"הזקן": דוד בן-גוריון ומורשתו בראי האמנות בישראל 2010
The "Old Man": David Ben-Gurion and His Legacy in the Mirror of Israeli Art 2010
גלריה לאמנות ע"ש אברהם ברון וגלריית הסנאט, אוניברסיטת בן גוריון בנגב. אוצרים: פרופ' חיים מאור וסטודנטיות בקורס אוצרות [קטלוג]
At the Avraham Baron Art Gallery and at the Senat Gallery, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Curators: Haim Maor and students from the curatorship course (catalog)
“This Little Big Man”
The university named after David Ben-Gurion is celebrating its fortieth anniversary, and we were called to the colors, and were asked to present his figure and legacy in the mirror of Israeli art.
It’s no secret, throughout the campus and in different offices one can see sculptures, photographs, paintings, drawings, and prints featuring the figure of the university’s namesake, the man in the spirit of whom it was established and ran.
We wondered what purpose could an exhibition such as this serve today, and how can it be presented without being perceived as “irrelevant,” “anachronistic,” “pathetic,” etc.
An inspection of artworks displayed in the public sphere – at the university campus or elsewhere in Israel – would reveal that these works immortalize and exalt, realistically or metaphorically, B.G. as a “bigger than life” person. He is immortalized as a brand name, symbol, ethos, leader of stature, founder of the State, an intellectual, or revered secular messiah, etc. In other words, his representation almost always progresses from realism to “sublime” idealism. His portrait is compatible with the model leader idealistically portrayed in art history.
As we started our curatorial work, we were fully aware of the fact that it was a “commissioned exhibition,” in more than one sense. First of all, it was the University President, Prof. Rivka Carmi, who proposed to hold an exhibition dedicated to this theme as part of the events celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the university. Secondly, the exhibition’s configuration was based on existing (historical) works as well as on new works commissioned from contemporary Israel artists.
In essence, the “Old Man” exhibition displays portraits of one person, David Ben-Gurion, as both a model and an object of the works on display. By professional curatorial definition, an exhibition such as this is classified as a theme exhibition. In this case, the process of displaying the works abide by, among others, historical-chronological, style-oriented, iconographic, or medium-based rationales, or a mixture of all the above. The person of the exhibition’s subject would therefore be examined through the various perspectives of the artists who reacted to his outward appearance, personality, image, doings and undoings as a human being, a leader, a symbol, and a myth.
Thus, for example, in our case, chronological-historical approach may start with ideologically motivated artists, contemporaries of Ben-Gurion, who favored, exalted and supported, or attacked, trampled and criticized him; and continue with younger artists, “who knew not the old man.”
Stylistic cross section may include portraits ranging stylistically between idealism, realism, expressionism, conceptualism, postmodernism, etc.
Medium-based cross section may include disparate groups of paintings, drawings, news and staged photographs, illustrations, caricatures, comics, posters, sculptures, cinematic footage, and digital media works.
However, we were looking for something else.
We preferred to display the works according to creative, free, associative contextual rationale that combines historical-canonical works with new or contemporary ones. In this display method, works from various periods and made with different media either confirm or conflict each other as they examine a common subject from different angles.
The work on the exhibition was replete with surprises:
Despite his central place in the history of Israel, up to now not a single exhibition was dedicated to the figure of Ben-Gurion in art. In 1991, the “Portrayal of the Leader in Israeli Art” exhibition, curated by Dr. Gideon Effrat, was held at the Museum of Art Ein Harod. The portrait of B.G. was exhibited within this context alongside those of many other leaders. Batya Doner curated another colossal exhibition in 1989 at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. That exhibition, “To Live With the Dream,” examined chronologically a number of themes that had characterized Israeli art and visual communication from the 1930s through the 1960s: stereotypes, culture heroes, picture of a place, and border and territory. The portraits of political leaders – including that of B.G. – appeared there under the heading “Culture Heroes.”
In 1978-79, an exhibition dedicated to one leader, “Herzl in Profile: Herzl’s Image in the Applied Arts” (curator: David Tartakover), was held at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art on the occasion of Israel’s 30th anniversary celebrations.
These few exhibitions (and several others that weren’t mentioned here) indicate that Israeli curators shy and refrain from entering this art field, which they perceive as too “nationalistic” and “recruited,” or as representing an art in the service of the state, designed perhaps to promote extra-artistic political interests. Elsewhere, the situation is quite different. Figures of past leaders and politicians feature in many exhibitions; Napoleon, Lincoln, Kennedy, Obama, Elizabeth II, Mao Tse-Tung, or – no analogy intended – Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler – to name but a few.
However, we have learned that B.G.’s figure did feature high in the works of a long line of his contemporary artists – photographers, illustrators, caricaturists, poster designers, painters, sculptors, filmmakers, etc. Their works were exhibited or published in real time and either had some public resonance, or sunk in the quagmire of historical oblivion. Albeit historical works related to the hegemonic collective memory, we found out that some have had personal and private memory connotations as well. This is evidenced in the personal selections made by my students for this exhibition. They had rummaged through national and private archives and collections such as the GPO (Government Press Office) archive, the BGU Tuviahu Archive, Zvi Meitar collection, Midreshet Sde Boker Archives, Hashomer Hatzair Archives Yad Yaari in Givat Haviva. The orientation of some of these archives and collections is clearly personal, or only relevant to a certain sector of the general public.
Approaching younger artists, “who knew not the old man” personally or publicly, we found out that they watch him through the filters of visual history. Their gaze was nurtured by rumors: texts, documents, films and newsreels, press photographs, posters and caricatures, iconic paintings and sculptures of the previous generations. We have learned that the current generation’s citations and appropriations do not amount to mere critical interventions concerning the image of Ben-Gurion, or that of a country, which, they believe, does not live up to his vision. By openly intervening and manipulating the visual, historical and artistic materials they refer to the rewriting history and sometimes also propose an alternative or fictional history of their own.
Some of contemporary artists clung to, relied on, or were captured by certain traits of the man and his way of life and demeanor, as presented in the media: his daily walk, headstand, mane of hair, presence, rhetorical prowess, fields of interest and disinterest, etc.
As we met the lion’s share of the participating artists, we heard time and again personal stories about “their Ben-Gurion,” sometimes based on an anecdote, and at other times on a family object, a drawing, a photograph…
The personal became the exhibition’s dominant Archimedean point that in many ways determined its nature.
Historical and Personal Narratives
In his aphoristic essay “On the Concept of History” (1940), Walter Benjamin emphasized that official history is always written by the triumphant, or rather by embedded historiographers, which sit by the side, on the lap, or in the palaces, of rulers and sympathize with their deeds. The history of the vanquished and oppressed is rarely written.
Today the situation is different: the collective voices of formerly hushed and voiceless, repressed ethnic, social and gender groups is proudly heard and written with passion. There are those who unhappily protest against this state of affairs, saying that “history as a science” is being replaced by “history as his- or her-story.” The extensive volumes of the collective chronicler as well as the diary-notebook of the private one are aligned with each other. The personal narrative is being written and distributed, as it crosses or smashed against and within the seemingly “triumphant” dominant-hegemonic historical narrative. Diaries of people such as Anne Frank, Etty Hillesum, or Sebastian Haffner turn out to be fascinating, important and trustworthy historical documents just like (if not more than) the diaries of this or that contemporary leader.
Thus, alongside “historiographical” artists, there are those who watch B.G. through the lens of their life, through particular momentary encounter, or encounters. As regular citizens or witnesses, who happened to rub shoulders with fame in a certain moment in history, they ended up influencing/not influencing the course of history, much like Forrest Gump.
I’d like to share with you my private story or, rather, the story of three families:
In 2001, I went on a roots journey to Poland. Before leaving, the then Head of the Arts Department at Ben-GurionUniversity of the Negev, Prof. Haim Finkelstein, asked me about the places I was to visit in Poland. I answered: “the hometown of my father, David Moshkovitz.”
“- Which one?
- What street?
- Plotzka Street, near Goats (Koźiszka) Alley.
- What house number?
- Ten. The house neighboring that of Family Grün, Ben-Gurion’s family, near the wall of the Catholic-Polish church and the priest’s orchard.
- For your information, my paternal grandmother owned these houses. My grandfather, Haim Nahman Finkelstein, was originally from Brest Litovsk. As they were looking for a match for their daughter Tova, Family Zemah picked my grandfather – himself son of a good and wealthy family – and brought him over to Plonsk. Tova and Haim Nahman are my grandparents. A considerable part of the Jewish homes in Plonsk belonged to the Zemah family, including both houses of the Grün family. These facts are recorded in Shlomo Zemah’s book, My Life Story [Hebrew], 1983, and Shabtai Tevet’s David’s Zeal: The Life of David Ben-Gurion [Hebrew], 1976.”
In a book dedicated to Plonsk and its surroundings, David Ben-Gurion wrote about his childhood and youth. He described both of the two-story wooden houses, in which his and his brother’s extended family lived. He mentioned in passing, “in our second house lived my brother Avraham, who got married when I was 10- or 11-years-old, as well as several Jewish tenants.”
Upon returning to Israel, I told Prof. Finkelstein that the house on 10 Plotzka Street, in which family Moshkovitz and part of the Grün family had lived no longer existed, but the Catholic Church on 17 Plotzka Street and the adjacent orchard were still there. On a later visit, I noticed that the empty lot on 10 Plotzka Street, where Ben-Gurion’s birthplace once stood, had turned into a pilgrimage site whereas the orchard had been converted into a parking lot.
I could not help but reflect on the twists and turns of the common fate of these three families, of a reality that goes beyond any imagination: descendants of the Finkelstein and Moshkovitz families from Plonsk are colleagues in the department of a university named after David Ben-Gurion. Historical and familial narratives interweave in this story: that of family Grün was recorded in a national history, that of families Finkelstein and Zemah was documented in the town’s history,  whereas that of family Moshkovitz, most of whose members were killed in the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau, was never written or told. Only a handful of words refer obliquely to Family Moshkovitz in Ben-Gurion’s Mémoires: “as well as several Jewish tenants”…
A wild notion: could it be that the exhibition is a belated commemoration of the amazing nexus between these three families from Plonsk?
On Including and Excluding
Selecting the works, we were guided by their inherent artistic quality and uniqueness of expression. However, sometimes we also opted for works less than artistically eloquent, or works not sufficiently honed, as it were. In these cases, the personal connection and private anecdote were the main reason for their choosing.
We believe that within the framework of a discourse dedicated to “other” mute, hushed and repressed voices, there is a place also for the unpolished, hesitant and inarticulate as legitimately representing an individual truth. We leave it to future historiographers to judge whether or not these voices had merited this place.
Far from being naïve, we consciously refrained from works that were incompatible with our preconception: overly voyeuristic works that invaded the privacy of B.G. and his family; overly critical works that made use of pornographic or semi-pornographic materials; works that resorted to visual violence against certain ethnic or social groups. In this respect, I have honored and appreciated the opinion of my fellow curators, the students of the curatorship course, who have demonstrated a lesser degree of “openness” than me and preferred to exclude works of this kind, even though I, myself, felt at times a need to stick by the “freedom of expression” principle. Since the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, the difference between the freedom of expression and the freedom of incitation has become somewhat flimsy. We were treading the fine line between them, successfully one would hope. In any case, the unexpected and not to be taken for granted fact is that young students respect past leaders more than they do current ones. Admittedly, in the past many “holy cows” were slaughtered, but the “slaughterers” were few. The latter’s actions derived from a firm belief in the rightfulness of their ideological ways. Today, there is a distinguished guild of “slaughterers,” but only few “holy cows” have remained. The “slaughterers” recognize the spectacular, post-modernist death of grand ideologies, regardless of persuasion or creed. As to contemporary politicians, they are usually preoccupied with winning the topmost trophies and positions their career may offer. Moreover, since most of them seem to be lacking in imagination, inspiration and leadership skills, more often than not they appear to have lost their/our way. And without a compass-conscience, or GPS, even greater leaders wouldn’t have been able to navigate!
Old Age is Not a Four-Letter Word
Biblical leaders were referred to as “elders of Israel,” “elders of the people,” “elders of the congregation,” or “elders of the town.” They exercised governmental, judicial and advisory authority. The title “HaZaken” (the old man or the elder) was given for the first time in Jewish history to Rabban Hillel, head of the Sanhedrin. Hillel’s rival, Rabbi Shammai, and grandson, Rabban Gamliel, were also called the Elders. The biblical and Talmudic meaning of the word “zaken” does not necessarily indicate old chronological age (senior, old man, or aged), but rather alludes to a respected, erudite, clever and experienced person (“Rabbi Yossi haGlili says: a zaken is only one who has acquired wisdom” [Parashat Kedoshim, 3]). Rather than indicating old age or chronological seniority, the title “elders of the Sanhedrin” was synonymous to senators.
In modern Jewish history, the title “HaZaken” was given to several men of action: Yitzhak Sadeh, founder of the Palmach and its first commander; Pinchas Rotenberg, “the Old Man of Naharayim,” who built a hydroelectric station at Naharayim and founded the Israel Electric Company; and David Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion’s biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, traces back the origins of the “old man” nickname to the 1940s. According to Bar-Zohar, Ben-Gurion was sitting in a restaurant with a few friends, when a young girl in an adjacent table stood up and called out: “Who is this old man?”
Whether factual or fictional, this anecdote, se non è vero è bene trovato (if it’s not true, it’s a good story). In Hans Christian Andersen’s short tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” it is an anonymous boy who calls out: “The Emperor is naked!” and opens the eyes of the voluntarily blind. Likewise, the anonymous girl, mentioned by Bar-Zohar, had given the leader a nickname that was to stay with him for the rest of his life, and beyond. We believe that this nickname, completed with the attributes ascribed to it in the Scriptures, is an appropriate name for our exhibition, because “old age” (like “quality) is by no means a four-letter word.
 Shlomo Gronich, “Ben-Gurion.”
 See Walter Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” trans. Dennis Redmond, in http://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm.
 Shlomo Zemah (ed.), Memorial Book of Plonsk and Surrounding Towns, Tel Aviv, 1963, p. 32 [Hebrew and Yiddish].
 I’m indebted to Prof. Haim Finkelstein for sharing with me the information about his family.