Israeli Art Is In The Eye Of The Beholder, Good Taste Is Not




By Ariel Natan Pasko

If you've wondered lately what's wrong with Israel, just look at the recent winner of the prestigious 2004 Israel Prize for sculpture. It was the proverbial "bad boy" of the Israeli art world, Yigal Tumarkin. He was recognized for his long career and "diverse artistic vocabulary." The Prize Committee called his work, "a central contribution to Israeli art." The judges who decided to grant him the prize wrote, "Tumarkin's monumental works are exhibited at many sites in Israel." The prize is always awarded on Israeli Independence Day.

Presumably long years of work, juvenile style, and wide distribution alone entitle him to the prize. As an article in an Israeli newspaper - reviewing the prize offer - commented recently, "Tumarkin already deserved the prize 30 years ago due to his innovation and audaciousness in the Israeli art scene."

But not everyone agrees. Three petitions to Israel's Supreme Court were filed against awarding Tumarkin the prize, but were ultimately turned down. National Religious Party, Member of Knesset Shaul Yahalom - one of the petitioners - called Tumarkin, an "embarrassment to the nation," and unfit to become a recipient of the prestigious prize.

"It is unreasonable that a man, as an artist and as a sculptor, whose actions bordered on criminal activity, who acted violently towards his family, disrespected people and the values of the Jewish people and made racist and anti-Semitic remarks, will receive in a democratic Jewish state the Israel Prize," MK Yahalom wrote in his petition to the court.

After the Supreme Court announcement that Tumarkin could be awarded the Israel Prize for Sculpture, Shas Party head, MK Eli Yishai said, "The Supreme Court approved, through its decision this morning, the honoring of a man who, by his expressions, intentionally and inexplicably runs roughshod over sectors of society, with the exception of [those holding] his racist worldview." Referring to Yigal Tumarkin as an "artist of racism," MK Yishai then called on President Moshe Katzav to avoid shaking Tumarkin's hand at the Israel Prize ceremony. 

Some of his most famous or should I say infamous pieces, include a pig wearing "Tefilin" (phylacteries worn by Jewish men during prayer), and a lithograph of an aerial view of Jerusalem's Old City, with a huge thumbprint superimposed over it. Written in pen on the top is, "From June 1967 Jerusalem started to turn ugly. Why? It's a fact."

How profound!

As for the "praying pig," back in January 1998, Israeli artist Tatiana Susskin received a two-year prison sentence for drawing a picture depicting the founder of Islam, Muhammad, as a pig. The court considered it an act of racial incitement against Islam and the Arabs. But in Israel, putting a pig - the most disgusting animal by Jewish standards - in "Tefilin" - Jewish ritual objects - isn't incitement, it isn't criminal, it's "art," and worthy of a prize.

These themes of degrading the Jewish religion, and all that Jews hold dear, such as Jerusalem, run throughout Tumarkin's work. Among his other "famous" works are "Hu Halach Basadot" - He Walked in the Fields - from 1967, a bronze statue of a torn figure whose innards are exposed and pants are rolled up. It symbolizes the complete opposite of post-Six Day War Israeli self-confidence, and the joy of victory.

Evidently he likes to disgust.

His troubled personal background is evident in his work and public statements. Tumarkin was born in Germany in 1933, to a Jewish mother and Christian father. His father, Martin Helburg, was an actor. While Tumarkin and his mother fled Nazi Germany to the Palestine Mandate during the pre-state period, Tumarkin's father became a culture officer in the Nazi SS during World War II. Tumarkin spent the 1950s in Europe, mostly Paris and Berlin. He broke the post-Holocaust Israeli taboo of moving back to Germany. When Tumarkin found out about his father's death during a newspaper interview in 1966, he told the reporter that he had no feelings toward his parents, and was sorry that he did not drop his sister when she was a baby. Outrageous statements like this have helped gain him the spotlight throughout his career.

Tumarkin returned to Israel from Europe in 1960 to exhibit his works at Jerusalem's Bezalel Museum, the predecessor to the Israel Museum. He exhibited polyester reliefs for the first time in Israel and was hailed as an innovator. The pieces that he created  - with screws, forks, junk and bottles - and his combination of painting and sculpture were considered unique and thought provoking at the time in Israel. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was considered to have personified the spirit of modern art, according to many art critics. He became very "prolific" throwing together combinations of junk, and giving them offensive interpretations.

In 1992, a comprehensive retrospective of his works was held at the Tel Aviv Museum.
Tumarkin, who is very prolific, exhibited a great number of pieces, 120 sculptures and about 150 prints. But Tumarkin has been criticized for shallowness. He has made a name for himself, some say, thanks to works that are considered innovative only to those who don't know about the history of art. He puts out art in a mechanized way. Yet, the cultural supremacy that he radiates, as one of the leading representatives of European Art in the Middle East, allows him to bully the Israeli art world. Tumarkin frequently attacks other artists and has been known to send scathing letters to critics. He's been involved in several court cases and has also been known to threaten lawsuits to shut up criticism of his work.

Although he has received many prizes and critical acclaim, and has exhibited in Israel's major museums, Tumarkin claims to be persecuted by the establishment, and has never missed an opportunity to say so, even while accepting the prize. It is no secret that Tumarkin wanted to receive the Israel Prize. In an interview that appeared in Yediot Ahronot in 1997, he said, "The Israel Prize is important to me for one reason, to say what I am now saying from their stage. When I see the Rafi Lavies and the Moshe Gershunis [other Israeli artists], how they sit there so full of themselves, of their art, so politically correct, then either I am too young, or I will die as someone who throws rocks at windows."

One only need listen to him, to ask, who really is "full of himself"?

Since the 1980s, Tumarkin hasn't gained his reputation for works of art, but for his habit of lashing out at religious Jews, right-wingers, and Sephardim, whoever he dislikes. He once said, he wished he had gunned down Israeli politicians on the right, Raphael Eitan and Rechavam Ze'evi. Tumarkin has also remarked that his "true contribution will be the taking of a submachine gun instead of pen and pencil, and killing the religious settlers on the West Bank."

When Shas MK Eli Yishai reminded the public of Tumarkin's slurs against Sephardim. Tumarkin shot back that; "Moroccan Jews are indeed crybabies" and "ought to stop burdening us with so many poor children."

In a November 1988 interview with "Tel Aviv Magazine," Tumarkin said, "When you see the "Haredim" - ultra-Orthodox Jews - you can understand why there was a Holocaust." And in response to criticism, he wrote in "Hadashot" later, "The outward strangeness of the Jew and the pretentiousness of the notion that God chose us...caused violent surrounding cultures to clash...with this arrogant minority...The image of the cunning, ambitious scoundrel, lending money at exorbitant interest, turned the bent, hook-nosed bearded Jew into the enemy of civilization...which didn't help belatedly enlightened Jews." 

Look who's calling other Jews, "arrogant and ambitious"?

He's been known to comment that, "The Jewish Holocaust wasn't the only holocaust." Imagine what Israel's response would have been, if an international artist had expressed similar sentiments? Yet Yad VaShem in 1998 almost gave him the Zussman Prize, until there was a public outcry, and they retracted the offer.

How is it that they would consider giving it to him in the first place?

But this is the sickness of the cultural elites in Israel today. One only has to be disgusting, perverse, degrade all that is holy and beautiful, and have the artistic talent of a four-year-old to get noticed. Become self-promoting, attack the competition, cry foul, attack Haredim and "settlers," and they drown you in accolade.

Israeli art is in the eye of the beholder, good taste is not!