| Old-New Land

Curator: Tami Manor Friedman

Return to Paradise

In the minds of Diaspora Jews the Return to Zion was painted in blooming colors: the Land of Israel appeared as the biblical Paradise, and its soil an abundant harvest yielding the Seven Species. This vision of the Land of Israel was also reflected in objects of Judaica and souvenirs produced in the country at the end of the 19th century, which showed flowers and fruit-laden trees beside the holy places. Albums of pressed flowers from the Holy Land were amongst the most popular and coveted mementos. Initially, they were produced by Christian organizations and Arab merchants for Christian pilgrims; later, they were adopted by local Jews, who produced them for their Diaspora brethren. These albums featured dried wildflowers, which juxtaposed symbols such as crucifixes, crescents, and Stars of David with photographs of holy places, poetry or biblical verses.

Lotto game of local flower, 1915
The Israel Museum
The Ruth collection

The reality faced by the first Jewish settlers was quite different. The bare, stony terrain that confronted them only strengthened their resolve to redeem the land and make the desert bloom. Working the land was their true faith, a sacred ideal. In this spirit, traditional holiday rituals were reinterpreted in terms of their ancient origins and agricultural associations. Tu BShvat was transformed from a feast of fruits to an arbor day whose focus was tree-planting ceremonies, symbolizing rootedness in the soil of the homeland. Shavuot became the Festival of Flowers and First Fruits, celebrated with processions and presentations of the harvest before representatives of the Jewish National Fund, echoing the offering of the First Fruits in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Planting, growing, and blossoming were integrated into artistic and popular culture, in Bezalel works, photography, posters, and childrens literature, serving as a metaphor for national revival.

A Flower Pot on the Window

The conventional image of a vase of flowers is bound up in the history of art with still life painting. The combination of "life" with "stillness," its antithesis, expresses the metamorphosis of the flower picked fresh from the field and transformed into an object painted by the artist in the studio. The process of transplanting the flower from the outdoors within, i.e. from life to art, touches on the essence of artistic creation, and also embraces such concepts as the dichotomies of nature and culture, organic and aesthetic.

In early Israeli art flowers were sometimes depicted in bouquets or pots resting on a windowsill facing outdoors. These floral motifs merge the private, intimate realm with the surrounding world, charging the painting with psychological and symbolic significance. Through these images the artist expresses his yearning for and identification with the landscape and the light that bursts through his window. Reuven Rubin, Nahum Gutman, and Aryeh Lubin paint flowering plants facing the sands of Tel Aviv, when the city was in its infancy, or flowering bouquets against a background of tender saplings, orange groves, and expanses of sea. Moshe Mokady and Chaim Gliksberg depict vases of flowers beside painted canvases that become a metaphoric window, serving as a picture within a picture. Yossef Zaritzky and Yehezkiel Streichman focus on abstract painterly values: the vase of flowers on a windowsill like the foliage beyond are only the means for synthesizing the interior and outdoor planes in an abstract formal and chromatic composition.

The work of contemporary Israeli artists at times reveals an imbalance between external reality and inner artistic reality. Their plants exist within unnatural, alien surroundings, under electric light, in cramped spaces, reflecting a complex relationship between the artist and his environment.

Portraits and Flowers

Pinhas Litvinowsky, 1894-1985
Arab with a Flower, 1926
Oil on canvas
Tel Aviv Museum of Art
Gift of Hadassa and Raphael Klachkin, Tel Aviv

The presence of flowers in portrait paintings has always served to add dimensions of beauty, sensuality, ceremony, and even holiness. In Christian artistic tradition certain flowers were associated with divine attributes: the white lily-of-the-valley held by the Virgin Mary or the abundance of flowers encircling her as she sits in a locked garden signify her purity and chastity. In romantic and modern painting too, flowers accompany the images of beloved women, family members, and the artists themselves. It would appear that the marrying of floral motifs with the human figure transcends a merely decorative function: it also draws on the metaphor that likens the ages of man to the flower, which blossoms, blooms, withers, and dies.

In Eastern and Western culture the flower has long symbolized love and desire, an association which has Hebrew origins in the Song of Songs. This biblical love poem, which describes abundant gardens and beds of spices, inspired early Israeli art and literature. It was interpreted in light of the pioneering experience as a manifestation of the power of Eros - the source of sexuality and creativity. E. M. Lilien and Zeev Rabans illustrations for the Song of Songs wed sensuality and oriental exoticism to Zionist symbols. Reuven Rubins paintings express a sense of mysticism, which sanctifies chastity, sexuality, and efflorescence. Nahum Gutman and Yossef Zaritzky immerse the beloved in a flowering field. Pinhas Litvinovsky paints the portrait of an Arab holding a flower and Ludwig Blum, a graceful Arab woman in her rose garden, both artists acknowledging the native affiliation to the land. The works of Yohanan Simon, Shmuel Schlesinger, and Gabriel Cohen are permeated with primal innocence and overt sensuality. Raffi Lavie combines contrasting components from his world; in an early work he consciously adopts a childlike style while in a recent work he juxtaposes a readymade image of a white lily held by the angel of the Annunciation with a reference to a commonplace geranium.

Like a Wildflower

Since the early days of the Zionist movement the study of the flora and fauna of the Land of Israel has been seen not only as a scientific pursuit but as one of the building blocks of national culture - a material expression of the return to nature and the renewal of the peoples bond with the land. The pioneers of botanical research in the country worked zealously in the collection of dried flowers, the discovery of unknown species, and the publication of guides and encyclopedias; they even made efforts to bring their discoveries to public notice and to popularize the study of nature. After the establishment of the State of Israel the attempts to protect and preserve nature were even further intensified.

Researchers were joined in their work by experts in the field of language, literature, and art. Tchernichovsky, Bialik, Fichman, and other writers consulted with linguists and biblical scholars in the task of finding Hebrew names for the different types of vegetation, and to compile botanic dictionaries and lexicons. Painters, including Bezalel alumni, illustrated the botanists' work with precisely detailed images of the various plants in the era preceding that of scientific photography. Amongst them Shmuel Charuvi worked with Ephraim HaReubeni, Aaron HaLevi with Baruch Chizik, and Ruth Koppel with Michael Zohary and Naomi Feinbrun. Some were so influenced by their scientific projects that they focused on floral motifs in their own art works.

Inspired by collections of dried flowers and botanical paintings, artists of this generation, such as Joyce Schmidt, Esther Knobel, and Larry Abramson have adopted an apparently documentary-scientific approach in their portrayals of the world of flowers - a personal statement of their attempt to strike root in their physical and cultural surroundings.


Flora Palaestina: Botany and Painting

In Western artistic tradition the world of flowers was identified with the wonder of Creation and the attributes of saints and kings. Flowers also symbolized Vanitas, the vanity of beauty and the transience of life, together with luxury, sensuality, and eroticism. In all these permutations the depiction of flowers presented a challenge to artists still valid today - not only an object of beauty and perfection, flowers embody the aspects and values to which art itself is bound: beauty and sensuality, color, light, texture, form, and space.

Shmuel Charuvi, 1897-1961
Anemone, 1926
Watercolor on paper
Collection of Zipi Charuvi, Jerusalem

A distinctive hallmark identifies Israeli flower paintings: the depiction of wildflowers, whether in the landscape or as a solitary image, indicates the relationship of the artist to his homeland. The Bezalel artists sought to combine meticulously detailed local flora with an idealized biblical landscape using the stylized decorativeness of European Art Nouveau. Leopold Krakauer, Anna Ticho, and Aviva Uri manifest a romanticist-expressionist spirit, observing the landscape of wilting flowers, thistles, and rocks as a projection of their inner world. The dramatic and emotional are equally present in the photographs of Peter Merom, who documents the struggle for survival of flora in the Negev and the dying Huleh swamp.

Ever since the 1948 War of Independence, wildflowers have served as symbols of bereavement and remembrance of youth who fell in battle, plucked from life, and also of the longing for rebirth and renewal. These images were borrowed from Hebrew literature and poetry and incorporated into visual art, especially public sector graphic design such as stamps, tags, and Independence Day posters.

Israeli artists active today address the theme of flowers in a multitude of ways: Shosh Kormosh and Meir Franco explore the dialectic between the natural and the decorative; the photographs of Dalia Amotz, Yosaif Cohain, and Sharon Yaari reveal the abstract forms of nature; Assaf Ben Zvi, Tsibi Geva, and Larry Abramson make a critical statement about blossoming in the context of a strife-ridden homeland; while Moshe Gershuni creates ambivalent images of efflorescence and death, thriving and bereavement.

, | , | , 1995-
To The Israel Museum Exhibition Online | The Israel Museum, Jerusalem | Copyright The Israel Museum, Jerusalem 1995-