First, Build an Art School.

By Diana Muir Appelbaum
Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Before Zionists built Israel’s first kibbutz, first university, or first luxury hotel, they built an art academy.  The Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design opened in 1906, not because the Jewish homeland needed an art school more than it needed a university but because the Zionist leadership thought an art school would be an effective motor of economic growth.

The man who built the art school was named Zalman Dov Baruch Schatz before he left his yeshiva to study art and changed his name to Boris.  His sculpture won a silver medal at the Paris Exposition Universelle, but he couldn’t feed his family.  So, in 1895, he accepted an offer to help train the first generation of artists for the new nation of—Bulgaria.  

Bulgaria was established in 1878 on territory wrested from the Ottoman Empire.  It needed almost everything: A language had to be created out of the local dialects, a king imported from a minor German duchy, and a Royal Academy of Art founded to train artists to express the culture and vision of the new nation.   

There were so few artists in the new nation that it was necessary to hire a faculty of Czechs—and the Lithuanian Jew Boris Schatz.  Although no distinctly Bulgarian artistic style emerged, Schatz explored the romantic nationalist notion that the soul of the nation resides in the peasants.  He created workshops in which art professors could design and craftsmen produce folk art-inspired objects representative of Bulgaria.

Schatz’s comfortable life was disrupted in 1903, when his wife left him and news of the Kishinev pogrom shook Europe.  Schatz was one of many Jews who took the pogrom as decisive evidence that Jews could have no future in Europe.  He became part of the Second Aliyah. 

Art, Craft & Jewish National Identity is a gem of an exhibition, on display through August 31 at the Bernard Museum of Judaica in Temple Emanu-El in New York.  Curated by Elka Deitsch and David Wachtel, it shows the way Bezalel artists blended the influences of the European Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements with artistic styles and techniques from Persia and the Middle East in a self-conscious effort to create a Hebrew national style.   The exhibit focuses on objects, largely bypassing the paintings, sculpture, drawings, and prints produced by teachers and students at the school.

Arriving in Jerusalem in 1905, Schatz rapidly opened not one institution but three: an art academy, a national museum, and a series of workshops that would employ Jewish craft workers.  The articles they produced were sold to tourists and Diaspora Jews.  The school mounted shows in Berlin, Warsaw, New York, and other cities with large Jewish populations to sell kiddush cups and drawings of Jerusalem.

Visiting the exhibition enables us to experience something of the romantic national dream of 1906.  The artists depicted biblical stories and images of Israel using Levantine styles of metalworking in an effort to embody the new Hebrew nation they hoped to build.  A halutz (Zionist pioneer) shoulders a pickaxe and heads out to build the Jewish homeland.  The exhibition cases are lush with pomegranate, palm, and grape.  Theodor Herzl gazes at us from a bronze bas relief.   What the exhibit does not do—and perhaps could not in the space available—is set the Bezalel school and its work in the context of two major international artistic movements of the era. 

Ephraim Moses Lilien, Ze’ev Raban, Hermann Struck, and other Bezalel-affiliated artists were the Zionist branch of a European romantic nationalism that led artists to leave Paris and return, like Schatz, to the homelands of their people.  The most famous of the returnees was Alphonse Mucha, who abandoned dazzling success in Paris to return to Prague and create a new art for the new Czech nation.  Stanisław Wyspiański left Paris for Poland, Akseli Gallen-Kallela returned home to Finland, John Lavery to Ireland, all to help build new nations.

The Bezalel school was also part of the international Arts and Crafts movement associated with William Morris in England, the Wiener Werkstätte founded in 1903 in Vienna and, in America, Rookwood pottery and Louis Comfort Tiffany, among others.  These artists rebelled against the industrial age by offering individually crafted objects to buyers who yearned for authenticity.  From Vienna to Los Angeles, the most fashionable and politically progressive people furnished their homes with the hand-made output of the Arts and Crafts workshops.

Among the most striking objects on display at the Bernard Museum are a Sephardi Torah cover thought by curator David Wachtel to follow a design by Ephraim Moses Lilien and a silver Bible cover designed by Ze’ev Raban and Meir Gur-Arie.  Both show strong stylistic similarity to objects produced by the Wiener Werkstätte, though it is also true that most of the artists at the Werkstätte were Jewish (as were most of their stylish, politically liberal customers).    

The workshops were only as progressive as their era.  Female students were admitted to the art school, but only one young woman enrolled.  The carpet weaving workshop was staffed by women and girls, while ivory, wood, printing, ceramic, and metal-working shops employed men and boys. The most successful workshop, silversmithing, was entirely staffed by Yemenite Jews, who brought with them a long tradition of working in silver and gold. 

The business model feels remarkably contemporary: Bezalel promoted Zionism by selling art to tourists and checkbook Zionists in the Diaspora.  But they couldn’t sell enough to put the school in the black.         

The low point came during the First World War.  Five days before the British conquered Jerusalem in 1917, Ottoman authorities deported Boris Schatz to Damascus; he would spend two years under Ottoman house arrest.  Like many nationalists before and since, he used this forced inactivity to write a remarkable book.  Like Herzl’s Altneuland, Schatz’s Jerusalem Rebuilt is a futurist vision.  In the cover illustration, the artist Bezalel steps out of the Bible to take Schatz on a tour of the Jerusalem of 2018.  It is a flourishing city in a beautiful, independent Jewish country, the spiritual center of a numerous world Jewish population.  

One-third of the population supports itself as working artists or craftsmen in a peaceful Jewish nation where the leading industry is exporting art to an admiring world.

It was a lovely dream.

Diana Muir Appelbaum is an American author and historian.  She is at work on a book tentatively entitled Nationhood: The Foundation of Democracy.

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