“Therefore choose life…” Hadassa Goldvicht at the Venice Biennale

The Venice Biennale for Art has been in existence since 1895, when it opened with one main pavilion in the area known today as the Giardini.   Since 1980, when the large space of the Arsenale was added, the Biennale has been attracting close to 500,000 visitors every two years (in alternate years the Venice Biennale for Architecture is held).   The Biennale has become a brand, and has served as a model for countless other Biennales around the world, all of whom need accreditation to bear the Biennale name. Besides the Giardini and the Arsenale, the entire city of Venice turns itself into a large museum devoted to contemporary art from all over the world.  Israel’s pavilion, designed in the 1950s by Ze’ev Rechter in the International Style (he designed several buildings in Tel Aviv in the same style), is devoted to works by Gal Weinstein.  However, at least four other Israeli artists have or had exhibits in Venice during the current Biennale—Beverly Barkat, wife of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat (Palazzo Grimani, 13 May 2017 — 26 Nov 2017),   Avner Sher (Palazzo Bembo 13 May-26 November), Ariela Wertheimer (Palazzo Moro, 13 May – 31 October) and Hadassa Goldvicht, whose work, I Am Yours And My Dreams Are Yours / The House Of Life, is currently on view at the Palazzo Querini Stampalia (9 May 2017 — 26 Nov 2017), a cooperative project of Meislin Projects in New York and the Israel Museum. Of all aforementioned Israeli exhibits, only Goldvicht’s work actually relates to its location—Venice, as a home to a famous Jewish community and the site of the eponymous “Ghetto.” This makes it unique among all of the Biennale exhibits.

Venice’s Jewish community became famous not only because of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, but because in 1516 it became the site of the first closed quarter to house Jews, named most likely after the foundry in the area where the Jews were cloistered, the Geto.  From this time forth, the word “ghetto’ became synonymous for an area in which Jewish (and in more recent years, other) communities were forced to live. The ghetto was locked at night, and closed completely on Sundays.  So just as the Jews required special permission as to where to live, they also required special permission as to where they buried their dead.  In fact, Jewish presence in Venice dates at least from 1386, when permission for burial was first granted. The original cemetery was in use until the end of the 18th c, when a newer cemetery (still in use today) was opened nearby. The Jewish community of Venice numbered in the thousands at its height; today the numbers are dwindling, and only a few hundred members remain.  About 200 members of the then 1200 member community of Venetian Jewry were murdered in the Holocaust.  That, intermarriage, and Venice’s general decline, influenced demographics. Nevertheless, the community initiated a rich program to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the founding of the Ghetto last year, including an exhibit in the Palazzo Ducale and an original production of The Merchant of Venice outdoors in the Ghetto itself, a first. The community supports a kosher restaurant and guest house, and holds services in its synagogues.

Goldvicht received a grant from the community to create a work of art about them.  After sitting with many of the remaining members of this dwindling community, she met Aldo Izzo, the keeper of the cemetery.  Izzo, now in his eighties, is a distinguished figure who served in the merchant marine before his retirement.  Since then, he has been the custodian of the cemetery, where he officiates at funerals and memorial services, records all the deaths in the community, and, as part of maintaining the cemetery, has curated many of the old headstones, which were separated from the graves they marked over the centuries. There are many stones without bodies in the cemetery because of the various renovations and building projects carried out over the years.

Many stones were saved, but the graves themselves (generally the very old ones) were not found.  Just one example — in the eighteenth century, land next to the cemetery was expropriated for a shooting range. The Lido, the island on which the cemetery is located, became a fashionable beach resort at the end of the 19th century, and often, in the course of the excavation of a new road or building, tombstones would be found and moved to the cemetery. The cemetery has been painstakingly documented in a monumental work—anyone who traces their ancestry to Venice should consult it. Goldvicht’s installation is not about the specific individuals buried in the cemetery, nor the beautiful epitaphs lovingly composed, although there are many prominent figures in Jewish history to be “visited” there.  This work is about memory and its preservation, the different roles it can have in our lives as well as about the keeper of memory, and his role.

Located in the Palazzo Stampalia Quirinale, which has a collection of Baroque era paintings as well as another art installation, Goldvicht’s installation consists of photographs and films of the cemetery, of Izzo and his house, and lightboxes of the careful “log” that he has been compiling over the years.

Goldvicht’s installation, like many of her other works, includes direct engagement on her part—either in the performance of the work (as in her film Jonah, recently acquired by the Israel Museum), or with the subjects of her work, as in Lullaby, a work she did in which she asked a variety of people employed at the Museum, from the director at the time, James Snyder, to the maintenance workers, to sing a lullaby that was sung to them as children.  This latter work (also at the Israel Museum) has had a huge impact not only on visitors to the museum, but on the employees themselves, who had become themselves part of an exhibit at the place where they work daily— blurring the boundaries between workers, visitors, artists, and works of art, and at the same time, creating a coherent whole, greater than, but also including, the sum of its parts.

In the Venetian work Goldvicht was greatly engaged and influenced by Aldo Izzo, who by “showing her how to die, showed her how to live.”  The work is a meditative and lyrical look at life, through the prism of the final resting place of a once-glorious Jewish community in the once-glorious city of Venice.

In short, it is highly recommended.

If you can’t make it to Venice:  two works by Goldvicht, “My Soul as a Rattle,” a video, and “Little Red Bag,” are currently on display at the HUC Skirball Museum as part of the Jerusalem Biennale in the exhibit “Skyline Artifacts,” curated by Sandra Valabregue ; another is part of the exhibit, “Thou Shalt Not,” at Museum on the Seam in the Jerusalem.”

Photos by Susan Nashman Fraiman




Threatened Beauty

Threatened Beauty

Works by Andi Arnovitz

L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art, Jerusalem

March 16, 2015 through May 15, 2015

Like a flying carpet, Andi Arnovitz’ latest works transport us to a world of gem-like color, where aesthetics and destruction meet in a deceptively beautiful dystopia.  Her current show, “Threatened Beauty,” which opened March 16, 2015 at the L.A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art in Jerusalem, contains some thirty works that deal directly or indirectly with subjects on the world’s mind right now, a nuclear Iran and the reign of terror and destruction by ISIS. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent controversial speech in Congress focused the world’s attention on the threat posed by Iran’s thrust towards nuclear power, yet also referenced that civilization’s glorious past.

Arnovitz has taken one aspect of that past, Iran’s rich artistic heritage, and, with watercolor and collage, used the intricate and colorful motifs of traditional Persian and Oriental art—rugs and miniatures—to portray both the fear and dissonance of life led in Israel, which borders on Syria, where ISIS operatives are fighting, and which is within missile range of an Iran that is at most three years away from the uranium bomb by their own admission and that calls Israel a festering Zionist tumor. In the words of the artist:

“These new creative works reflect this tension-  the majestic beauty- the riot of color, the magnificent decoration, the meticulous craftsmanship of these arts which I so love on the one hand, and the potential for disaster and my own personal fears on the other.”

The works depict both the prelude to potential destruction—as in “Facing Jerusalem” or “Fordow Underground” (one of the underground reactors hidden from inspectors until 2009) and some of the imagined results of destruction, but in a deceptively beautiful way.  The fish floating in “Heavy Water II” could be part of a royal aquarium or fountain, so life-like and tranquil, if not for the realization that they have the glassy and vacant eyes of dead creatures.

"Heavy Water II"
“Heavy Water II”

“Mutant Flora and Fauna,” takes traditional Persian artistic motifs and turns them into new and strange creations; “Displaced” shows endless rows of individuals, both adults and children, moving to unknown destinations in the wake of destruction. In “The Tipping Point”—black iridescent Iranian oil flows underground, but at any given moment it could be ignited to unleash an inferno. What might bring that moment on?

"The Tipping Point"
“The Tipping Point”

The work “Thirteen Boys,” deals with 13 teenagers who were summarily executed by ISIS for watching the Asian Cup soccer game on television in Mosul in January 2015.

"Thirteen Boys"
“Thirteen Boys”

Words do not do justice to these works, which are at once both visually pleasing and deeply disturbing.  How  can this tension be sustained?  Could the heirs of such a rich and aesthetic civilization unleash destruction?  One’s answer may depend on where one sits. Let us hope that these works will not be prophetic, but only serve as a cautionary tale, a kind of “Thousandth and Second Night”  that will remain in the realm of the imaginary.

Arnovitz is a prolific and versatile artist, working in many media, from textiles to ceramics, in black and white and in color. Her themes include the plight of the Agunah, the delicate balance between Jewish law and Jewish life, and the anxieties of life in general and particularly of living in the Middle East:  suicide bombings and a nuclear Iran. This show offers an opportunity to see another facet of the artist’s fascinating body of work. The L. A. Mayer Museum for Islamic Art  is to be commended for exhibiting these works and confronting the questions raised by “Threatened Beauty.”




Daniel Silva, Gabriel Allon and the Birth of Israeli Art

What makes a work of art or literature memorable is not only the craft involved, but its truth. A work doesn’t have to depict “real” events to ring true. Just recently, an example came up when I read a book by Daniel Silva, the bestselling writer
of a series of thrillers based around a fictional Mossad agent and art restorer, Gabriel Allon. In Silva’s “The English Girl,” a minor and authentic detail from the book offers a hint to the beginnings of Israeli art. A walk in downtown
Jerusalem brings you to the street of the purported home of art restorer
and Mossad agent Gabriel Allon, Silva’s protagonist and hero of many of his novels.
Silva, in his afterward, makes a point of mentioning that the Mossad never used that apartment and that the connection is purely fictional. In “The English Girl,” Allon’s apartment is set in a building at 16 Narkiss Street – which as of this writing doesn’t exist. However, besides that clever touch, it is not by coincidence that Silva placed Allon’s home on “the quiet leafy lane” known as Narkiss Street. Narkiss is Hebrew for narcissus, however the street is not named for the flower. The placement of Allon’s apartment on this street, as many of the references in the book, was not chosen by chance. As Silva himself writes, the apartment’s location is very close to the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, where Silva’s hero Allon studied, and in fact, the original Bezalel building is located around the corner on today’s Shmuel HaNagid Street. The Bezalel school was founded in 1906 by a Lithuanian Jewish sculptor named Boris Schatz (1866-1932).

Schatz, the epitome of a peripatetic Jew, studied in Russia and Paris. His sculpture of Mattathias, the father of the Maccabees, made a strong impression on the Prince of Bulgaria when he saw it in Paris in 1895. Bulgaria had become independent only in 1878 and was in the process of defining itself as a nation. The Prince invited Schatz to come and establish a school of national art there. Schatz’ mission in Bulgaria held within it the seeds of personal tragedy—his wife ran off with one of his students, taking their daughter with her. However, his time in Bulgaria also held within it the seeds of his future. In 1903, Schatz would convince Theodor Herzl, father of the Zionist movement, that the new Jewish homeland needed an art school. And so in 1906, Schatz set off for Jerusalem with a few teachers, his experience in Bulgaria, and a dream. Schatz saw himself as part prophet, part adventurer rolled into one – and was often seen dressed in the incongruous combination of a long white jallabia and a pith helmet. Ever cognizant of the importance of symbols, Schatz chose to name the school after the Biblical Bezalel ben Uri, the first Jewish artist, who built the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:1-5). The school moved to it historic building in 1908.


Schatz established over 30 departments there — many of which taught crafts,
such as rug-making and basketry, to help the Jews of Jerusalem become financially self-sufficient. In addition, Schatz began to collect art and archaeological artifacts, as well as plants and animals, both alive and stuffed, so that the students could draw inspiration from their surroundings and incorporate the local flora and fauna in their works. This collection was formalized into a museum in 1925 under the curatorship
of Mordechai Narkiss (1898-1957). Narkiss was from Poland, and like many of the early Zionists, took on a Hebrew name–in this case the name of a fragrant flower, appropriate for one who made art his life’s work. This humble museum’s art and ethnography collections later formed the kernel of today’s Israel Museum, established in 1965. Schatz was an indefatigable promoter of Bezalel, and traveled endlessly to sell Bezalel wares and raise money. My family owns a spice box made in the Mandate years at Bezalel that was probably purchased by my grandparents at one such sale.
The shape of this olive wood spice box is clearly based on Absalom’s
Pillar, a first century BCE funerary monument located at the foot of the Mount of Olives.


Items such as these made their way into many Jewish homes of the
pre-State period, offering tangible anchors to the Land of Israel and the Zionist enterprise. Schatz had mixed his own finances with that of the school and this disorder ultimately resulted in the school’s bankruptcy and closure in 1929. Schatz did not give up, however, and while making a last ditch effort to raise funds in order to reopen the school under his stewardship, he died in Denver, Colorado. It took six months to raise the money to bring his body back to Jerusalem. Schatz’ final resting place is located on the Mount of Olives, near the Ben Yehuda family.


Part of his epitaph reads: “Here lies, until the end of days, Professor Boris Schatz, the creator of Hebrew art in its homeland, for which he went through the crucible of suffering and fell, far from the Jerusalem he loved.” Fortunately, the story of Bezalel did not end with Schatz’ death. The Bezalel Academy reopened in 1935 in the format of a more modern art school, and continues to thrive to this very day. In the early 1980’s, the school relocated to the rebuilt campus of the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus, which had been forced to close in 1948. Today, the wheel turns again, and Bezalel is in the process of moving back to downtown Jerusalem. The Architecture Department has already returned to one of the original buildings. To bring us back to the “house” of Gabriel Allon: the streets of Jerusalem are named by a committee, often choosing a theme for a specific locale.
It is therefore no surprise that the street next to the old art school building is Bezalel Street, nor that the one leading up to the Bezalel building from King George Street is named after Schatz, or that the street around the corner is named for his devoted assistant, Mordechai Narkiss.


Schatz’ dream of art in Jerusalem ultimately came true-the Jewish people
became artists again in their land. Some of these also became reluctant warriors, as did Silva’s protagonist. So should you visit Jerusalem, take a walk downtown to the old Bezalel Building which now houses Jerusalem’s Artist’s House and a restaurant, and think of the visionary Schatz, his assistant Narkiss, and…Gabriel Allon.