russian origin, who lived in Paris and other European cities, named both institutions after Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur, the legendary Biblical creator of the Ark of the Covenant. This romantic gesture was part of Schatz's aim at founding a national art form, expressive of Biblical and Jewish themes, with a dash of oriental motifs for local colour. It cannot be said that he succeeded, or contributed to modern Israeli artalthough an unfortunate residual effect can be seen in much of the poor design and craftsmanship in the tourist gift shops. But his school remains the leading art academy in the country and the collection of Jewish religious art has now become the finest in the world. His successor Mordecai Narkiss expanded the collection to international dimensions, from African art to Renaissance drawings, thus laying the foundations of the present Museum.

Since those pioneering days many other museums have arisen in the country, notably in Tel Aviv where there are a number of well-endowed public collections, ranging from modern Israeli art to the pavilions of the charming Ha'aretz Museum devoted to glass, coins, costumes, etc., and the Jaffa Museum of local history. Haifa, Acre, Beersheba, and even new towns such as Eilath, all have growing collections. One of the finest museums of modern art in the country was started 30 years ago on the collective settlement Ein Harod; and at Kibbutz Hazorea, near Haifa, the Wilfred Israel House contains a surprising collection of Far Eastern art.

With the creation of the Israel National Museum in Jerusalem, Israel can be said to have come of age culturally. It is part of a new Kirya, or official city, which includes the Hebrew University, the new Parliament, a group of Ministries and the President's official residence. This ambitious scheme is designed to give the somewhat dull, unprepossessing capital a new dignity, worthy of its importance as the centre of government and learning, and, also, a centre of tourist attraction.

The site, indeed, is magnificent. The Museum gracefully rests on a 22 acre hill with the charming Biblical name Navè Shaanan-'Tranquil Habitation', overlooking an 11th-century Crusader Monastery in the Valley of the Cross. The architects of the main buildings, Professor Alfred Mansfield and Mrs Dora Gad, have clearly been inspired by the traditional architecture of the region, at its best in the Arab villages. The squat, cubist pavilions seem to grow out of the hillside, rhythmically blending with the angle of its slope; not, as with the new tall, monolithic apartment blocks, at variance with the natural contours of the land.

Mansfield and Gad were prize-winners in a national competition held in 1959, chosen by an international jury. Professor Mansfield, born in St. Petersburg and trained in Berlin and Paris, is Head of the Department of Architecture at Haifa and among his best local buildings is the Lod Airport. Mrs. Gad was trained in Vienna and is currently responsible for the interior of the new Parliament and the Hilton Hotel at Tel Aviv. For the Israel Museum they have created a complex of small linked pavilions, asymmetrically placed in relation to each other. The exterior pattern is unpretentious and light, and internally they have avoided large, pompous spaces. The exhibition areas are relatively small and flexible, admirably suited to the narrow range of the Museum's possessions, making for intimate, easily comprehended displays. A belt of high windows provides natural light without restricting wall space.

The Museum is divided into two distinct sections; the Bezalel Museum of Fine Arts in the southern area, and the Bronfman Museum of Archaeology in the northern part. Both extend on what is virtually a single storey, although due to the topography of the site there are interesting changes of level. The museums share common services on a lower level-offices, laboratories, store-rooms, archives. Public amenities include an extensive library, book stalls, restaurants, etc.

Quite distinct from this central complex, and indeed stylistically at variance with it, is the domed Shrine of the Book which houses the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a pity that the Gottesman Foundation of New York, which donated the building, did not allow it to be part of an overall plan by the Israeli architects. Instead American designers. Frederick Kiesler and Armand Bartos, were commissioned, and appear to have been influenced by the melodramatic title given to the building. Their romantic conception strikes a discordant, theatrical note on this austere hillside, beside the simple practicality of the main group. The onion-dome, covered in gleaming white porcelain tiles, is too obviously an oriental quotation, and placed next to a massive black basalt wall its prettiness seems all the more shallow. This is exhibition architecture, suitable for a World's Fair or an art pavilion. Melodrama is even more emphasised inside; a deep vaulted basement, reached through Art Nouveau arches, leads to a spiralled vault, no doubt intended to suggest the Qumran caves. Portions of parchment are displayed in fashionable show-cases, with the most important exhibit, the Book of Isaiah, in a central drum incongruously mounted by a huge phallic column. Formanyof the visitors this building will be a focal attraction, and those interested in the discovery of the scrolls in 1947 and their subsequent history, are provided with an intelligible guide.

Between the Shrine of the Book and the main Museum lies Isamu Noguchi's garden. Originally termed the Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, it is now called an Art Garden to satisfy orthodox religious opinion which objects to idols being publicly displayed in the Holy City. One of the results is that the more naturalistic nude figures tend to be hidden behind solid walls. Noguchi, a distinguished sculptor who has designed striking settings for the Martha Graham Dance Company, is theatrical in the best sense. Instead of imposing discordant forms on a powerful natural setting, he has moulded the landscape with the sympathetic understanding a real artist brings to his materials. The undulating, wave-like forms, created with boulder walls and heaped earth, echo the shape of ancient terraced agriculture and the historic moulds to be found throughout the Middle East. With an intuitive sense of history, an oriental respect for nature, and a modern artist's daring, Noguchi has produced the most beautiful and important contribution to the Museum.

The garden, in fact, is a finer piece of sculpture than anything it contains. The Billy Rose Collection, generous though the gift is, proves to be rather disappointing. Mostly figurative work of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the finest group are the delightful Daumier bronzes. These, of course, are not shown out of doors. The Rodin Adam is a powerful work, also more suited to indoor display; Maillol, Epstein, a thick limbed Lipshitz Mother and Child, inferior examples of Archipenko and Zadkine, weak American academic sculpture by Zorach and Richard Hunt, make up the rest. Fortunately a few acquisitions or loans of importance are also on view, notably two masterly Henry Moores, perfectly placed, a powerful Wotruba, a monumental iron structure by Cesar. A number of important artists, such as Arp, Uhlmann, Richier prove unsuited to the setting. The Israeli sculptors Dantziger, Shemi and Haber are moreimpressively at home in their native landscape.

One aspect of the sculpture display is echoed in the small group of contemporary paintings in the Museum. This I can only describe as the too dominant influence of William Sandberg, the distinguished former Director of the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, who has been acting as special adviser to the Israel Museum. Sandberg, it is generally agreed, is one of the most brilliant, creative museum officials in the world, an educator and designer of exceptional talent. It is right that his views on modern art should be reflected in his work, but I hope it is not churlish to suggest that this influence is too strongly felt in a new national museum with, as yet, limited coverage of modern art. Thus the sculpture garden includes a large group of Dutch sculpture, some of it good, but including three unworthy efforts by Appel. Similarly the limited display of contemporary painting includes an unbalancing preponderance of the Cobra Group and other Dutch artists. In a fuller, more comprehensive survey these inclusions would be unobjectionable, but in Jerusalem, where very little space is devoted to native Israeli art, they seem overbearing.

In that parenthetic criticism I have forestalled comment on the contents of the Museum proper. The Archaeological collection is vast and fascinating, although one must not expect the artistic glories of Cairo, Athens or the British Museum. Jerusalem offers a treasure house for the student of the Bible and the prehistory of Palestine, with illustrations from the Greek, Roman, Christian and Arab periods. Among the outstanding items are well preserved Synagogue mosaics, indicating an early relaxation of the Commandment forbidding the creation of images, the superb Sumerian Head of Gudea, the Voss-Hahn collection of Mesopotamian seals, the Borowski ivories, and extensive cabinets of coins. Of exceptional beauty and range is the Persian collection, including Amlash ceramics, gold vessels, sculpture and a magnificent 17th century tiled Prayer Niche.

The richest section of the Bezalel collection is devoted to Jewish religious and ethnographic art. It is probably the finest in the world, including costumes, jewellery, a complete early 18th century rococo Synagogue from Italy, 14th and 15th century illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, 11th century carvings from the Maimonides Synagogue in Cairo, and hundreds of religious appurtenances made for ritual and domestic use.

Inevitably for a new, non-European country, the Museum is weakest in Western painting and sculpture. One cannot expect to find in Israel the masterpieces of the great European or American collections; but a good start has been made. A strong group of Dutch paintings includes Rembrandt, Ruisdael, Guyp, Van Goyen, de Witte and V‰n der Neer. There are works by Tintoretto, El Greco, Rubens, Murillo and Magnasco. French art of the 19th and 20th centuries is richly represented by Delacroix, Courbet, Monet, Renoir, Degas; L'Ècole de Paris by Bonnard, Picasso, Matisse, Dufy, Redon, Leger. Jewish artists include Chagall, Soutine, Pascin, Kisling, Oppenheim, Israels, Liebermann, Ury, Jankel Adler. Mention should also be made of the well stocked graphics cabinets, with master drawings from Durer to contemporary artists. In addition there are good examples of Egon Schiele, Munch, Klee, Magritte, Feininger, Bissier. Among recent gifts there is a Francis Bacon portrait of Lucien Freud, and works by Philip Guston, Soulages, Stuart Davis, Dubuffet and Vasarely.

Most disappointing, as I have indicated, is the inadequate display of contemporary Israeli art. Ardon, the doyen of Israeli painters is present, with Agam, Tumarkin, Zaritsky, Stematsky, Lea Nikel-a very arbitrary choice. Visitors to Jerusalem will rightly expect the National Museum to provide evidence of the not inconsiderable national talent.

For the opening of the Museum in May a number of special exhibitions were mounted. The most impressive was a group of 50 drawings and etchings by Rembrandt on Old Testament themes. No Christian artist so immersed himself in Jewish thought and character. Living and working in Amsterdam's Jewish quarter, a free haven for Spanish refugees, Rembrandt's neighbours and friends were the models for some of his greatest masterpieces. In contrast the small group of Chagall paintings and Lipshitz sculpture on Jewish themes seemed thin in content and imaginatively weak.

The main loan exhibition was entitled The Bible in Art. The Old Testament, of course, has been one of the seminal sources of inspiration for European artists, but unfortunately public collections find it difficult to loan their greatest treasures. Among the outstanding works in Jerusalem were Rembrandt's Moses from Berlin, Rubens' The Dead Abel, a fine Van Dyke Abraham and Isaac from Prague, a group of grisaille paintings by Mantegna, some magnificent Russian icons from Recklinghausen and Poussin's The Finding of Moses from the Louvre.

Karl Katz, the young, energetic Curator of the Bezalel Museum has described its foundation in 1906 as 'a tabernacle in the wilderness'. That is still a good description, even though the wilderness has since borne other fruit.

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