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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

The uninvited ghosts that populate Israel’s art history

The Palestinians celebrate their lost land with poetry and art, but always it is a place of lost oranges and olive trees and snug village houses; of Arab men, leaning on ancient wells beside classical ruins, proving that Palestine was not, as the popular Zionist narrative would have us believe, a land without people.

So — on the principle that I always try to consume one art gallery in every town in the world in which I set foot — I stepped into the Tel Aviv Museum of Art this week to take a look at how the Jews of Palestine saw their would-be homeland before the 1947-48 Arab exodus.

The Tel Aviv art museum is a blessed relief, an inquiry, amid the propaganda of Zionist super-virtue, into the Jewish dream and the Jewish nightmare — and one which even acknowledges the Arabs of Palestine, albeit sometimes unconsciously.

Historical parallels are obviously dangerous. The Arabs of Palestine did not undergo the pogroms of eastern Europe or the Nazi Holocaust, but their calamity is no less real; and their ghosts — uninvited, no doubt — move persistently through the museum's galleries, the finest collection of which is David Azrieli's, the Canadian-Israeli designer and philanthropist. Azreili was himself a refugee — from Poland in 1939. He arrived in Palestine just in time to fight in Israel's war of independence, the very struggle which created the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees.

There's a chilling moment in Ziva Koort's introduction to the collection when she remarks that paintings by Moshe Castel, Sionah Tagger, Marcel Janco and Ludwig Blum “portray the Arab as native to the place, deeply rooted in its landscape... the artists of the 1920s — viewing Arabs as exemplifying a local, indigenous way of life — presented them as picturesque... in environments that could also usually be readily identifiable as local landscapes with oriental characteristics”.

That, of course, is part of the problem. For while the Arabs of Mandate Palestine were certainly “indigenous”, they would certainly not have regarded themselves as “picturesque”, let alone possessed — in a lovely pre-Said-ian moment — of “oriental characteristics”. They were often the owners of the lands which Blum, Janco and their colleagues portrayed.

Yet these Arabs exist in Jewish-Israeli art. I've seen the wood-ribbed suitcases of Palestinian refugees still piled in the corners of refugee huts in Lebanon. Those same cases appear in Meir Pichhadze's paintings over the past decade, his own self-portrait from 1997 depicting a whey-faced man in a crumpled jacket and beret, clutching three massive volumes and two of those familiar suitcases, walking desolately away from a row of black hills and a burnt-out sky. I've seen those same suitcases in Auschwitz; pitiful proof that their doomed owners really did believe their journey would end in life rather than death.

However, many of the paintings in the Azrieli collection show an emergent Israel whose landscape includes fewer Arabs. Instead, muscular Jews work on building sites, lay roads, clamber through scaffolding or crack stones. Castel's 1930s The Pioneers is almost Soviet in style, its men preparing to fight in the 1948 war against the Arabs. It is — |unlike Jack Yeats' frightening |portrait of the armed men of the old IRA (an institution which the Haganah fighters much admired) — almost romantic.

As the years pass, Arab villages are no longer inhabited by Arabs. There's a magnificent landscape of Jerusalem in 1960 by Blum, in which the Al-Aqsa mosque does not exist. It has disappeared. Why? Does life imitate art? Or does art imitate what the Israelis like to call “facts on the ground”?

As I left the museum my thoughts turned to Operation Litani; to Operation Peace for Galilee, Operation Grapes of Wrath and, just as notoriously, last year's Operation Cast Lead. Who dare paint the results?


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