|Address:||Museum of Art, Ein Harod 18965 Israel|
By: Galia Bar Or
An interesting phenomenon in the culture-building that went on in pre-State Israel was the establishment of art museums at the periphery – in kibbutzim, settlements that aspired to a life of equality and cooperation among their members. One of the first three art museums in the country was founded in 1938 in Ein Harod, a kibbutz in the Jezreel Valley (the first was founded in Jerusalem – the Bezalel Museum – and the second in Tel Aviv).
Not only was the museum at Ein Harod one of the first museums in the country, but the museum’s permanent building, which was planned by Samuel (Milek) Bickels (a member of another kibbutz) was the first museum building to be erected in Eretz-Israel. The decision to construct a building specifically for a museum is not a simple matter for it requires the designating of a site, detailed planning, allocation a relatively large sum of money for the construction, and so on. Such buildings are generally expected to be erected first of all in the big cities, not in small communities in the periphery. Moreover, the museum at Ein Harod, a complex of galleries and courtyards, was erected not during a time of prosperity but in wartime, in 1948, and its first part was opened during the height of the battles. At this time another art museum, “Beit Wilfried”, was being built at Kibbutz Hazorea, and was opened to the public in 1951. The museum buildings in the big cities were built years afterwards: the permanent building of the museum in Jerusalem was inaugurated only in 1965 (until then the museum had been a part of the Bezalel Art School), while the permanent building of the Tel Aviv Museum was opened in 1971 (until then it had been housed in the refurbished residence of Tel Aviv’s first mayor).
These first museum buildings constructed at the periphery were architecturally innovative, and the museum at Ein Harod is considered to be one of the earliest examples of a modernist museum architecture based on natural lighting. The building’s architectural qualities are relevant to this day, and were an inspiration, for example, to the architect Renzo Piano in his planning of the De Menil Museum in Houston in the 1980s.
That art museums would be established in kibbutzim is a far from self-evident matter, because the founding of a museum is generally thought to require the existence of sufficient conditions such as a large enough population, a concentration of capital, and the social elite’s needs for demarcation and differentiation.
In comparison to the concentrations of population and capital in the urban centers, the numbers indicating the size of the population in the kibbutzim are infinitesimal. At the time the museums were established, the kibbutzim did not have tens or hundreds of thousands of members, but only a few thousand, dispersed in settlements throughout the country, with no more than several tens or hundreds of inhabitants in each.
It may be asked whether in setting up such cultural institutions even before their settlement was fully established physically, the kibbutz members were in some way replicating a cultural model that they had grown up with in their countries of origin – which might explain why they would give culture precedence to the “natural” process of development in which culture-building occurs in the final stage. But in the towns where they grew up, the members of Ein Harod had not had a “habitus” of art museums or concert halls. Ein Harod was founded in 1921 mainly by immigrants from Eastern Europe, most of whom came to Eretz-Israel following a wave of pogroms in Ukraine that had dealt a fatal blow to many hundreds of Jewish communities. They had grown up in families of artisans, lower middle class people who observed a religious way of life, and had arrived in Eretz-Israel with no possessions. The spirit of the revolution bore with it a promise of a better future, for mankind, for the Jewish people, for the liberation of women, and in Eretz-Israel they wanted to found a worthy society for mankind, one not based on the traditional, familiar existing forms of “the village” and the “the town”. Although they believed in a cooperative life, these new settlers did not follow the example of the small communal groups that had already been established in the country (since the beginning of the century), each of which comprised 20-30 members who sustained themselves on agriculture alone. The members of Ein Harod conceived a new idea, which was close, at its base, to the European idea of the “Garden City”, but its main inspiration was the writings of Kropotkin, the Russian anarchist. They proposed a new form of settlement, an integration of the forms of “the village” and “the town”, of community and society, of agriculture and industry, of manual labor and intellectual labor. They called this form of settlement a “large group”, “kvutzah gdolah”, and this was the social and ideological basis for the establishment of Ein Harod, which grew into a broad kibbutz movement (the “United Kibbutz”, the “Kibbutz Meuchad”). This movement, which was founded in the 1920s, strove to settle the entire country with “large groups”, in a federation-like organizational structure divided into geographical regions.
The architect Richard Kauffmann, who drew up the master plans of many settlements in Eretz-Israel in the mid-1920s, including that of Ein Harod, was very aware of social ideas of this kind, and supported them. And indeed, in the master plan of Ein Harod, Kauffmann implemented the ideas of the “kvutzah gdolah”, refrained from basing the plan on the architectural form of a “village”, and planned, for example, culture and education areas connected by an “institutions road”, which is characteristic of a city. Later, when the art and culture institutions were built in Ein Harod, they were erected along this “institutions road” following Kauffmann’s plan, and the art museum befitted the vision of integration of town and village that underlay the establishment of the “large group”.
The Kibbutz Meuchad movement was not the only kibbutz movement to arise in Eretz-Israel. Four kibbutz movements were founded, each with a different social vision and conception of art and culture. The movement that championed the “large group”, the largest of the kibbutz movements, had a non-elitist, mass orientation.
The connection between a broad, popular movement and high art is of course also not self-evident. An art museum, for example, is considered to be the quintessential institution of high art: works are sorted into the art museum’s collections according to strict categories, and the element of individuality constitutes an inseparable part of the values identified with this kind of museum. What, then, is the explanation for the fact that a movement that championed equality among its members, and oriented itself towards the broad popular strata of the population, adopted as one of its cultural institutions an elitist institution such as an art museum?
The countrywide presence and activity of this large kibbutz movement were conspicuous in many spheres. The building of high culture also served a need to create a common denominator for a heterogeneous society and to create new, modern, avantgarde contexts for the cultural sediments of workers and the middle class. The workers’ ownership of cultural assets, and the need to create an independent basis for the development of artistic and intellectual life in the kibbutz, were part of the discourse about the museum in Ein Harod; the founding of the museum, and the successful establishment of its activity, served as a proof that this was indeed possible. The establishment of the “large group”, the “kvutzah gdolah”, which integrates the form of the city with the form of the village, nature with culture, contained something of a revolt against the prevalent convention that the village had to remain behind and that the place of progress and intellect was in the city, inside the bounds of the upper social strata. The movement’s leadership not infrequently stressed that “the Hebrew village, if we want life, a life of creative eternity – will not be constituted on the production of food and on craft alone, and will have no shape, unless there is an abode, a mishkan, for the fostering of the arts, which are the very essence and meaning of human life”.
The ideological leadership of the Kibbutz Meuchad movement supported a local initiative to establish a museum because it saw the development of inner strength, on the individual level, as a necessary basis for the individual’s confrontation with the difficult life demands called for by vanguard action. But the initiative to establish the museum came from “below”, from circles of members in the kibbutz who argued that “there has never been a generation as much in need of art as ours, because for us art is the spiritual possibility of living” (Ein Harod Journal, 1937), and explained: “What does art reveal to us? Ourselves. That which is essential and which exists in us, which is covered under layers of dust and worthless things – these art exposes in us”, for “we do not fear self-criticism, we do not hesitate to look at the truth, be it as bitter as death, for we draw strength from the true source, from our inner power” (Ein Harod Journal, 1938). Although all generations have needed art, the kibbutz members insisted that for them “art has changed from a means to the essence”.
Moreover, it is probable that high art, which was perceived as penetrating into the depths of the soul and elevating the human spirit, had taken over the space vacated by the decline in prestige of the religion that the kibbutz members had left behind. This belief, in the elevating power of art as expressed in the work of the artist, invested the art events at Ein Harod with an aura almost of sanctity, and this is evinced in reports by contemporaries. Such terms were used to describe the concert given by the violinist Jascha Heifetz at Ein Harod in as early as 1925, in a quarry that served as a natural amphitheater, and two concerts given by Bronislaw Huberman (in the 1930s) to the members of Kibbutz Ein Harod in the dining hall of the kibbutz.
The initiative for the museum at Ein Harod came from one of the founding members of the kibbutz, Haim Atar (Aptekar), a self-taught artist who began painting in the kibbutz in around 1924-1925, despite the difficult economic and physical conditions. In both his life and his art Atar created a partition between spheres, and distinguished clearly between private space and public space. From the outset of his path in painting he always zealously guarded his intimate creative space. A painter colleague recounted that when he first met him, Atar worked in a closed space he had created by means of walls made of sacking that he had stretched around it to ensure no stranger’s eye would gaze upon his work. He not only differentiated his work place, he also bounded his work, in its intimate themes (portrait and still life) and the individualistic modernist orientation of his painting. Concurrently, for the kibbutz he created festival décors, which were Jewish folk art, quite different in character, and he did not mix these spheres. He was aware that art has different functions in different life-contexts but that the division between the different kinds of art has to be clear and distinct. He distinguished categorically between folk art, which he did not derogate and indeed loved and esteemed, and the sphere of high art which, in his view, had a unique value for the individual and for society. To this day, his decorations, created seventy years ago for the Passover festival, cover the walls of the kibbutz dining hall from floor to ceiling with verses, floral patterns and legendary creatures that seem to have been transposed to here from ancient Jewish manuscripts and from paintings of the timber synagogues in Eastern Europe. In Ein Harod there was no talk of culture-building in the sense of a revolutionary conception of time, of establishing a new calendar of events that accords significance to milestones in recent history, nor any discussion of action to erase the collective memory of past time. Atar’s decorations were based on traditional Jewish motifs, which he preferred over stylized depictions of the people and the landscape of this country, or of nature and the joy of labor.
The creating of a space for high art and the establishing of an art museum were perceived as a need no less essential than folk art decorations for a festival in the kibbutz. In an immigrant society composed mainly of young people who had gathered together from different countries of origin, who had broken away from their parents’ homes and from the tradition of the forefathers, in a settlement that had been built after a long period of living in a temporary place, Atar and other intellectuals spoke about culture as an existential need that accords meaning and empowerment to the individual, and survival strength to the society. Atar expressed this at the inauguration of the museum in 1938: “We need to show, to ourselves first of all, that our life is not a temporary life but a secure life, and that our settlement is diversified in everything, from the field of hay to a museum of art. […] Yes, the generations that come after us, even more than ourselves, will [require] the sustenance that is in art, because only that will be able to save them from the psychic entanglements and the affectations we are all always prone to on every side, both materially and spiritually – and also for us, the adults, I am confident that had a museum already existed here for some time, in a place where each of us could distance himself to some extent from the harsh reality, to disburden himself, I would say, from the constant yoke – and to change the air from that suffocation that often comes upon us in contacts with one another, and to commune with a work of art, to remain for a moment with his own psyche. I am not a doctor, nor a son of a doctor, and I don’t want to prescribe remedies for social life in general or for our society in particular. But I see the life of art within us as an important need and as a psychic salvation for any society.”
In his paintings, Atar avoided any kind of Israeli exoticism, and did not adopt an impressionistic perception of light for his work. He was aware of the fact that imitation of the external reality by immigrants confronting a new reality could lead to expression that contained some romantic pathos or painterly depiction intended “for export”. He was influenced by Cézanne and argued that “it is a mistake to see his [Cézanne’s] strength principally in the construction. Cézanne could never agree with his colleagues (the Impressionists), to capture and shape everything playfully, and he arrived at a compromise between the exterior, which is over-abundant, overflowing, streaming and giving – to me, and its transference, with all its flutterings, to the inside of the dimly-lit studio in order to be given – to you” (1931). He wanted to create a sensual, inner and psychic contact with the materials of the reality, not a frivolous painting of its exterior lines, and was influenced by artists such as Rembrandt, Soutine and Utrillo.
When Atar was asked to send works on a kibbutz theme or a workers’ theme, he would generally send, instead, a painting of a still life. This, for example, is how he replied to such a request: “Further to the request by Mr Vilner of the National Committee that I send a picture for the Asian exhibition in India, I am doing so and am sending a ‘Still Life’ picture for this exhibition, even though your request, or rather Mr Vilner’s request, was that I send something specific from kibbutz life. This is not the place to present [the argument] that the art of painting is not connected with life of one kind or another. According to the differences in art, painting has only one single status – painting. I hope you will add my small picture to the works you are sending, at any rate I would ask you to let me know about this. With blessings from the vernal valley” (letter to Mordechai Narkiss, Director of the Bezalel Museum, 1941).
Atar was not the only artist in the country to take this direction. It is interesting that it was in the studio established by the Workers’ Federation [Histadrut ha’ovdim] in Tel Aviv, where during the years 1926-1928 worker-artists painted under the guidance of the painter Yitzhak Frenkel, that the new orientation (to which Atar, too, belonged), which strove for what was perceived as painterly truth and plastic painterly values, took shape. These artists rejected the narrative Israeli painting like that of Reuben Rubin or Nachum Gutman, and in the 1930s many of them set out for Paris, Atar among them. They developed painting that contained something of a dialogue with “universal” art and with the “School of Paris” and its immigrant artists, many of whom were Jews from Eastern Europe.
The principle of creating demarcated, bounded areas is discernible in the collections and exhibitions policy at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod – in the distinction between the Jewish folk art (“Judaica”) department and the painting, sculpture and graphics (“high art”) department. Atar had one sole category of judgment – the artistic value of the works. The legitimate discourse at Ein Harod, which included the concept of “the individual”, the term “the universal”, and the absorption of “the achievements of contemporary art”, supported the policy of demarcation initiated by Atar, of high art as including modernist art that distanced itself from narrative depiction. In the particular context of Ein Harod and of the kibbutz movement it belonged to, the Kibbutz Meuchad, conditions were created to establish the position of the museum director as the sole authority for the judging and the categorization of the art included in the museum’s collection.
At first, works by artists from all over the world were collected in the museum, but later, especially after the Holocaust and the destruction of the Jewish communities in Europe, the museum concentrated on methodical collection and documentation of Jewish art, concurrently with fostering contemporary Israeli art. The establishing of the museum, and the organizing of a collection of works by Jewish artists from all periods, evinced an affinity to the Jewish past as well as a message to the future generations who had not grown up in the Diaspora: “And these foundations – we actually absorbed them there, in the Jewish towns in the Diaspora. Yes, there, in the meager dwellings and in the atmosphere of suffering and afflictions, from there we sucked revolt, participation in sorrow, a great and profound compassion, and love, love that stems from compassion. From there too stems the thirst for an Israeli soil. And yet our children, here among us, within our creation that feeds on those spiritual powers, live at a great distance from those very powers” (Maletz, a member of Ein Harod, in a discussion on education in 1929).
In the 1950s, modernist artists emerged in the Kibbutz Meuchad movement, such as Moshe Kupferman (in painting) and Yehiel Shemi (in sculpture), who were connected with the museum at Ein Harod. Moshe Kupferman, who lived the period of the Second World War in Europe, arrived in Ein Harod as a youngster and was part of the team of builders who built the museum’s new building in 1948. The museum presented exhibitions of famous painters, such as Marc Chagall (in 1951 and 1954), and important local exhibitions, such as the exhibition of the “New Horizons” group, which was the vanguard group of modernism in Israel. The museum at Ein Harod is active today too, and with it there are other museums in the kibbutz movement; in addition to these there is also a rich network of local galleries in kibbutzim, engaging in contemporary art.
The museum at Ein Harod was established in 1938 in a period of harsh economic depression, security tension in Eretz-Israel and a sense of growing anxiety in the wake of the sweeping rise of Nazism and Fascism in the world. Likewise, the museum’s permanent building was built not in a period of economic prosperity but actually at the height of the 1948 war. The establishing of the museum in such difficult conditions, by a society numbering only some hundreds of people, proves the vital power of art. The power of art sometimes reveals itself in the harshest of human situations, helping people to cope with trauma and uprooting, and strengthening their resolve to hold on to life and to build a perspective that possesses a meaning for the individual and for society.
At the opening of a new wing of the museum in 1951, with Marc Chagall among those present (two months before the opening of his exhibition there), the museum director, Haim Atar, said: “To bring an exhibition is easy, but to create the place for the exhibition is harder. If the heart does not beat in us, the museum will be of no value”