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May 19 - International Museum Day in Israel

International Museum Day is coming up. Here, on May 19, local repositories of works of art and cultural artifacts of all ilks across the country will join tens of thousands of sibling institutions across the globe, and will gleefully fling their doors open and admit the public, absolutely gratis.

“In the past year museums demonstrated their strength and resilience, despite the coronavirus and the security and political situation,” notes Raz Samira, chairman of the Association of Museums and ICOM Israel under whose aegis Museum Day takes place. “We, museum professionals in Israel, are delighted to make good on our calling on behalf of society, to cultivate values of the spirit, identity, tolerance and heritage, which bind us, and give us the strength that generates our national and cultural robustness.” Samira says we have much to look forward to. “On International Museum Day, museums in Israel will open their gates for free and invite you to enjoy an abundance of tours, creative activities, workshops and lectures.

We can, for example, now shuffle up as close as permitted to the paintings and installations of fêted nonagenarian Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama still on show at the Tel Museum of Art, or the evocative earlier drawings of Israel Prize laureate Dani Caravan at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. We could also make the most of Thursday’s free admission opportunity to stray a little off the museological beaten path.

The Nahum Gutman Museum of Art, in Tel Aviv’s quaint Neveh Tzedek quarter, is not exactly a backwater of the country’s museum sector. Then again, it hardly attracts the visitor volumes enjoyed by the aforementioned esteemed cultural facilities. “Did you know that Nahum Gutman is the country’s most beloved artist?” CEO and head curator Monica Lavi amiably shoots across the desk in her museum office. I hadn’t although, considering the breadth of his oeuvre, and particularly his work for the junior crowd, I was not overly surprised by the seemingly self-aggrandizing proclamation.

The Moldavian-born multidisciplinary artist, who died in 1980 at the age of 82, had pretty universal appeal. He was renowned for his evocative paintings and sculptures which exude rich scents of early Israeliness. But, in fact, it was for his writing and illustrations for children that he was awarded the country’s top accolade, the Israel Prize, in 1978.

Lavi says the institution she heads is dedicated to disseminating Gutman’s creative line of thought. “We had a retrospective here, in 2018, to mark the 120th anniversary of his birth, when we tried to define the essence of Gutman.” She believes the artist is nothing short of an integral part of our national identity and zeitgeist. “There is something about Gutman that sits deep in the Israeli subconscious,” she posits, adding some online evidence for the claim. “When you do a search in Google Trends he is the artist who is most frequently looked for. If you compare the numbers of searches for Nahum Gutman with any other Israeli artist, he has the most, by far.”

I asked Lavi, as someone with an immersive knowledge of Gutman, how she explains that surprising phenomenon. One would have thought that the likes of Reuven Rubin, Joseph Zaritsky, Yehezkel Streichman, Menashe Kadishman or Ya’acov Agam would surely be more serious contenders for the title. “I think he defines a kind of identity triad which is in a state of constant flux,” she suggests. “There is Israeliness, Zionism and Judaism. This triangle always has interchanging sides to it, but that is the triangle we have here, in Israel.”

The jury may still be out on the idea that Gutman is the definitive Israeli artist but regardless of flattering epithets, there is much to see and enjoy at the museum.

Although he was born in Moldova, Gutman came to pre-state Palestine at the age of 7, when the albeit waning Ottomans still ruled the roost here. Whether Gutman captured the essence of Jewish human spirit may be open to debate but he was certainly a Tel Avivian, through and through. His father, renowned writer Simcha Alter Gutman – aka S. Ben-Zion – was among the founders of Ahuzat Bayit, the precursor of Tel Aviv.

Later on in life, Gutman underwent an operation for a cataract. That robbed him of the ability to discern accurately between colors and shades, a catastrophe for a painter. Not one to give into misfortune too readily, Gutman moved into the field of ceramics. The exhibition of clay anthropomorphic statuettes and other forms make for mesmerizing viewing.

Elsewhere across the Museum Day agenda around the country, the public may enter the portals of the Ben-Gurion Hut down south, the Museum on the Seam in Jerusalem, the Wilfrid Israel Museum on Kibbutz Hazorea in the Jezreel Valley, the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center in Or Yehuda, The Janco-Dada Museum in Ein Hod, and The Steinhardt Museum of Natural History in Ramat Aviv. And there’s plenty more where that came from.

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Barry Davis