The Arts: Sculpting a Landscape
Israel is dotted with magnificent outdoor art that both draws attention to the grandeur of the country’s hills and vales and pays homage to its history.On a windswept hilltop close to Israel’s northern tip sits The Roaring Lion.
The stone monument commemorates Joseph Trumpeldor and his comrades who fell in the pivotal 1920 battle of Tel-Hai that secured a Jewish hold on the Galilee panhandle.
Official memorial ceremonies are held in the plaza in front of the statue, and generations of Israeli students and soldiers have stood at attention there to honor the war hero credited with the dying words, “It is good to die for our country.”
On the other side of the highway leading to the Lebanese border is the ultramodern Tel-Hai Industrial Park: almost three acres of sleek structures, including 11 export-oriented companies and two museums, built around a manicured lawn filled with sculptures.
A grassy field on the southern slope of the hill between the Lion and the park is punctuated by large man-made sculptures of rough-hewn basalt boulders and wood, which enhance and interpret the landscape.
The idea that culture is as essential to national rebirth as claiming and defending the land was articulated by Martin Buber at the 1901 Zionist Congress in Basel: “If we do not address the spiritual question, it would be as if we viewed the human organism as nerves and muscles and bones and vessels but did not recognize the existence of the soul.”
From sculpture gardens and memorials in such formal settings as the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem, both in Jerusalem, to smaller pieces that commemorate local heroes or celebrate the land, Israeli artists have captured the soul of their rugged, beautiful country and people. However, the points of the Tel-Hai triangle of art highlight central themes in the history of outdoor sculpture in the country. Each landmark has made a unique contribution to the cultural and spiritual face of the Jewish homeland.
The Roaring Lion was the first Zionist sculpture on the soil of Palestine. It is no accident that it was also the first memorial site: For decades after its 1932 creation much of Israeli outdoor art consisted of commemorative monuments.
The 13-foot sitting lion with its head thrown back in a triumphant roar was made by sculptor Avraham Melnikov. Like Trumpeldor, Melnikov was a Russian-born pioneer. In his monument, he sought to bridge European artistic tradition with the motif of the victorious return of the Jews to their homeland. But he had no local tradition to build on.
“He chose [a] lion because it is a universal heraldic image of majesty, heroism, defense,” said Gilit Ivgi, a traveling lecturer in art history. “But he wanted to introduce Oriental elements to make it localized, special, different from the West. The irony is that to find these elements he went back to Europe, to the museums of Berlin, Paris and London, and looked at Mesopotamian art. Indeed, he introduced some Assyrian elements, such as the lion’s stylized curls.”
Since the Lion, Israel has been adorned with hundreds of memorials, and native artists have developed a unique, abstract and minimalist style.
“The history of sculpture in Israel is embodied in the history of the memorial sites,” said Ivgi.
Until the mid-20th century, these sites typically expressed the Zionist myths of heroism and settlement—a prime example is a statue of the Shomer (guard) Alexander Zeid on his horse, in the Jezreel Valley.
A turning point came in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the idea of creating outdoor sculpture for its own sake emerged. At the same time, artists began to introduce a more critical, political and personal approach into their work. With Israel firmly established, artists felt freer to reach for universal themes of connection to the earth, life and death, God and human, culture and nature.
One of Israel’s leading designers of memorial sites is Dalia Meiri, 54, a native of the cooperative farm of Moledet in the Jezreel Valley, who currently lives and works in the communal village of Yuvalim in the Upper Galilee. Her résumé lists 12 memorial sites and cemeteries in Israel, among dozens of other outdoor projects from Tel-Hai in the north to Mitzpe Ramon in the south.
Meiri built her first memorial at Moledet in 1977. The piece is a large circle of natural basalt stones surrounded by the beauty of local farmland; its sublime simplicity invites a quiet, solemn gathering. That was Meiri’s idea. “The memorial site is intended to be a meeting place for…Remembrance Day services and a place of communion all year round,” she wrote in a catalog of her work. “I chose a circle as the simplest shape accepted for gatherings but it also has significance connected with the circle of life and burial rituals.”
Until the mid-1980’s, Meiri worked almost exclusively on memorial sites. At the time, they were the only opportunity to create large-scale landscape pieces. One of her innovations was faucet sculptures set outside cemeteries, which fulfilled the Jewish ritual of washing hands on leaving a gravesite while blending with the overall site design. “There are places where there was no religious awareness, such as kibbutzim, and they didn’t have faucets, they didn’t have the awareness of purity and impurity. But it was also important for me to introduce the element of water as a symbol of life at the cemetery.”
As a 30-year guide for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, and the wife of a fellow guide and geologist, Meiri’s connection to the land runs deep. Although she has studied and worked throughout the world—Italy, Austria, Japan and Norway—she prefers working in Israel and with local materials. Meiri has used a variety of media and done smaller-scale pieces, but her stone, steel and wood art has made a definite impact on the landscape and the artists who came after her.
Her giant Windows on the Landscape in Nazareth and Afula, 10-foot-high stone-and-wood frames, evoke doors of ancient synagogues and fortresses that stand alone on mountains in the Galilee, the buildings they belonged to long gone. Other works are constructed of huge slabs of limestone erected on the margins of highways. “I am one of the first artists in Israel who placed natural, uncarved rocks as works of art,” she said. Since then the idea has been copied, including by Arab artists in the Galilee. “The stone has power and is connected to the land,” she said. One formation, Mitlol Tzurim, was built along the highway leading to the Tefen industrial park; Meiri has six statues at Tefen.
Museums in industrial parks are part of a grand scheme by businessman Stef Wertheimer to merge art and industry in what he calls the “third stage of Zionism”—economic independence—after settlement and military might. There are currently four industrial parks—Tefen, Tel-Hai, Omer and Lavon—and others in the planning stage. The oldest and biggest is Tefen. Wertheimer’s company, Iscar, a precision-tool producer, is located there, as are 20 other exporters and five museums: a sculpture garden, an art gallery, an industry museum, an antique-car collection and a museum of German Jewry.
“The idea is to bring into an industrial area art in its own right—not just as something for people to come and see, but as the product of serious research, writing and documentation,” said Ruthi Ofek, curator of the Tefen Open Museum. “Mr. Wertheimer uses art to draw the public to industrial areas…to know that industry can be beautiful, not something unpleasant. This is an original idea…. Sure there are industrial parks with works of art in them, but here we are talking about serious museum work at the heart of an industrial complex.”
All of Wertheimer’s spacious campuses feature modern, low-slung buildings built around expansive lawns enhanced by outdoor art. The open grounds and backdrop of sky and land provide a dramatic setting for the stone, bronze, iron, wood, marble, clay and steel creations, many of which are large scale.
Tefen has about 100 sculptures—all decidedly Israeli. For example, one outstanding piece, Promises Promises by Ilan Averbuch (see page 2), is a modern interpretation of the return of the biblical spies to the desert bearing the fruit of Israel. The large stone grapes, slung on a yoke and placed between bent wooden posts, is a reminder of how fruitful the land has proven.
“Both the industry and the art serve the same object, and that is Zionism,” said Ofek. “Through industry Israel will achieve economic independence. And through art, industry is made attractive and work, a positive experience.
“Our goal is not to harm the landscape,” she added. “The industrial buildings are low and we maintain all of the natural growth of the land of Israel. The sculptures are integrated into the landscape and enhance it.”
Leading stone sculptor David Fine is another artist whose work is prominently displayed in Tefen. He was one of the organizers of a series of sculpting contests and programs in Tel-Hai. The events, which are no longer held, brought together sculptors from Israel and abroad and turned the Tel-Hai field into a sort of open-air museum garden with 60 pieces that dot the landscape below The Roaring Lion.
Fine’s The Arch on the Tel-Hai slope, made of 10-to-15-ton basalt stones connected by nothing but gravity, speaks of the artist’s link to the area. “The older I get the more connected I am to what is near my house,” said the 77-year-old sculptor. “I used to work in marble and look for exotic stones to work with. Then I realized there is all this basalt near my house…. The stones I work with have many scratches…from the ploughs of people who lived here hundreds of years ago. It makes me feel like a link in a chain.
“There are a lot of historic landmarks around here. The first arch in the world is here at Tel Dan. It was made about 4,000 years ago as the entrance to the city of Dan…. Then arches were forgotten for another 2,000 years until the Romans supposedly discovered the arch. For me The Arch is a connection with the distant past, the place, the achievement of people in construction.”
Fine embodies a synthesis of practical and spiritual Zionism. He made aliya from South Africa in 1948 to join the fight for Israel’s independence and was a founding member of Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch. “From the first day I worked in sculpture,” he said. “When I worked in the fish ponds I sculpted in mud. I was kibbutz secretary but I didn’t stop sculpting for one day. Today, when I look at the valley and see how full it is of lights, I remember how once we didn’t believe we would see this.”
Fine built his Arch in 1983, during the first of the Tel-Hai events. “I will never forget the fear the arch would collapse when I dug out the dirt that I used to prop it up during construction,” he said. “But it has been standing for more than 20 years, through fires, rockets from Lebanon that fell right near it, even earthquakes. It is still standing.”