THE ART OF ISRAEL
Israel's immense history, sheer profusion of natural landscapes and multicultural diversity are reflected in a vibrant art scene with a plethora of local and global influences. A stroll through the artists' quarters or Jerusalem, Safed, and Jaffa, and along the tree-lined boulevards of Tel Aviv, reveals a host of galleries displaying the works of established international names and exciting newcomers. Overall, the country's art is widely noted for its use of bright Mediterranean and desert colours, as well as for contemporary interpretations of traditional Jewish themes. Israel's painters and sculptors have also earned an international reputation for abstract work, including forms of kinetic art and monumental sculpture. It is this thriving milieu that makes viewing and purchasing art in Israel such a pleasurable and potentially rewarding prospect.
The country's contemporary artistic life received its first major boost in 1901, when the Zionist Congress approved a plan to encourage talented young Jews to study art in Jerusalem, Despite the resulting influx of skilled teachers and students, the new arrivals faced an immediate problem: what is Israeli art! The first modern Israeli artists, like the overwhelming majority of the first Israelis, were immigrants. This meant that the sources of their inspiration, the traditions and ideas upon which their imaginations drew, originated abroad. While this ensured a range of influences as diverse as the immigrants' countries of origin, it threatened to leave Israeli art without a distinct identity of its own.
The new immigrants immediately attempted to address this problem. Aiming to create an "original Jewish art" that fused European techniques with Middle Eastern decoration, their paintings frequently depicted Biblical scenes and romantic images drawn from ancient Jewish communities. According to an almost unwritten law in the art world, the next generation of artists rebelled against this solution. They sought to establish a distinctly "Hebrew" or "Israeli" art that addressed life in their new national home and did not look to the "Old World" of the Diaspora for inspiration. The work of this group, prominent in the 1920s, emphasized the bright light and glowing colours of the landscape, used primitive emblems and techniques, and often represented exotic Middle Eastern environments and lifestyles. An influx of artists from Europe in the 1930s brought German expressionism and other avant-garde European trends to Israel. This international orientation came to the fore in the movements of the 1940s and '50s, which attempted to free Israeli painting from its increasingly local character and bring it into the sphere of contemporary European art. As a result, much subsequent Israeli art has been extremely abstract.
These three trends Biblical and Diaspora influences, the attempt to create a separate "Hebrew art", and the trend towards contemporary abstraction - have dominated Israeli art's attempts at self-definition. Together, they constitute a fertile ground for the artists of today, providing them with a living tradition and range of options which they can adopt, transform, and fuse with new ideas. That makes the modern art of Israel, after less than a hundred years, a rich and vibrant tradition indeed, and one that every visitor can savour and enjoy.