The Israeli Scene:
Politics, Painting, and Other Matters
As it recedes into the past, the Suez-Sinai war may produce only labored rhetorical echoes in the House of Commons, or lingering heartburn in the State Department, but in Israel it looks more and more like a kind of watershed—at least on the short-term view, which is the one Israel lives by. In the space of the subsequent two and a half years, the churning dust of the previous decade has begun to settle, and the more or less long-range problems appear to have crystallized. Financial crises and tenuous coalitions, the struggle to homogenize ethnically disparate communities, the entrenchment of militant mediocrity in the arts, and the hardening arteries of a self-perpetuating “Establishment” which periodically tries to rejuvenate itself for lack of responsible alternative leadership, seem to be the permanent problems calling for solution—though the longer you live with them the greater the danger of feeling them part of the order of creation rather than remediable blemishes. Thus many factors that long seemed transitional now appear to be abiding aspects of the Israeli scene or situation. The familiar sense of siege is still there, but it has been pushed back a few yards in the individual consciousness, though there are recurrent reminders of the hostility of the environment. The recent Syrian shelling in the north that caused a million pounds’ worth of damage and the incidents that have followed it, if continued, may well provoke sharp retaliation and renewed tension. Nor has the Israeli’s sense of isolation been greatly lessened, but by turning increasingly to internal problems he can more easily ignore it, except when it appears as cultural provincialism—where isolation is imposed by the four solid walls of the local mind. This election year may exaggerate certain aspects of Israeli life, but it also tends to illuminate some others.
At the moment even the elections are overshadowed by the big new immigration wave from East Europe, chiefly Rumania. It would seem that the East European governments, finding their Jews unassimilable into totalitarianism, and also sorely needing the jobs and positions occupied by Jews for the new generation of completely Communist-trained intelligentsia, have decided to solve the double problem by encouraging their emigration. Israel is glad to have them, though this sudden wave, long hoped for but only half expected, presents grave absorption and employment problems. A combination of compulsory and voluntary loans and still heavier taxation—in addition to fund-raising in the Diaspora—is being rapidly implemented. But the difficulties are manifold: for example, students at the Hebrew University medical school wonder if their years invested in intensive study may not be made superfluous by the influx of East European doctors; and young Israeli couples who waited long for a flat at last in sight or available have had to forfeit their place in the queue to new immigrant families.
On the political scene, the thinking and maneuvering in Mapai revolve around the question of the succession. Ben Gurion is hale and hearty, in fact ten years younger now than he was three or four years ago, having been rejuvenated by the ministrations of a physical culturist. It is, nevertheless, entirely conceivable that he may retire after the next Knesset (to be elected in November) runs its span, or even before. There are three elements involved in the maneuvering for the succession: the Old Guard and its political machine, the Young Guard, and the present members of the Cabinet and their adherents. The “struggle” between the Old and Young Guards has recently attracted considerable attention, but the real state of affairs is not so widely known. Several months ago, at a party conference held at the Kfar Hayarok, a decision was adopted formally dissolving the factions in Mapai, but this was a move without much real significance, as I hope to make clear. The Old Guard, or “Bloc” (from its Hebrew designation, Goosh), is really the party machine, the network of party secretariats and organizations controlled by Shraga Netzer, a Tel Aviv municipal employee (he is in charge of garbage collection) and party boss of a familiar type. It was the organized Bloc that agreed to dissolve at Ben Gurion’s insistence, at the Kfar Hayarok meeting, but this was a purely formal gesture. The network of personal obligations and patronage remains, operable at the lifting of a telephone receiver, and it showed its strength in the recent Mapai elections. Except for a few younger men in governmental positions, the Bloc’s candidates won overwhelmingly: to keep the Young Guard out was its objective all along.
This young Guard consists of a group of about sixty to seventy men in their late thirties or early forties who share a common past of pre and post-State high-echelon service in the “illegal” immigration, the Haganah, and then the army. Some of their better-known leaders are General Moshe Dayan; Shimon Peres, Director General of the Ministry of Defense; Aharon Remez, former Air Force commander and Solel Boneh executive and now the administrative director of the Weizmann Institute of Science; and Professor Nathan Rotenstreich, who heads the philosophy department of the Hebrew University. This Young Guard has met desultorily over the years as particular problems arose, but it is not organized, has no party machinery, and is united only by personal ties and a common past; indeed, by the terms of the Kfar Hayarok decision it may not organize but only meet for theoretical discussion. Thus as things now stand, all the cards are held by the Bloc. However, it should be pointed out that many of the young men are very close to Ben Gurion (Dayan, Peres), and that the Bloc has no one who can exercise the charismatic attraction of General Dayan. A figure close to the Bloc—in fact not far from being in charge of it—who has emerged from political obscurity to renewed prominence and power is Pinhas Lavon, the Secretary General of the Histadrut Trade Union Confederation. It was his breaking up of Solel Boneh, the Histadrut contracting and industrial monopoly, into its component parts that brought him into the limelight; no one had thought it could be done. Thirteen Solel Boneh managers resigned when the reorganization was carried out, feeling themselves indispensable and expecting to be coaxed to reconsider, but they have remained out and the shake-up has taken effect.
As for the Cabinet members, they are being pushed apart or pulled together in accordance with the exigencies of political survival. Mrs. Golda Meir, Zalman Aranne, and Mordechai Namir, for example, have strong ties with the Bloc, while Levi Eshkol will have to make up his mind, and throw in his lot. Generally speaking, Ben Gurion, who chiefly works and lives on the governmental plane, feels himself irked by the demands (for posts and patronage) of the Bloc, and wants to be free for more urgent matters of state and policy.
He recently brought off a stroke of the greatest political acuteness in his dealings with the National Religious party, which left the coalition on the issue of “who is a Jew” for registration purposes: anyone who claims to be one, and does not belong to another religion, as the three labor parties, Mapai, Mapam, and Ahdut Ha’avoda saw it; or only those who could be considered Jewish under the halachah—if the mother is Jewish—as the National Religious party insisted. The issue had arisen in connection with the non-Jewish wives of East European immigrants, or more specifically, their children, whom the parents wished to register as Jews. It was hard not to feel that this issue was an artificial one, like most of the others that had occasioned previous breakups of the coalition by the National Religious party. Of the fifteen coalition crises over the past ten years, nine were precipitated by the religious parties; four out of the nine resulted in the coalition’s break-up. In these instances both the Religious party and Mapai had shown their readiness to compromise and reconstitute the coalition, the Religious because they had no desire to go on without the patronage they enjoyed in their ministries (Religious Affairs, Posts, Social Welfare, usually) and Mapai because the Religious party, a convenient partner, followed it on foreign policy, had no marked economic views, and concentrated on its own preserve: defense of vested Orthodox interests. In fact much could be said for the NRP being pushed into its various demonstrations by the holier-than-thou intransigence and extremism of Agudat Yisrael and Naturei Karta, who claim a greater zeal in pursuit of Orthodox aims (most recently, the agitation against the “mixed” swimming pool in Jerusalem, and its echo, a “mixed” wading pool for toddlers in the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo). However, though the negotiations were protracted, and pursued earnestly by the NRP, it would seem that its failure to return to the coalition was pretty much the doing of Mapai, and, we understand, of Ben Gurion in particular. The calculation he is assumed to have made is this: that a number of disaffected marginal religious voters voted for the nationalist right-wing Herut party because the NRP was in the coalition; now they would switch to the NRP. Ben Gurion, unworried by the slight gains to the NRP, would be happy about the loss to Herut. On the other hand, many NRP voters might well feel a vote for that party in opposition would be wasted, and are likely to vote for Mapai, as best representing their economic and national interests.
Ben Gurion’s shrewdest move was to appoint the non-party Sephardi rabbi of Tel Aviv, Moshe Toledano, to the National Religious sinecure of the Ministry for Religious Affairs. The NRP was caught napping, though it tried to organize opposition to Rabbi Toledano’s appointment, the two Chief Rabbis “advising” him not to accept the appointment, and the religious papers trying stronger pressure. Rabbi Toledano, with a mind of his own, refused to surrender and there was indeed something odd (on the merits of the case, without politics) in opposing the appointment of a venerable (seventy-eight), learned, and wholly Orthodox rabbi as Minister for Religious Affairs. The three labor parties have been doing all they can to assure Rabbi Toledano’s success, to show that the country’s religious affairs can be run without politics, and have compromised on several matters of principle (e.g. suppressing the Sabbath bus in a predominantly secular Haifa suburb). Furthermore, Rabbi Toledano claimed that Sephardim were not accorded their proper share of religious representation, and that the National Religious party (Mizrahi) had more or less appropriated Heichal Shlomo, the palatial “Supreme Religious Center” built with contributions from the British magnate Isaac Wolfson, for their own party purposes—a charge hard to deny.
It should also be recalled that a very large percentage of recent immigration is of North African or Middle Eastern provenance, and the appointment of a Sephardi to a ministerial post (the other Sephardi minister is that of Police, Bechor Shitreet, and his Inspector General is the very able Joseph Nahmias), would also be helpful at election time, though in all probability Ben Gurion is both serious and sincere in his repeatedly expressed desire to bring as many Jews of Eastern origin as possible into managerial and administrative positions. The problem is clearly related to the availability of qualified personnel; one result of Mapai’s having pushed representatives of the Oriental communities into municipal posts and councils is that they are demanding political patronage in proportion to their numbers—a demand difficult to turn aside with the justifiable excuse that many aiming at administrative posts are not really qualified.
Obviously, the ethnic question is a sensitive one, and the problems it has raised in the educational system have generally been played down or obscured by sociological jargon. Research carried out by the Szold foundation and the Ministry of Education tends to indicate that children of Oriental immigrants (including those born in Israel) have difficulty in keeping up with their counterparts of European origin (they show weakness in abstract thinking, tend to self-centered affective reactions, etc., etc.). This lag is explained by environmental and social factors (Oriental children are not expected to ask questions at home, etc., etc.) Strenuous efforts are made to avoid a separation out by academic ability so as to avoid ethnic separation—which, though helping to solve the teaching problem, would aggravate the social one. (All this is of course not unfamiliar to Americans.) Efforts to get more children of Oriental origin to attend high school are often met by the opposition of their indigent parents, interested in having them enter the labor market. A great many non-competitive scholarships have been provided by the Ministry of Education—more than can be taken up; one high school teacher told me that almost weekly he is requested to provide a pupil for some scholarship, but his pupils are (for the most part) already loaded with scholarships. In addition, special methods of instruction for these children are being explored. In all fairness, it may be said that the state is handling the entire problem with great tact.
One more political event remains to be recorded, affecting Mapam. Mapam has traditionally stood for a neutralist foreign policy which, like neutralism elsewhere, has tended to involve a coldness toward the West balanced by a decided warmth toward what it calls “the camp of the revolution, progress, etc., etc.” Yet in a pinch, as during the Sinai campaign, the Zionist self of the party has predominated, though it always has its extreme left wing. One of the extreme left-wingers, Aharon Cohen, a party Arab expert, has been charged with espionage for a foreign power, whose agents he allegedly met rather secretively in the vicinity of his kibbutz, but only for friendly scholarly discussions, according to him. The story of his arrest was leaked by the Ahdut Ha’avoda newspaper. It has done Mapam very little good, the conclusion being that that sort of policy leads to that sort of activity—though Ben Gurion came to the defense of the pioneering past and loyalty of his coalition partners’ party. But Israelis are very sensitive to security matters, and if Cohen is convicted, Mapam will have something to live down.
The vicissitudes of the political “Establishment” have their parallel on the “literary front,” where the old guard of critics and writers have been fighting a vigorous action against some rather encouraging phenomena. An outstanding cause célèbre has underlined the profound split between the generations in Israel, with its accompanying crisis in ideology. The occasion was the appearance of S. Yizhar’s mammoth novel, Days of Ziklag, a two-volume, 1,143-page book dealing with about one week in the life of an Israeli squad in the War of Independence, a work to which Yizhar, the leading Hebrew prose writer of the younger generation (he is forty), devoted some five or six years. The storm broke over the failure to award the Bialik Fiction Prize to Yizhar, who was the obvious choice and the only real candidate, works of this scope and seriousness being rare enough in Hebrew writing. The judges stated they had not awarded the prize because “no work was considered good enough,” an ironic claim considering the books that have won the prize in the past. It should be emphasized that one of the three judges, Professor Simon Halkin, head of the University’s Hebrew literature department, dissented and declared that he would never again act as judge for a Hebrew literary award.
Now what was the fuss about?—for the papers were full of the subject. Yizhar’s novel has its serious faults, but his generation of Hebrew writers has little to show that could compare with it. Its chief defects are weakness of characterization and over-expansion, the book being twice as long as its material allows. Then, too, the story is mainly presented through the stream-of-consciousness technique, which cannot by itself successfully carry such an extended narrative burden. Nevertheless, the book is serious, and even profound, full of true insights about the men of Yizhar’s generation. But the novel’s foremost claim to distinction remains its style: Yizhar has created a rich, flexible Hebrew prose, full of colloquial vigor but suited to every need, which can and will be exploited by the Hebrew writers who follow him. There is something rather Faulknerian in this style, in the virtuoso variety of prose rhythms, in the long periods, and in the expansion of the moment and its atomization into its minutest components till the last moral nuance is squeezed out.
However, the literary question was not the central one. What disturbed Yizhar’s detractors was his portrait of the youth of the war generation. He showed them as they were, warts and all, confused about their mission, bitter and cynical by turns—in short, as recognizably human in their Israeli context, and not the paragons of stereotyped iconography. (A revealing remark was made by one of the judges, who said that a posthumous collection of the juvenilia of soldiers who fell in the war, called Scrolls of Fire, was a far better book. This Scrolls of Fire has a certain sentimental and historical—but little literary—interest.)
The position Yizhar’s unit is fighting for is believed to have been the Biblical Ziklag (I Samuel 30 and II Samuel 1), but it later turns out that this identification was erroneous, perhaps a hint that Zion reborn is not necessarily the New Jerusalem. Yizhar’s effort to free himself from the ideological incubus of the preceding generation, to see things as they are, has moved his detractors, the old guard of the literary world, to charge him with representing and advocating what they call “nihilism.” To deny their values apparently means to deny all values; and it would appear that they cannot conceive of the necessity of clearing the ground as well as the air in order to be able to do some solid thinking—and some honest feeling—about present-day Israeli realities. As the educators of Yizhar’s generation, they might well be shocked at his portrayal of the youth movement leader:
“Do you remember Katzman? Arieh Katzman? Boy, was he a character! How long was he our counsellor? The whole winter, a year ago. Arieh Katzman!”—David began excitedly, stopping only to draw at his cigarette—“Boy, how he poked around in our minds! The moment he came to the clubhouse he’d begin. Absolutely everything, every damn thought or feeling, every word or silence. You were a goner. No matter what you said he was at you, pulling your mind apart until there was no more left of it than of the chewed bones in front of a jackal’s cave. Things you never dreamt or thought of, things you never gave a damn about, he would take and make the most important thing on earth, and nothing else counted. He’d come and poke around between every boy and girl, sniffing out the vaguest hint of nothing at all. He’d snatch at every harmless smile, every yawn, every word or shout and begin straight off to tell you what it really meant deep down, deep deep down in the subconscious, until we didn’t know whether we were coming or going. Boy, could he talk, like a politician! And we’d go pale or blush, all guilty sinners, father-killers and mother-rapers, all twisted feelings and deprived childhoods, creeping around all day trying to keep out of other people’s sight and God’s and out of our own too. ‘Know yourself,’ he’d shout at us and our heads would go reeling. Everything simple became complicated, everything straight, crooked, the crooked interesting, and the interesting beautiful—and everything beautiful wasn’t worth a damn—go jump in the lake! Boy, did he make life hell for us! He alone! And we, every damn one of us, smart and dumb, good and bad, went after him like sheep, everyone, the whole damn clubhouse. Morning, noon, and night. Then at night we’d start analyzing, accusing, splitting hairs, committing suicide, in a nutshell—absolutely crazy! Damn it all, in fancy highfalutin’ words, in undertones and overtones we’d confess and confess and confess, whole days and nights! Boy, if I could get my hands on that bastard Katzman now! That know-it-all, with his endless spiel, and those curls and that red mouth of his, I’d tar and feather him and carry him around the town, saying: this is what happens to bastards who pry into your mind and poke around in your guts and drive you nuts! May he rot in hell!”1
Similarly accused of “nihilism,” and with as little cause or sense, is the poet Yehuda Amihai, whose second volume of verse appeared at about the same time, and has resulted in his being called by some critics “the poet of this generation.” This second volume, Two Hopes Ahead, reveals him as a major poet and has consolidated the small revolution in Hebrew poetic diction he had carried out in his first: the immersion of Hebrew verse in spoken rhythms and turns of speech, its final release from the dead hand of Biblical rhetoric and wooden prosody. Combining a child’s-view naivety with a soldier’s bluntness, tenderness with an acute sense of the cost in life and values involved in state-building, he has perfected a poetic instrument capable of catching all the nuances and contradictions of the kaleidoscopic blur of Israeli life. The raisers of the “nihilist” hue and cry have seized on one or two poems they have misread, like the one with the following war-weary refrain (Amihai served in the Haganah, the British army in the Second World War, and then in the Palmach):
I’ve seen that you can live and get along
And decorate the lion’s den, if there’s no
I don’t give a damn if I have to die alone,
But I want to die in my own bed.
They have ignored the extraordinary variety of mood and verse forms encompassed in this slim volume. There is a moving elegy which ends:
And we, like flower stems in a vase,
Are bunched together here in the dark,
Where it’s cramped. And above, over the
There’s a sky of open flowers.
Each has his own flower, but which of us
Down in the cramped darkness, so close
So close to death.
It is not surprising that this sort of mood or insight should disturb adherents of a professional optimism which could allow for this sort of thing in the benighted Galut, but not under the Mediterranean sun! Similarly, the remarkable nine-part tour de force, “The Visit of the Queen of Sheba,” has been least discussed, probably because of its free erotic element, which is illuminated by daring verbal pyrotechnics. (Israeli prudery is becoming proverbial: the censor made the Keita Fodeba “Ballets Africains” dancers put on brassières, which they hadn’t had to do in any other country they toured.2 In fact, such is the pressure of respectability in Israel that a brothel-keeping couple, soon after being brought to trial, committed suicide.) Though he feels very much at home in modern English verse, and knows it well, Amihai’s closest affinity is with a French poet he has never read: Guillaume Apollinaire. There is the same juxtaposition of disparate images, joined in an iron poetic logic.
Amihai creates a world of private values, opposed to the slogans and catchwords of collective virtue, stressing the intimacy and privacies of lovers, constantly transposing the public issue to the private context. He uses Biblical myth brilliantly in “Young David” and “King Saul and I,” treating contrapuntally the demands of greatness (made by the state) and the price paid by the ordinary man (“I want to die in my own bed”). He can also use a traditional Jewish image with full ironic effect, contrasting the moral certainty of a superannuated orthodoxy with his own moral ambiguity (“Poem on My Birthday”):
And my acts contract
And shrink, interpretations
Around them grow, as
The Talmud, suddenly obscure,
Hides on the page,
And Rashi and the Tosaphists
Close in from every side.
A set of forty-seven quatrains closes the volume (their composition was stimulated by Amihai’s reading of the medieval Provençal and Spanish Hebrew poets, who favored the form). A good notion of their quality is given in the following two (translated by Robert Friend):
Once I ran away, but I don’t recall when,
and from which deity.
Therefore I swim through my life as Jonah
in his dark whale through the deep sea.
I have come to terms with my fish because I
am in the bowels of the world. And so is he.
I won’t be abandoning him. He won’t be
* * *
A young soldier lies in spring, cut off from
His body twitters and blooms; his blood
makes no claim,
but bubbles and blabs like a child. The
story is always the same:
the lamb in its mother’s sorrow over the
Both Yizhar and Amihai are saying that the old values no longer guide or explain anything, that in their complex world they have to see and sing things as they are; as Amihai puts it:
I must think many stones
Before I have my own real house,
I invent whole seasons
Till true spring comes.
I write long scrolls
But have no signature as yet. . . .
But the most remarkable and most mature work of art produced in Israel this past year has been created by an older artist, Mordechai Ardon, in his triptych, “The Black Sermon.” It is, to my mind, a great painting, remarkable in more ways than one. The subject is the Nazi holocaust, but the twenty-five years between us and it have grown into something more like a century. it is as if a Jewish artist had had the time to absorb all the significance and horror of that holocaust, beyond the initial cry of protest and gesture of revulsion, and had set it in the perspective of time and in the mirror of eternity. Irony and paradox have been joined to savage indignation. And this fusion grows out of the basic artistic problem. For Ardon is an exquisite colorist and a master of form, and the juxtaposition and marriage of these fundamental elements of his art with the central horror of his subject is the matter before him. He himself was in Germany in 1933, teaching at the Itten Academy in Berlin (in the 20′s he had studied at the Bauhaus with Klee, Feininger, and Kandinsky); none of his pre-1933 paintings survives, so far as he knows.
The side sections of the tripitch are about two yards high and one across, while the central section is two yards high and four yards wide. The first panel is called “The Knight,” and is set in Germany in the spring of 1933. The knight in the center is dreaming his premonition of the nightmare, while the peasant (an allusion to Breughel’s “Fool’s Paradise”) in the upper center, is an ironic counterweight. The dominant colors are pink and a cobalt blue, colors of spring, but the black and violet lower right hint at what the spring will bring forth. Among the houses at the bottom, the Jew’s window is broken. Ardon has let me see some notes he wrote himself: “In the beginning came the spring, the newspaper, and the order of the day; then the boot sang: Krumme Juden ziehn dahin, daher.—‘And the crooked Jews will scurry hither and thither.’” (This last is a quote from a Nazi song.) You can discern the boot perpendicular in the right half. Nevertheless, the note of spring predominates; the subtle harmony of tones is ravishing. Ardon’s colors have a gemlike quality that may derive from childhood recollections of his father’s jeweler’s shop in Poland.
The central panel, called “The Shooting Gallery,” has a most extraordinary effect. Ardon has here produced such a perfect spatial equilibrium on his surface that the spectator’s eye retains its balance at every point: a most precise ratio obtains between form and color and this particular expanse of space. This technical tour de force, this balancing act, has its intrinsic relation to the basic meaning of the picture; for the mode here is irony, as the first panel is lyrical and the third tragic. The irony is apparent in the quotation at the left, and in a Janus-form, of the head of Michelangelo’s Adam (Adam of course means man in Hebrew) facing the double Adam’s head peering from the house at the right: man facing man. At the upper left, the disembodied hands of God and Adam are tangled in cords: does God direct the world, does man?—it is a nightmare without solution. At the center left are three puppet-theater backdrops, and then three ranting mouths, their disembodied mustaches beside them; at the bottom, the top of a Jacob’s ladder. As Ardon has written: “At midnight, the ninepins fell into the hole they had dug, as ordered, with their own hands.” The background is a night violet, with green and red to give the nightmare quality.
The third panel is called “The Mouse,” the only survivor, to be seen at the lower right escaping, and which recalls Apollinaire’s lines: “. . . souris du temps, Vous rongez Peu à Peu ma vie.” Or even more precisely, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame: “CLOV: There’s a rat in the kitchen! HAMM: A rat! Are there still rats?” The concentration camp symbols are clear here, the Block Number 5 at the upper left center, the number at the middle right, the ghostly inmate with his yellow badge gazing through the cell window, the furnace at the bottom with the disembodied flames, the disembodiment repeated in the candles in the center, and the smoke (like the furnace door, a magnificently painted passage) bursting from the chimney at the upper left. When I mentioned to Ardon the peculiarly acoustic effect produced on me by the picture, he pointed with amusement to the bell tongues swinging at the top, though of course what had struck me was the tonal counterpoint.
As for the over-all meaning, or approach, Ardon put it well in a story (he is a wonderful raconteur, and was an actor once, he is a short, slight, vivacious man, with features reminiscent of Rembrandt in his later years). He told of how a certain Hebrew actress, when she was a girl back in East Europe, had heard that the husband of her family’s charwoman had been killed in an accident. She rushed home to see how the charwoman would take it. Hiding in a cupboard, she observed the woman’s brother tell her the news, and the woman, who was scrubbing the floor, turned her head for a moment and said, “What, what?”—and went on compulsively scrubbing the floor. “That’s what I was trying to do here,” Ardon says, “this is my What, what? There is no answer, and no escape.” Something of this interrogation of the void can also be found in Ardon’s big triptych (“Traps,” “The House of Cards,” “The Unborn”) in the Amsterdam Stedelijk Museum.
Among other things, Ardon spoke of how he was impressed, on a recent journey to Europe, by the Spaniards and their use of materials (jute, for example)—“sewn coarsely as Jerusalem Jews sew shrouds”—which seemed to him to reflect the monastic tradition, the bareness, roughness, and abnegation of the desert. “In that they are so close to us,” he said, and went on to tell the story of Rabbi Sussia, who fainted in prayer before the ark. Asked why he had fainted, Sussia said he had heard a voice asking him why he wasn’t like Moses: “But I’m not Moses.” Why wasn’t he like David, like Solomon?: “Because I’m neither David nor Solomon.” Why wasn’t he like Sussia?—that was where he fainted. “Between Athens and Jerusalem, I have always belonged to Jerusalem,” Ardon says. So Ardon’s Jewish persona must long for the direct, immediate roughness of bare statement of these Spaniards, but he cannot betray the subtle aesthete in him, the instinct to wrap even death and terror in beauty.
It is hardly necessary to add that Ardon’s symbols are not to be confused with “literary” content: they have their own charged meaning in the purely pictorial context of the canvas. Ardon is concerned with expressing layers of consciousness which call for meaningful symbols, while exploiting all the technical advances of 20th-century painting. He recently returned from a Unesco mission to Europe (where he looked into art teaching methods) and spoke a bit ruefully of how he had found “abstraction in the box seat.” “We’re still on the wagon—others have fallen off—but abstraction is in the box seat and driving full speed ahead.” This apparently affects him, and it is perhaps disturbing for an artist to slowly and painfully work out his own style and perfect it over the years (he is sixty now), to find that a certain element of innovation for its own sake has taken over the reins. He is well aware of the sense of terror communicated by the younger abstractionists, and that it is a true reaction to the world they live in; he himself was greatly refreshed by the Mondrians and Malevitches he saw: “How calm and pure that Mondrian was, as if assuring one that something exists and endures outside of what happened to us.”
But he also remembers the crowds that collected around a Bosch drawing in a Dutch museum, “a drawing of trees with two ears at the sides, as if listening to the forest, and the forest floor strewn with eyes. The picture spoke an unknown language, but spoke it clearly, and the emotion conveyed stirred one’s depths, aroused a profound response of the imagination.” Perhaps there was an oblique hint at why he does not exhibit in Israel in an allusion he made to a Dali—“that conjuror, but a great conjuror!”—he had seen, which also held the spectators’ attention. “There was a sort of dish-shaped pond, over it hung a tree, and from the branch a telephone receiver. No one asked what the receiver was saying to the pond, no one asked insistently what it meant; they looked and the meaning came across.” Perhaps the down-to-earth Israeli temperament, its common-sense shortness on imagination, inhibits him from exposing the works of his imagination to an unsympathetic gaze—but this is only my guess; in René Char’s aphorism, “No bird has the heart to sing in a thicket of questions.”
Virgil Thomson’s recent call for a reorientation of modern music seems to me to be relevant to Ardon’s work: “The tradition of constant change must be thrown overboard and freshness found through other preoccupations. . . . We may well be reduced to seeking innovation through expressivity, instead of expressivity through innovation, and to finding expressivity through sincerity. . . .” This is what Ardon is doing.
As should now be evident, in Israel, as elsewhere in the Western world, there is a perceptible gulf between artist and public, but one is always surprised by spontaneous reactions to first-rate works. Perhaps Israel, so preoccupied with material growth and building, has to rely even more than other countries on its artists for the elements it notably lacks in its daily life: mystery, solitude, concentration, perspective, wholeness, vision. It would be misleading to imply that Amihai and Yizhar, for example, do not have their avid and understanding readers.
As for the much-discussed role of Israel as a well-spring for stimulating and inspiring Jews the world over (a role usually more honored in the breach) it is exemplified in the case of the painter Yehoshua Kovarsky. He came to Israel from Lithuania as a youth, studied in Paris for a while, then returned here, where he became known jokingly as the “recluse of Safad,” because of his modest and retiring nature. In 1951 he went to the U.S., where he made his reputation, and where a good many of his pictures now hang in museums. But he felt that his roots are fed here, and he has been spending the last year in Israel, with valuable results. I think that he is in the real avant-garde of what is likely to become the post-abstractionist movement. One might call his work, for lack of a ready-minted term, symbolic expressionism. He utilizes all the achievements of the last half-century for his own ends: the creation of a world of striking symbolic images drawn up from the depths of his imagination. Many of his more powerful works—there is a new series called “Homage to the Gods”—have the intensity and aura of cult objects, achieved through a very bold use of color, a masterly variety of surface texture, and the deliberate choice of mythical subjects, though these subjects seem to be derived from a sort of pre-memory of the race, while their peculiar forms are uniquely Kovarsky’s own. Recently turned fifty, his potentialities seem richer than ever after his stay here.
Finally, I should like to point out that I may be wrong in my estimate of Israel’s limitations—or, rather, potentialities—as a small country hard-pressed by her own immediate needs. This was brought home to me by an incident I witnessed recently. I was sitting in a café frequented by artists and writers, just opposite the Knesset building. A Burmese, apparently a member of some visiting mission on a long stay (as became evident), came into the café Before sitting down, he went over to the newspaper rack to take a paper. The waitress offered him a copy of the English-language Jerusalem Post. No, he didn’t want that paper, and leafing through the collection, he chose one of the Hebrew dailies, and sat down to read it systematically, and obviously with considerable ease. The fact that this Burmese had thought it worth his while to learn Hebrew may be a premonition, if ever so incipient, of Israel’s possible function in regard to Asia.
1 Translations are by the author, with the one exception indicated.—Ed.
2 Except in New York City, though not in Boston and other American cities.—Ed.