Israeli Visual Arts: Where East Meets West

Visual arts in Israel predate the country's independence yet play a defining role in the country's identity as a nation.

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Sculpture Flourishes

The art of sculpture flourished in the country due to the efforts of a few sculptors over a long period of time. While Avraham Melnikoff (known for his massive stone lion at Tel Hai), and Ze'ev Ben-Zvi introduced cubism, the more academic school of sculpture, represented by Moshe Ziffer, Aharon Priver, and Batya Lishansky, dominated the field prior to the establishment of the state.

At the end of the 1940s, the "Canaanite" ideology influenced a number of artists, notably Yitzhak Danziger, whose figure of the pagan hero-hunter Nimrod, carved from red Nubian sandstone, is an attempt to create a synthesis between Middle Eastern sculpture and the modern concept of the human body, while the forms comprising his sculpture of sheep resemble those of desert rocks, water canals and Bedouin tents. Sculpture in the 1950s employed new materials and monumental scale as it became increasingly abstract, stimulated in part by the recent introduction of iron and corten steel as a sculptural medium.

The desire to provide a tangible memorial to those who fell in Israel's wars gave sculpture a new impetus from the 1960s on, and a great many monuments, primarily nonfigurative, were introduced into the Israeli landscape. This genre is represented by Yehiel Shemi's welded steel naval memorial at Achziv, which deals both with the harshness of nature and the human capacity for violence and destruction, and Dani Karavan's "Monument to the Negev Brigade" outside Be'er Sheva, evoking the special character of desert combat. [At the same time, it should be noted that Israel has generally shied away from the level of memorial art one may expect from a war-torn country. Perhaps, though, the relative paucity of memorial art is a consequence of the abundance of tragedies that the country has faced; otherwise, it would seem as if memorials fill every street corner.]

Under the influence of the French school in general and expressionism in particular, and utilizing a wide range of materials, contemporary conceptual artists are creating installations and environmental sculptures to depict their individual reactions to social and political realities. Incorporating a powerful play of shapes and symbols, the works of Yigal Tumarkin express his protest against war through geometric and figurative abstract forms, while the trend towards geometric minimalism is especially pronounced in Menashe Kadishman's persistent use of the images of sheep, which call up both a local pastoral image and a personal myth symbolizing the helpless victim.

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