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Land of Refuge - the art of Miron Sima
Examination of the official story of Israeli art, which centers on artists and exhibitions considered to be representative of our collective cultural identity, exposes a troubling paradox: the constitutive historical experiences that on-the-face-of-it backed the rationale for the establishment of the State of Israel are totally absent from the “canon” that is regularly presented in the major museums and history books. It seems that in the mainstream of Israeli art there is no trace of the subject of the present paper: refugees and immigrants. And if this is so, then the constitutive meaning of the State of Israel as a Land of Refuge finds no expression in the story of its art, which focuses on one sole point of reference: the story of “New Horizons”, and of this central group’s modernist exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum in November 1948. What this means is that in the collective memory, as it was articulated and presented in the art discourse of that period and in later years as well, no place was found for a local but also an international saga of migration and refugeehood, for what was perhaps the most meaningful experience in the lives of the majority of the country’s residents – for in the first decade alone of the existence of the State, one million two hundred thousand people were added to a population of seven hundred thousand, most of whom had arrived only a short time earlier, while at the same time six hundred thousand Arab refugees left the country.
The absence of representation of this experience troubles the mind, and raises questions that are not simple about the place of art in the collective and the private consciousness: is an unbridgeable gap between a period’s deepest experiences and art’s field of action indeed an inbuilt characteristic of art? Is this the character of modernist art, which transcends time and place, or the meaning of art’s “autonomy”, which has no room for an artist who concerns himself with man’s fate, in extreme conditions of suffering and pain? Or, perhaps, paradoxically, the very conditions of a “mobilizing” society create a need for an autonomous, subjective, “private” space for an art that is dissociated from “life”?
There is also another possibility, that artists who did indeed engage with these central experiences did not enter our collective consciousness because they were not included in the art “canon”. For the “canon” is shaped by persons and institutions who are considered as possessing the authority to determine what is Art, with a capital A, on the basis of its specific qualities, so it is said, not its contents.
A retrospective gaze, from a distance of almost 60 years, makes it possible to expose a different relevant angle than the one that for decades was fixated in Israeli art, while appealing against the exclusive status of the concept of “quality” as engrained in the perception of the “canon”: today it is no longer commonplace to think that a contradiction exists between social, contentual values and artistic values. It becomes clear, indeed, that artists who contended with “national” subjects – such as the refugee experience and the “illegal” entry of immigrants against the British blockade – were not necessarily expressing identification with mainstream Zionist ideology at the expense of the sincerity or the depth of the artistic expression. Actually, the opposite is true: an unequivocal turn to the non-figurative, modernist direction in art is no longer perceived solely in its autonomous contexts, as liberating the artist from national or social contexts, and can be seen as at times actually serving, in its own way, specific orientations in Zionism and therefore as charged with distinctly political aspects in the historical process of nation-building. These contexts arise more distinctively in relation to the subject of ‘olim, refugees and immigrants.
In the Zionist discourse, and also in the modernist discourse of Israeli art, as we shall see further on, there was an abhorrence of the term “immigrants”. In the Zionist discourse the discussion describing the situation of refugeehood was centered on its teleological context, which reversed its meaning: this was not a situation of refugeehood, not a “thinning of powers”, but a resolute decision to take part in a collective project, and a striving for Eretz-Israel. Thus, those making their way to Eretz-Israel were not refugees but “‘olim” or “ma’apilim” [two variant terms meaning “ascenders”, the latter also implying “against obstacles” and used mainly for those entering “illegally” against the blockade], words conveying a potential of will and self-renovation. When referring to a protracted process, use was made of terms like “the story of the illegal aliyah [“ascent”, used as a collective noun to refer to all the ‘olim together]”. The difference between immigrants and ‘olim lay in the emphasis of the historical uniqueness of this phenomenon, which was unparalleled in the history of the nations, and was focused on “the will to become a nation”, with everyone giving with all their strength.
A good example of artistic expression that integrates with the central Zionist narrative is the album of prints called “Hechalutz ha-almoni” [“The Anonymous Pioneer”], created by the artist P.K. Hoenich, in Haifa.
The older parents remain in the Diaspora, the pioneer leaves with an embrace, on board the boat he dances a horah, his foreignness in this country drops off him like an unwanted suit and he immediately devotes himself to rural life, to guard duty, gives his life in defense of the settlement, and his comrades’ arms join into a circle around his coffin.
Hoenich, who created this album, was the teacher of the artist Naftali Bezem, who arrived in Haifa in 1942 (after arriving in the country in 1939 in the framework of the Youth Aliyah). A few years after this, on completing his studies at the Bezalel Art School, Bezem set off for the detention camps in Cyprus (with his wife-to-be, Hannah Lieberman), to teach art. From the one hundred candidates who responded to his call in Cyprus, Bezem selected twenty-five for his workshop, at the end of which Bezem and his pupils printed the Cyprus Album. The prints were exhibited in April 1948 at the Achvah Club in Brenner Street in Tel Aviv, and the exhibition also included objects, tiny models made in Cyprus of agricultural machines and illegal immigration boats.
This exhibition too, of works from Cyprus, suited the Zionist discourse even if it was not relevant to the local art discourse. It was associated with the element of struggle, with the idea of not weakening, with the “in spite of everything” type of creation. The introduction to the album asserted as much: “Cyprus, one station on the way of afflictions to Eretz-Israel. The Jewish meaning of this name is barbed-wire fences, forced idleness, and being condemned to rot. And even in these conditions life flourished”.
A central point in a newspaper review of the exhibition was, for example, the capacity to improvise that the works displayed. “‘Where did you get a lathe?’ ‘We made them ourselves. The boards we took from the beams of the camp fence, for an axle we used a water supply pipe, screws and nails we scrounged here and there’”. (Eugen Kolb, “Creations from the Crucible of Poverty”, Al Hamishmar, 29 April 1948). The consciousness of the period was not ready, or mature enough, to contend with other aspects evoked in the works – enclosedness, blocked horizons, images recalling German camps. Nor was it ready to interpret Naftali Bezem’s works from the early fifties not as an ideologistic reduction but in the private and biographical context.
Prevalent in the art discourse of the time was an oxymoronic demand of the “ascender” artists: to be simultaneously “bearers of the ancient spirit of the Hebrew people” and “revolutionary innovators of that very spirit”. Modernist artists such as Kahana, for example, spoke of a “Semitic” spirit of our forefathers that had passed down from one generation to the next, and which they were now casting into a modern art language. In the “New Horizons” constitution, which was composed in 1950, this dual – national and modern – orientation was articulated: a demand for art to integrate “originality” (Israeliness) with “progress”. It should be recalled that at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1948-49, beside the modernist “New Horizons” exhibition, two archeological exhibitions were held, and that in both of them emphasis was placed on the affinity with the ancient spirit of the Hebrew people: in a text accompanying the “Weapons and the Army in Antiquity (Israel and Its Enemies)” exhibition we read that “before our eyes are revealed the glorious past and the heroism of the Hebrew people and living testimony is given of the military culture and the ways of warfare of our forefathers” (25 October 1948); and in the “Settlements of the Yarkon in Antiquity” (April 1949), a review referred to the “opportunity given us to come into personal contact with the lives of our forefathers” (Kolb, Al Hamishmar, 1 April 1949).
The artist Miron Sima had a different approach to the role of Israeli art. He was one of very few artists who engaged intensively with the theme of refugees and immigrants. The theme also appeared in the works of Chaim Atar, Jacob Steinhardt and other artists, but not in as focused a manner as in the works of Sima.
His sketches on paper convey a much more complex context than the few works that he created in oil on canvas. The video is taken from the Sima retrospective that was held at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod. The unedited film will serve as a background for what I will say next, and the unedited material, which is more difficult for viewing, perhaps has an upside, because the long shots and the repetitions give time for contemplation, and respond to Sima’s process of quest, to a dynamics of the work’s development in contexts of the individual and the group.
Sima began working on the theme of refugees in 1938, at first with figures of individuals and in a more realistic style. Afterwards he focused not only on individuals but also on groups, in a narrative context – the boat at sea, figures in various states of introversion, lethargy, despair; and in abstract form, with the aim of achieving a condensed representation of the situation. He described his goal thus: “I limited myself to two groups. One – bereft and apathetic, and the other – consumed by despair and encompassed by compassion”. Sima created scores of works such as these, continued working on the theme in the forties, and, in his words, sought to go beyond the episodic realism of the suffering individual and to express the moment “when a person ceases to be merely himself and becomes a purposive utterance of his fate”. The story of the “Exodus” stirred him, and he even left for Marseilles to meet the people who were to sail on it. He later described how this experience had influenced his work: “The cruel tragedy of the refugee’s condition – bad, without dignity, humiliated. And then I saw the refugees of the Exodus – stripped of their nerves, stripped of their physicality, stripped of the image of humanity, quivering bulbs, diagrams of grief and subject to their common fate – each of them destined to his despair, to his wrath, to his helplessness”. He created the final works in the series in 1947, and he chose the title “Refugees” (and not “‘Olim”, “Ascenders”) for his exhibition, which was shown at the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem in 1950.
The critical response, of course, was: “All the paintings have a single theme: the ha’apalah, [the “ascent against the blockade”]. But Sima, for some reason, chose to paint only the sufferings of the people on the ship in the open sea; the heroic side of the ascent against the blockade seems to have passed him by. […] But – does Sima see only the suffering that is entailed in the Return to Zion? And where is the heroism that it entails?”
Even before this, Chaim Gamzu had responded to the works: “Miron Sima’s ascenders against the blockade are not healthy people, full of potency and vigor; instead, they are exhausted, wretched creatures borne on the waves of the seven seas to a last refuge” (Ha’aretz 4 May 1945).
Sima, however, aroused dispute not only with his paintings but also with his views, the use he made of the term “immigrants”, and his non-canonical perception of Israeli art. In 1948, for example, a discussion appeared in the newspapers, with Sima participating, following an article that had been published in a French newspaper after an interview with him. The article caused a furore, and Eugen Kolb published an article with the title “A French Newspaper Gives the Lie to His Art”, Itim (20 March 1948): “The abovementioned journalist describes Eretz-Israeli art as ‘an art of immigrants, which has only now begun to get in touch with the soil of the homeland it has adopted for itself’, and he also speaks about ‘the complicated situation of this art, which was born already adult’”. Kolb noted that the article had mentioned the discussion on the subject of the abstract and the realistic being conducted in the country, and said that in this “could be found a smidgeon of truth, although the term ‘an art of immigrants’ is not pleasing to our ears”.
Miron Sima wondered what all the ire was about and why Kolb had been angered by the use of the term “immigrants”: “I don’t understand why you make such an issue of the term ‘an art of immigrants’ – after all, most of the artists in the country came here from abroad and in time established themselves here. They brought their art with them (because it did not sprout here), and the young artists also learned from them, or from the examples that were brought here, and, after all, I too, and you too, we are immigrants, and the direction that you are defending is something you brought with you from the outside, it did not sprout here in this country; even the few painters who were born here follow in the footsteps of the art of Paris. The process of creation of original art is a very protracted one, and depends on various circumstances and on various givens. One cannot demand – and you certainly don’t demand this – the overnight creation of an Eretz-Israeli art in the fullest sense of the word, at a time when in the entire world, thanks to fundamental upheavals and changes in society, folk culture is perishing” (Miron Sima, “A Letter to E. Kolb, Itim, 12 March 1948).
Kolb replied to Sima’s letter (“An Art of Immigrants”, Itim, 26 March 1948): “I cannot repair a thing – but whenever, in connection with the Eretz-Israeli yishuv [the Zionist term for the overall Jewish settlement in pre-State-of-Israel Palestine], in connection with the project of building it and its culture, I hear the term ‘immigrants’ – I am filled with anger. If someone from another country, even if he is a friend, and even if he is knowledgeable, cannot find a different expression to refer to our way – well, we can understand that. It is possible that a stranger will find it difficult to grasp the basic qualitative-human distinction between ‘immigrants’ and ‘ascenders’, that distinction which is so precious to us. […] But we in particular, we Jews, it is surely incumbent on us to be meticulous about this distinction in ‘terminology’, for this is not a matter of terminology alone”.
He noted that there had been migrations in all periods, and that in many cases “prolonged immigration had caused a thinning of the mental powers of the immigrants, a silencing of the voices of poets and a loss of the joy of creation among artists”, but “the movement of Jews to Eretz-Israel” was different. It was based on “the fundamentals of the struggle to shape the form of our lives. The will to create, by personal realization, new and lasting values […]. Of course, all those who were not born here ‘came from abroad’ – but to the extent that they participate, actively and passively, in the process of revival, they are no longer merely ‘immigrants’. Immigrants means people who assimilate or who have to assimilate in a foreign world”.
Kolb argued that the builders of culture in Eretz-Israel drew upon “the marvelous attribute – the privilege of being at one and the same time bearers of the ancient spirit of the Hebrew people and revolutionary innovators of that very spirit. […] No, the best of our art is not ‘an art of immigrants’. It is the coming-into-being art of a people the process of whose coming into being is still continuing. The blending of the multiplicity of human factors that have come from forty to fifty countries, into a single unity that has the power to conduct the struggle that has been forced upon us – this today is the greatest endeavor of our people in Eretz-Israel”.
In the background of the debate between Kolb and Sima was Sima’s claim that it was not possible to identify “an organism of national culture”, and that an essence of such a kind was a matter of a complex and protracted process. Or, in today’s parlance: Sima related to the condition of refugeehood and migration not only in the local context but also as a dynamic of modernity, displacement and cultural change in which “folk culture is perishing”. This view stood counter to the prevailing art discourse, represented by Kolb, which emphasized the distinctive Jewish historical dynamic and believed that there already was an existing base of national culture. Eugen Kolb did not serve any particular party or ideology; he worked with all his might in culture-building as a part of nation-building, and with his activity, as a critic and as Director of the Tel Aviv Museum during the fifties, he indeed created a rich and developed base of art that continued to nourish Israeli art for many years after his death.
The official story of Israeli art was distilled as a wish for a collective identity that contained no pain, uprooting and loss – an adopted identity of expanses, liberty and progress. Kolb believed that “If something is fundamentally ‘foreign’, the organism of a healthy national culture spews it out – even if the foreign plant sprouted in this country”. Our return today to these charged junctions of the past, and to the subject of refugees and immigrants, entails a new accounting with what was and is considered “foreign” to the organism of the local culture. This is a return that has matured beyond a critical discourse that with simplistic ideologistic formulations reduced blind spots into simple dichotomies to be used as weapons of oppression or exclusion. It would be pointless to construct a new narrative that would turn the canon upside down and build the same story but with new heroes and without New Horizons. What seems to be needed is a collective wish to contend with collective and private sediments such as migration and refugeehood, an open and non-teleological conception that will make room for an adequately complex collective consciousness to respond to the “foreign” that sprouts as a challenge in the present.