By Abigail Meyer
Kestenbaum & Company’s upcoming auction of Israeli and international art will feature the important 20th-century collection of the late philanthropist Stanley I. Batkin.
Batkin, who passed away a year ago at the age of 101, was a lifelong New Yorker who, along with his wife Selma, was passionate about documenting the history of fine arts in the State of Israel by setting out to collect the finest examples from every major Israeli artist. Artwork from this collection has been exhibited at the Israel Museum, the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art, New York’s Jewish Museum, and the Venice Biennale.
This pursuit began in the 1950s with twice-yearly visits to Israel where the Batkins formed deep and longstanding friendships with both European-born and native Israeli artists. Developing such a collection was Batkin’s method of demonstrating his commitment to the nascent and growing State of Israel and its community of artists. In addition to being an ardent supporter of the arts philanthropically and serving with distinction on the board of many Israeli cultural and scholarly institutions, collecting provided Batkin with the means of becoming deeply involved with the development of the State of Israel. Numerous trips there afforded him the opportunity to provide direct patronage and close personal contact with his favored artists. Parenthetically, Batkin was also a talented photographer who photographed some 200 Israeli artists (the collector becoming the artist!) and thus became well acquainted with the individual artists. In 2005, the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art held an exhibition of Batkin’s photographs, curated by director Mordechai Omer.
In curating this sale, I found that Batkin’s extensive range of collected works presents a survey of artists and artistic styles that have emerged over almost a century of Israel’s growth. Included in his collection are works from every juncture in the timeline of Israel’s art history—from the early 1920s to the close of the 20th century. I believe that in his collecting, Batkin was perhaps less galvanized by individual works of art, but rather was inspired by the artist within the context of the history of Israeli art. Batkin’s collection successfully provides for us a comprehensive overview of the artistic development of 20th-century Israel.
The collection begins with first-generation Israeli artists, most of whom attended the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem. These European-born artists expressed their wonder at the experience of living in the Land of Israel. Works by artists Mordecai Ardon, Anna Ticho, and Jacob Steinhardt illustrate the spiritual encounter with the Land of Israel in various degrees of expressionistic styles, similarly seen in Ludwig Blum’s romanticized view of the ancient landscape.
Then in the 1920s, artists explored landscape through a modern and secular lens, creating what came to be known as Eretz Israel-style. This was especially popularized by pioneer artist Reuven Rubin. The directness of Rubin’s work, whose technique, clearly influenced by Henri Rousseau, bordered on the naïve and utilized an approach associated with the Ecole de Paris, illustrated in “The Goldfish Vendor.” Moshe Castel shared this perspective, while Nahum Gutman took the genre one step farther and celebrated the local Arab aesthetic.
Another approach to the arts in Israel was expressed by the Canaanite School, which rebelled against both traditional Jewish identity and then current European artistic trends, favoring instead the animist dimensions of the ancient Canaanite world. They created a political fusion of art and nature, referencing primitive Assyria or Mesopotamia. This was part of a cultural philosophy and ideology of Israel, connecting with its archaeological roots.
Following the establishment of the State of Israel, the New Horizons (“Ofakim Hadashim”) evolved into a coherent artistic movement. It was formed by pioneering abstractionists who incorporated European avant-garde influences into their semi-abstract figure and landscape paintings. Members of this group include Avigdor Stematsky, Yehezkel Streichman, and Joseph Zaritzky. A particularly individualistic member of this movement, Mordecai Ardon, focused less on the present, but rather on the mystical aspects of past Jewish historiography.
An innovator at this time, Yohanan Simon expressed in his art an ecstatic enthusiasm for the lifestyle that was developed and subsequently flourished in the kibbutzim—the collective communities, mostly governed by the strictest rules of socialism. Simon himself was a member of such a kibbutz.
The 1950s and ’60s saw many milestones in the development of Israel’s art narrative, including the disbandment of the New Horizon group and the rise of abstract expressionism as seen in the work of Avigdor Arikha. By the 1980s, a shift from the conceptual to the narrative image was seen in the works by such artists as Menashe Kadishman, Ivan Schwebel, and Moshe Gershuni.
Finally, the pure abstraction of kinetic artist Yaakov Agam rounds out this most abbreviated historical survey of modern art in Israel. “From Birth to Eternity” is a fine example of Agam’s iconic Op-Art. It utilizes optical illusion and kinetic effects altered by the viewer’s perspective, resulting in a continuous transformation as he views the piece in a 180-degree arc.
The offering of 48 paintings and drawings includes works by all the celebrated Israeli artists mentioned above and many others including Marcel Janco, Ziona Tagger, Haim Gliksberg, and Menahem Shemi.
The Batkin Collection of Israeli Art will be on exhibition at the Kestenbaum & Company New York City Gallery located at 242 West 30th Street, New York. Call 212-366-1197 or visit www.Kestenbaum.net for more information.