A few art exhibitions had already been mounted in British Palestine. Yaacov Pereman, an art collector from Odessa, organised an art exhibition in 1920, held in the Herzliya Gymnasia in Tel Aviv. Pereman displayed part of his own collection: 200 post impressionist, semi cubist Russian paintings he had brought with him to Palestine. The very next year he tried again, renting a Tel Aviv hall to display new and established modern artists. Also in 1920, the Hebrew Union of Artists was formed. They launched themselves with an exhibition at a private Jerusalem home. Nothing much came of these exhibitions, but clearly the time was right.
British Governor of Jerusalem, Sir Ronald Storrs, set two goals for the local art world. Firstly the Tower of David citadel was to be renovated. Secondly he established The Pro-Jerusalem Society, to foster arts and crafts in the city. British town planner, architect and Arts and Crafts artist Charles Ashbee had already established artists’ and designers’ co-operatives in London. Now Ashbee tried opening an art school in Jerusalem. In the event, no school was built, but Ashbee did open the first Tower of David Exhibition in April 1921. The elite of Jerusalem’s British, Jewish, Muslim and Christian communities were invited to the exhibition which was opened by Sir Robert Baden Powell! The Tower of David, still looking like a building site, was made suitable for this important cultural event, with speeches, music and very elegant clothing.
For fine external images of the Tower of David now, see Jerusalem Hills daily photo blog.
Tower of David galleries and courtyard
But why did British mandate authorities bother getting involved in a national art exhibition in Jerusalem? Yigal Zalmona suggested Storrs really did want to preserve the city’s cultural heritage and improve the welfare of its citizens. And Ashbee was working in the spirit of his mentors, William Morris and John Ruskin.
The wives of British Mandate officials may have had a different motive. Mrs Albina, wife of the deputy police commissioner, wanted to exhibit her own watercolours. Mrs Gordon and Mrs Drucker, whose good husbands encouraged their art work, wanted to display paintings they had created in a previous colonial posting in India.
And we have to ask why the British authorities waited until Boris Schatz was out of the country, raising money for his beloved Bezalel Art School? As expected, newspaper reviews noted that Bezalel was the main body that had been crucial for the visual arts in Jerusalem since it opened its doors in 1906. Furthermore most of the participants in this first Tower of David Exhibition were in any case Bezalel teachers and students.
The exhibition was divided into sections: Islamic art, international art, Hebrew Union of Artists’ work, British officers wives’ paintings and Bedouin textiles. And it was a great success, with thousands of adults and school children visiting, and quite a number of art objects being sold. But there was a flaw. Ideological differences between the Bezalel traditionalists and the modernists, many of them former Bezalel students, revealed a potential clash.
Still, in 1921, only two Tower of David artists declared themselves part of modern art movement, in opposition to Bezalel. The rest of the modernist artists were either still in Paris or didn’t participate in the Exhibition. Gideon Ofrat (100 Years of Art in Israel, 1998) rightly stated that at this stage, Bezalel staff were still confident of their firm grip on the present and future.
British Mandate officials ran an art exhibition again in 1922 but from then on, the Tower of David Exhibitions had very little British involvement. In 1924, at the request of the Pro-Jerusalem Society and under the sponsorship of the Hebrew Union of Artists, the landscapist Reuven Rubin mounted a one-man exhibition at the Tower of David.
By 1925 the rebel artists had all returned from Europe, and had formally created the Modern Painters Group: Reuven Rubin, Arie Lubin, Joseph Zaritsky, Ziona Tager, Israel Paldi and others. This doesn’t mean they shared a single artistic vision, of course, as Moshe Barasch noted (Quest for Roots, Artists of Israel 1920-80, Jewish Museum of New York, 1981). In fact Paldi actually asked to be hung separately from the Bezalelites.
Jerusalem, by Reuven Rubin
In 1925 Ziona Tager returned from Paris and joined the Modernist Group. She exhibited in the Ohel Theatre in Tel Aviv and at the Tower of David Exhibitions in Jerusalem. Tager used Fauvism, Cubism and Expressionism as required. She had an interesting placement of human activity in the natural landscape that was not always utilised by the others eg Ein Kerem Village 1927. It feels as if humans had a real influence on Tager’s landscape; they moulded it and made it grow.
In time, the modernists were in the majority and were well represented on all selection committees. At the 5th Tower of David Exhibition in 1926, 200 works were displayed, the majority modernist. Only Raban and two other artists represented Bezalel and they stood out uncomfortably. The politicising effect of all the Tower of David Exhibitions on the modernists was such that they now tackled Tel Aviv. In January 1926, the first modern art exhibition was held in the Ohel Theatre, under the auspices of the Labour Union. It was a great financial and critical success, especially as most of the artists returning from Paris moved straight to Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem.
How the art world had changed in Palestine since 1906. Bezalel's anachronistic, national-oriental narrative style was challenged by young rebels in Bezalel and by newly-returned artists. The definition of modernist in Palestine was hard to pin down. But these artists, a generation younger than Schatz, Pann and Raban were searching for an idiom appropriate to Middle Eastern art, not European art. And they had found it.
Alas Bezalel couldn’t stand the tension. A separate art movement emerged out of Bezalel, a movement that disassociated itself from the religious, Diaspora-oriented, tradition which was dictated by the Bezalel Academy. Known as the Rebels of Bezalel, this movement sought to pay homage to the Middle East and to the New Jew, by depicting the landscape and local people of the country. Its members sought to express their newfound identity as Hebrew rather than Jewish artists. This movement was established by Avraham Zaritzky and Reuven Rubin.
Financial difficulties at Bezalel followed and the school closed in 1929. Yigal Zalmona’s conclusion is that the move towards modernity may well have happened post-1920 in any case. But the Tower of David Exhibitions pointed clearly to the inseparable links between ideology, historical exigency and art in British Palestine. With the searing conflicts of the mid-1920s, the norms supported by Bezalel Academy lost their charisma.
For a more complete treatment of the topic, see Webberley, Helen “The Tower of David Days”, AHCCA Postgraduate Association Conference, Melbourne University, Nov 2004.