A Rabbi, a Wandering Jew, a Martyr: Jesus in 'Israeli' Art

A new show at the Israel Museum illustrates the extensive presence of Jesus in Jewish and Israeli art. But when it comes to explaining the attraction to this figure, the thrust of the exhibition is misguided.

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Adi Nes, untitled, 1999.
Adi Nes, untitled, 1999.
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter
Shaul Seter
Shaul Setter

In an era of widespread spiritual awakening and in the midst of religious wars in the Middle East, an exhibition that deals with the image of Jesus in Israeli art is timely, if not to say urgent. Tracing manifestations of Jesus in Jewish and Israeli plastic arts from the end of the 19th century to our time, curator and researcher Amitai Mendelsohn reveals, in the Israel Museum’s “Behold the Man: Jesus in Israeli Art,” that they are rife with his bold, multiform presence.

Mendelsohn finds Jesus preaching in Galilee in a work by Maurycy Gottlieb, on the Via Dolorosa in Motti Mizrachi, eating and conversing with his disciples at the Last Supper, in pieces by Reuven Rubin and Adi Nes, wearing a crown of thorns in a postcard by Moshe Gershuni, and crucified at Golgotha, in works by Marc Chagall, Igael Tumarkin and Michael Segen-Cohen.

But the curator goes farther, seeking to find signs of Jesus in Jewish and Israeli art even when they transcend his historical image, and barely hint at the symbols that enshroud the preeminent figure in Christianity. Thus we find in the exhibition depictions of men in pain, lacerated with wounds, streaming with blood, children borne in their mothers’ grasp, sacrificial lambs and crosses aplenty – Jesus types in the flesh or in spirit, literally or implicitly, saturating Israeli art to the bursting point.

As a result, a singular question arises from this impressive, comprehensive exhibition: How is it that pre-Israeli and Israeli art is so dense with Christian iconography? Why does this secular art persist in evoking the image of the "son of God" time and again? What is the meaning of the debt that Jewish art owes to Jesus?

Mendelsohn suggests that the Jewish perception of Jesus underwent a change during the 19th century. From being a negative, terrifying figure, the emblem of a powerful church that harasses Jews, Jesus became a subject of interest, attraction and identification. In fact, he reverted to being a Jew – persecuted, suffering, rejected, bearing a message of truth as yet unaccepted – very much like the Jewish people of the time, who, rocked by pogroms and lacking sanctuary, cried out for civil emancipation or political sovereignty.

The hub of the transformation was fin-de-siecle Jewish art. Gottlieb painted Jesus as a rabbi delivering a sermon in a Galilee synagogue; Samuel Hirszenberg depicted the wandering Jew, fleeing the specter of death, dressed in the raiment of the crucified Jesus.

It’s from these paintings that the entire Israel Museum exhibition spreads out. Jesus, who in the past was designated to be outside the boundaries of the Jewish collectivity – the Jews were those who did not accept his tidings – is assimilated into the modern Jewish story and becomes one of its select representatives. No longer “that man,” as the Jews called him in order to avoid spelling out his name in writings, the perception of Jesus now manifests as “behold the man,” his image frenetically reproduced in local art. Henceforth, everyone wants to be Jesus.

This is an interesting notion, but it is based on an error of categorization. Mendelsohn is indeed the Israel Museum’s chief curator of Israeli art, but the exhibition does not present Jesus’ image in Israeli art – rather in Jewish art throughout the entire 20th century. Israel was nonexistent before 1948, so there is no actual Israeli art until then. Gottlieb, who wandered throughout Europe in the second half of the 19th century, and Hirszenberg, who immigrated to Jerusalem and died there in 1908, a year after arriving, are certainly not Israeli artists, nor is Chagall, and Ephraim Moses Lilien – barely. In addition, in an exhibition subtitled “Jesus in Israeli Art,” there is not even one work by a non-Jewish artist (and there are non-Jewish Israelis, even artists).

I’m not calling for the politically correct "representation police," nor do I mean to nitpick by pointing out a mistake. What we have here is charged conceptual solecism, which unheedingly identifies the Israeli with the Jewish and thereby precipitously recruits the theological issue for the national story. But the exhibition also displays engagement with Christianity that is not “Israel”-based. Moshe Gershuni’s flattened shoeboxes, or Michal Na’aman’s braided masking tape attest to the possibility of uncovering the image in relation to the word and through the prism of the crucifix in a way that is not confined to Israeli history. Nor do the yellow patch or the biblical verses in these works “belong” to Israel.

The engagement with Jesus’ image as an object of Jewish longing or Israeli identification misses the opportunity to invoke Jesus in terms of a fundamental examination of the approach to art itself. Jesus is not just a (Christian) figure; he encapsulates the craving of modern Jewish art to take part in an artistic tradition which is saliently Christian. The plastic arts are a realm and institution at whose heart is “Jesus.” The crucified one leads to the cross, and the cross to the crisscross of the two-dimensional surface: This is the basis of painting; it is what creates the conditions for the appearance of the image and the emergence of the figure.

It follows that every figure is Jesus – not because it bears the markings of Jesus, not because it’s imprinted with his story, but because it’s an actualization in matter and form, an act of dressing a figure. This is also the reason why the exhibition in question concentrates, rather anachronistically, it would seem, on painting. The yearning of modern Jewish art for Jesus reflects its yearning for the heart of visual art, its quest to connect with a foreign tradition in an attempt to provide it with a field of action, surfaces of imagery. The realization of that yearning is never complete; it involves self-wounding that is comparable to Jesus’ wounds.

However, the Israel Museum exhibition barely touches on these questions. Organized historically, it aims to tell, again, the story of the development of Israeli art. True, it carves out a different route – a counterpoint to the secular, earthly, Tel Avivan “want of matter” style – but in the end finds itself passing by the same junctions without stopping to wonder how it can be possible: why the repeated representation of Jesus reveals the other face of the “secular” act of art. Hence the show’s ideological naivete. It seeks to draw the Jewish closer to the Western, without examining the price of that proximity. It views the intensive engagement with Jesus as a “possibility of bridging between hostile religions,” in the words of the catalog, without asking what it is that’s hurled into the abyss from that bridge. It’s a mouthpiece for Judeo-Christian culture without addressing the fact that the most vociferous spokesman in our time for “Judeo-Christian values” is Steve Bannon.

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