“Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose”, this famous quote by Gertrud Stein, is commonly used to point out that things are what they are. But sometimes, a rose is not just a rose. Sometimes a word provokes us to think of a certain image, and sometimes images and words carry diverse meanings, undertones, and connotations.
When artists approach a subject they often find that an image means different things to different people depending on their personal history, culture, and geographic location. In this post we will look at flora through the eyes of Israeli artists and examine the various meanings that stem from their work. We encourage you to share your insights in the comments section, as each artwork holds many different meanings, collective and personal memories.
Flowers have been the main subject in the oeuvre of numerous Israeli artists. While flowers played a central and multi-layered role in natura morta, most Israeli artists who have prominently used flowers in their art did so with a different concept echoing in their minds: blooming the desert. Despite being a hopeful concept, artists are raising the question whether it’s obtainable? who benefits from it? and what is its price?
Blooming the desert was one of the fundamental concepts of the Zionist movement. They claimed that the biblical promised land was uninhabited, a wasteland that needed to be nourished and cultivated, and would in return reward Israel with bounty. But this was not the whole truth, it was a dreamlike story told by politicians. In reality the land of Palestine was neither a wasteland nor uninhabited. This fundamental narrative, which is one of the foundations of the story of Israel, has bothered many Israeli artists over the years. This would be one point of view that could help us read the works in this virtual exhibition.
Flowers are seen as a beacon of hope. The reblooming of a plant in a baron field or in a war zone, have often been used to inspire hope in difficult times. So it is in the song Bab-El-Wad by Chaim Guri, which depicts a battleground and ends with the hope that ‘one day will come and Cyclamens will flourish’. That same line is also the title of the opening painting in this virtual exhibition.
‘One Day Will Come and Cyclamens Will Flourish’ by Moshe Gershuni (1936-2017) depicts three cyclamens that are wild, expressive, and dark. Around the blooms the artist has scribed words from the Jewish prayer for the deceased. Despite the macabre atmosphere of the painting, it is hard to ignore its ironic view and its criticism of a broken promise: the Jews who came to this land were promised flowers. They thought they were coming to ‘bloom the desert’ but actually they came to die for it.
Flowers are signifiers of growth and new beginnings. Tsibi Geva’s flower might be more optimistic than Gershuni’s. It suggests the annulment of its background by ‘splashing’ a flower on it. Geva is constantly preoccupied with the promised land and its aesthetic signifiers. He seems to particularly enjoy the absurdities of it and uses grotesque gestures in order to do so. Think about the way this painting resembles a splash of dirty water swept onto the outdoor terrace tiles after cleaning. This flower does not evoke beauty at all, It suggests cleansing, and the power of flowers to mask the unwanted.
Raffi Lavie (1937-2007), the father figure of many Israeli artists, worked at home, in a studio situated on his small covered balcony, which became iconic in Israeli art. Lavie was born in Tel Aviv, and was, some would say, the most Tel Avivian artist of all. His flat was a place of gathering and culture, as he often invited people to his ‘Salon’. His undisputed position as head of an art school and leading artist contributed to his mythic status, and his paintings are as enigmatic today as they were then.
One of his most prominent subjects was the Geranium plant, a hardy perennial that grows in abundance in window boxes all over the world, and due to its resilience has become a favourite in Tel Aviv as well. However, you will hardly see an image of a geranium flower in Lavie’s work. He has reduced the image to a handwritten word, Geranium, that repeats itself. It has been suggested that Lavie’s Geranium is an allegory of vigour, passion, irrationality, and even chaos, but maybe his geranium serves a different purpose. After all, he chose to write the word rather than paint an image, and as the two works above illustrate, artists seldom have reservations about painting flowers expressively. So Lavie must have chosen writing because he wanted us to read it, not all of us, only the Hebrew speakers among us. He wanted us to hear the music of the word: Ge-Ran-Ium, Ge-Ran-Ium. It is the soundtrack of his painting. Maybe he was painting a voice, that floats above the noise of the entangled stories of Tel Aviv. Lavie did a lot to shape and cultivate the Israeli recreational endeavour, and many of his paintings deal with the cultural differences between the Western world and the Levant. He tried to create a European Salon in his small Tel-Avivian apartment, a place that valued high culture, nourished the seedlings and encouraged them to grow in the right direction.
We are not done with the politics of flowers just yet. In her project ‘Hollow Heart’, Ella Littwitz uses slides she found, which were originally taken by a German botanist and depict potato plants in various conditions and deformities. Littwitz has decontextualised the images by printing them and showing them in an art framework. By doing so, she has brought forward the intertwined relationship between photography and science.
‘Hollow Heart’ questions the prerogative that scientific methods enjoyed when the images were originally taken – the prerogative of empirical observation. Littwitz’s work questions the mindset of studying potato plants for growth enhancement, and disease prevention. Just for a moment, switch potatoes, which are not native to Europe, with people, and keep in mind that the same photographic apparatus was exercised by German scientist at that time. Now you will see the underlying meaning of this piece.
They say, the grass is always greener on the other side. For many, a lawn is the epitome of good living. For many Israelis, the dream house is surrounded by a lush lawn. But grass needs water and plenty of it, and Israel has a chronic water problem. So the lawn becomes idolised and cherished. Turf, the kind of grass you can order from a catalogue, is an easy solution for those who want the perfect lawn. Sharon Yaari has created images of grass varieties that resemble the Israeli ‘ready-made’ turf for speedy luxury consumption. The possibility to harvest and relocate a lawn, fit to measure, is yet again trying to tell a story of inhabiting the land. The turf is grown in the Israeli desert, and then harvested and taken away for a different use. That might not be the agriculture envisioned by David Ben Gurion, but it is very reflective of the Israeli culture that flourishes in peace times.
We will end our little journey into Israeli flora through the eyes of artists with two images by Valeri Bolotin that continue the reimagined Israeli landscape. Bolotin’s camera captures the way commercial enterprises use vegetation to camouflage reality by using what is essentially art. Whether it is a construction site covered with photos of lush green parks, or a sculpture of cacti installed in the window of a car showroom to represent the great outdoors. In both, Bolotin exposes the irony that entails in using images of nature in order to sell something that is anything but natural, like cars and apartments.
We started our journey with hope and let’s end it the same way with an image of an offcut in a jar by David Adika. Plants have the enviable ability to grow roots even when they’ve been cut. They can survive against all odds, even when they are bashed and suppressed. That is our hope for ourselves, and for humanity, every time we look at plants.