izhar patkin

Gardens for the Global City 2007
oil, screen, velvet
72" x 48" each painting

Collections; Guggenheim
museum and Whitney Museum, NY.

A series of 108 oil paintings with a rug-like surface, achieved by painting through aluminum wire mesh ‘canvas’ from back to front. The paintings combine narrative traditions of Asian carpets with modern painting narratives of form.

Table of Contents:
1. Gardens for the Global City
2. Host Culture
3. Host Culture Press Release
4. Izhar Patkin: Host Culture, Homage, to Aryeh Aroch text by Mordechai Omer
5. Izhar Patkin's "Host Culture", text by Daniel Ben-Simon

(click images for larger view)
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Host Culture 2001

A group of paintings from the Gardens for the Global City series which tell the story of Jewish Persian rugs.
Collections; Tel Aviv Museum of Art
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From Tel Aviv Museum: Press Release 2003, Host Culture Exhibition
By the early 1990s, Izhar Patkin had already referenced Persian tapestries in his work, having shown an interest in ethnic and cultural pluralism.
His first series, "Gardens to the Global City", constituted a criticism of globalization which, like modernism, has obscured the city`s identity and distinction. The works were done on a screen, employing the method of painting in reversal:oil paint mixed with a large amount of wax seeped through to the front side of the screen, creating an effect recalling in its materiality the texture of a tapestry.

The six homage paintings to Aroch are part of the series "Host Culture" and were produced following Patkin`s encounter with Aroch`s painting "The High Commissioner", 1966. Aroch based his painting on a tapestry presented as a homage to Sir Herbert Samuel in 1928 by the Zionist Jews of Iraq. In that tapestry several cultures are interwoven: the Persian tradition of tapestry weaving hosts the Zionist dream of Iraqi Jewry as well as the British Mandate and the Jewish High Commissioner appointed by it to rule Palestine. Adding to the conjunction of cultures in the tapestry the specific modernism of Aroch, Patkin underlines the multiculturalism which globalization will never be able to obscure.


Izhar Patkin: Host Culture, Homage to Aryeh Aroch
by Mordechai Omer
Tel Aviv Museum catalog, 2003
Gardens for the Global City

Izhar Patkin's interest in ethnic and cultural pluralism led him in the early 1990s to create a series of over 100 paintings based on Oriental and Persian rugs and entitled Gardens for the Global City. In these paintings, Patkin put to use an inventive painterly process that had as much to do with crafts as with Art. The works were painted using the "reverse painting" method, originally a folk art technique of painting on the back of a sheet of glass. In Patkin's paintings, oil paint mixed with wax is pushed through the underside of a stretched aluminum wire mesh to the front, creating a surface that recalls the texture of a carpet. When the paint fills in the vacant mesh, the "canvas" is created. The entire object thus becomes a trompe l'oeil. With his unique painting technique, Patkin enhanced the presence of the touch of the hand and underscored the physical activity of painting as essential to the joy of creation.
In Gardens for the Global City, Patkin struggles with the paradox of the culture of globalization -- a culture that espouses pluralism and tolerance but which often creates a homogenized modernism that blurs the differences between the world's cultural centers. The international city is in danger of becoming a monoculture. Art exhibitions held in large metropolises around the world are becoming increasingly similar to each other.
Many of the works in Patkin's series have been acquired by influential international museums such as the Whitney and the Guggenheim in New York. In the context of these collections, Gardens for the Global City open a window that draws the Western viewer into the repetitive rhythms of the arabesques and vibrant colors of the Oriental rug. The charm of the patterns evoke tranquility or agitation by turns, but the eye roves and eventually gives in to the intoxicating seductiveness of the paintings. The composition of the Oriental rug gives way to questions about contemporary painting, and vice versa.

The exhibition of Host Culture (a group of "rug" paintings within the Gardens series) at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art opens another important window into Patkin’s oeuvre. Merely by being exhibited in Patkin’s homeland, it initiates a unique dialogue with his origins and sources of inspiration as an artist. The carpets create a multicultural encounter that builds a bridge between East and West, Islam and Judaism, craft and art, tradition and avant-garde. In Israeli culture, the encounter that takes place in these carpets is translated into the richness of the social tapestry formed by the variety of immigrant groups that came here. Patkin infuses the global notion of multiculturalism with a regional Levantine metaphor: the myth of the sanctity of hospitality -- the culture of hosting and of being hosted.

Although Oriental rugs are found in the paintings of many artists, such as Van Dyke, Memling and Holbein, they did not receive serious consideration in Western culture until the age of modernism; Delacroix said that "The most beautiful pictures I have seen are certain rugs from Persia[1]," and Gauguin was the first to notice that the spirit of shapes and colors of the Persian rug was precisely what Western culture needed to discover:

"Color alone as the language of the eavesdropping eye, its powers of suggestion (as A. Delaroche says) which help the imagination to soar, decorating our dreams, opening a new door on mystery and the infinite. Cimabue would seem to have shown to posterity the gates to this Eden, but posterity has answered: Danger! The Orientals, Persians, and others have above all printed a complete dictionary of this language of the listening eye; they have given their carpets a wonderful eloquence. O you painters who ask for a technique of color -- study carpets, and there you will find everything that is knowledge; but who knows, the book may be sealed tight, you may be unable to read it. Besides, you are impeded by the memory of bad traditions. From color determined thus by its own charm, and not designating objects perceived in nature, there emerges a "What's it all about?" that troubles and baffles your powers of analysis.[2]

For Matisse, as Pierre Schneider explained lucidly and in depth[3], the Persian carpet was an important element of discovery and insight in his process of becoming an artist : "With Matisse, the carpet ceased to be a metaphor and an ideal; it became a source of inspiration, probably the most important of those through which he approached the Orient."[4]

The pure color, the flattened space, the drawing that underwent a process of reduction to become an arabesque, all this defined a paradigm for Matisse and established a legitimate foundation for the continued development of his painterly language. No less important a lesson, which was learned from Islamic art and especially the Persian rug, was that the decorative vocabulary of pure colors and abstract arabesques has the power to express meaning. In conversations with Georges Duthuit, Matisse summed up categorically: "Expression and decoration are simply one and the same thing."[5]

For Patkin, the Persian rug took on new importance after he heard the story of the carpet that was commissioned by Zionist Jews from Iraq and woven in accordance with Persian tradition, and on which Aryeh Aroch’s painting, The High Commissioner, (1966)[6] was based.  The link between Aroch and the rug made in honor of Sir Herbert Samuel concretizes the significance of the social and historical-political narrative to Patkin’s thought processes.
The Carpet Made in Honor of Sir Herbert Samuel, 1928, and Arye Aroch’s Painting, The High Commissioner, 1966
The image that appears in Aroch's The High Commissioner (1966) was painted after a tapestry portrait of Sir Herbert Samuel, commissioned in his honor by Zionist Jews from Iraq. (At the bottom of the tapestry is the inscription, "Zionism of Iraq," in Hebrew.) In 1920 the British mandatory government appointed Sir Herbert Louis Samuel (1870-1963) to the post of first High Commissioner in Palestine. As the first Jewish governor in Jerusalem since the days of the Second Temple, Samuel was received in the country as a harbinger of redemption. Despite the high hopes that were pinned on him, Samuel disappointed both the Jews and the Arabs during his term (1920-25) as high commissioner .

When Aroch arrived in Palestine from Russia at the age of 16, he chose to settle in Jerusalem and studied at the Bezalel school of art. Aroch undoubtedly accumulated memories from the British Mandate period, and especially from the first high commissioner’s term of office. In 1924 Samuel made an official visit to Bezalel that was documented as one of the most important events in the institution's history. (Photographs from the visit are in the collection of The Israel Museum today.) Aroch had a further connection with the British world in the years 1942-46, when he served in the British Army at Sarafend and Mt. Carmel.

In 1964 Aroch, alongside artists Lea Nikel and Igael Tumarkin, represented Israel at the Venice Biennale. At this exhibition Aroch encountered Pop Art and was particularly impressed by Robert Rauschenberg, the United States representative at the Biennale. In 1966, when asked in an interview with Heda Boshes about his connection to Pop artists, Aroch replied: "They opened doors and windows and allowed me to move in a new direction, but they don’t deal with the things I deal with, and with color for its own sake. And the fundamental difference -- I don’t paste, and in my work there is no collage. I take the fixed object, and like paper that gets thrown away, I play with it and carry on in a different direction."[7]  From the Venice exhibition Aroch remembered in particular something that could suggest a link with his renewed interest in the 1928 carpet-portrait of Samuel. It was the portrait of President Kennedy in the silkscreen prints that Rauschenberg made in 1964. In the same interview, Aroch explains, referring to the portrait of Kennedy, how Pop Art is innovative not only in terms of forms, but also, and especially, in terms of content: "Color," he explains, "can be employed in all kinds of ways. For example, in Rauschenberg's work Kennedy is a visual element in the combined picture, as words are elements of a complete sentence. Words have an autonomy of their own: one word is color, another is form, and another is a portrait of a man in the news. The connection here is not to the event itself -- the Kennedy assassination -- but perhaps to a certain atmosphere."[8]

It is interesting to note that in a conversation two years later, in 1968, with Yocheved Weinfeld, Aroch explained his use of the portrait  in The High Commissioner in a way that recalls what he said about the Kennedy portrait in Rauschenberg's work: "The double figure of the high commissioner is in fact an image of an image... had I not painted the double image, or had I painted various figures, the painting would have had a completely different appearance, and a different meaning. Actually, that is what happened to image in Pop painting in general: after all the crises it has gone through, image has once more become legitimate, with a new and different role."[9]

In order to deepen somewhat the Pop connection, I will refer briefly to a work by Larry Rivers: Washington Crossing the Delaware (1953), which was done after a painting by Emmanuel Leutze. This work was one of the earliest harbingers of American Pop, even specifically pointing to a future preoccupation by other Pop artists with the mythology surrounding the American presidency. But in contrast to the distant and parodic approach that characterized the Pop artists of the late 1950s and early 60s, Rivers painting was a direct continuation of an artistic tradition that preferred the painterly touch to the mechanical reproduction of the Pop artists. This is where the approach of Rivers is similar to that of Aroch in the mid-60s. It is interesting to note that two years before Aroch quoted the image of the High Commissioner in his paintings, Rivers was using the image of another ruler, this time from France -- Napoleon. In 1812 Jacques-Louis David painted Napoleon standing in his chamber in a typical pose, with one hand thrust into the lapel of his jacket. Rivers duplicated the figure but dissolved all signs of David's hand and his severe neo-Classical style. The artistic source is identified by means of a large inscription with the artist’s name at the feet of the ruler: DAVID. Aroch was interested in the emphasis on the theatricality of the emperors apparel and stylized setting, and especially in the particular royal shade of red  which he later used in combination with blue as signs of rank and ceremony. A further comparison between the works of these artists is in their approach to their roots. Both painters often express a desire to lighten the burden of memories of the past, especially that of the Jews of eastern Europe. Rivers tried to mitigate that weight through the whimsical artistic use of images taken from photographs, graphic documents or charged objects. An early example is his painting Europe I (1956), which was based on a family photograph from Poland taken in 1928 or thereabouts.
During the same period in which Aroch was using the duplication of the figure of the High Commissioner in various works, using a painting technique that mimicked printing and in which the image was reduced to a miniature mirror symbol containing both the man and his reflection, he was also attempting to create systems of primary forms and of primary colors which would expand his painterly syntax. In his The High Commissioner works, Aroch began to personalize the use of primary colors: red and blue appear in them in a figurative manner, as sashes worn by Samuel or as flags. In later works, such as Red and Blue in a Landscape, (1970), these colors lost any representational references and were turned into "elements" -- "and it doesn't matter how you paint them." Aroch admitted that "the weakness of this thesis lies in the fact that blue and red are primary colors, which recur in human thought, in flags."[10]

Another Pop artist who shook up painting in the early 1960s and used to quote from both high art and low art was David Hockney. His facility with trompe loeil  was undoubtedly one of the most important motivating forces in his paintings at that time; he often made use of images of screens and curtains, both open and closed, as an organic extension of his figures surroundings. The portrait of John Kasmin - Play within a Play -- is one of the high points of Hockney's paintings from that period, and Hockney later wrote the following remarks about pictorial illusions and his connection to a painting by Domenichino from the 17th century:

"Immediately after The Hypnotist I painted Still Life with Figure and Curtain, which was done in a very formal way. Soon after I began it, I went in the National Gallery one day and had a very rare experience of seeing. I thought I knew the National Gallery and all the pictures very well, but in 1963 they’d bought a group of paintings by the seventeenth-century artist Domenichino. I wandered in and found them in a room and they thrilled me, because they were things I could use. I suddenly saw what they were about. The moment these pictures revealed themselves, I realized my ideas were far from being new. It wasn't their subject matter from Greek mythology that interested me, but the fact that they really seemed like trompe loeil paintings, already a double level of reality. All of them had borders round and tassels hanging at the bottom and perhaps an inch of floor showing, making the illusionistic depth of the picture one inch. In one of them, Apollo Killing Cyclops, the tapestry was folded back a little, like the illusionistic device on a Kodak film box, and in front of this was a dwarf. I don’t really know who he is or what it was meant to be about but the doubling back from the spectator interested me. Play within a Play is my version of Apollo Killing Cyclops. Instead of calling it Picture within a Picture within a Picture, I thought Id use the common literary version of it: Play within a Play. It uses Domenichino’s idea of a very shallow space with a picture on a tapestry that has illusion and you don’t know whether the illusion is real or not, because it has this border round it. You’re playing so many games, and they are visual. The tapestry is invented, using elements of images from previous work.  The figure is a portrait of John Kasmin.[11]

In the mid-1960s, Aroch sought to evoke the "certain atmosphere" that he associated with another Jewish governor who had been appointed over Jerusalem by a foreign regime. Agrippas, who governed Jerusalem city from 41-44 A.D. on behalf of the Roman Empire, appears in the painting Agrippas Street (1964) in the form of a modern-day Israeli street sign that bears his name. We have already discussed Aroch’s portrait of Herbert Samuel based on the rug bearing his likeness from the 1920s. From a historical point of view, the common denominator of these two governors is that both had aroused great hopes among their Jewish subjects that ended with great disappointment. In both cases, this disappointment fanned the flames of rebellion that eventually led to great upheavals in the history of the Jewish people.

Many historians have drawn a parallel between the two periods, those of Agrippas and of Herbert Samuel[12], and a link was created in the works of Aroch as well. Aroch’s complex use of found objects that are charged with historical significance, such as the dedicatory carpet and the street sign, obligates the art historian to uncover the underlying content in this strategy. At first glance, these motifs seem minor and insignificant in the total visual vocabulary of the work. However, the attempt to contextualize these motifs in time and place sheds new light on Aroch’s work methods during the mid-60s in Jerusalem, which up to now have not been sufficiently discussed.
Two generations later, Patkin identifies Aroch’s use of narrative and historical provocation as a method that deepens the pictorial experience and heightens that "certain atmosphere" lurking below the surfaces of the paintings of both Patkin and Aroch.
Homage to Aryeh Aroch
The renewed encounter between Patkin and Aroch's The High Commissioner -- both the painting and the rug that served as its source -- was the focus of a crossroad that led to a series of six paintings created as a tribute to The High Commissioner. The works, which like Gardens for the Global City were done in the reverse painting technique, expanded on Patkin's multicultural narrative and added the story of Host Culture.
In these paintings, Patkin offers a new perspective and a new direction to Israeli art's relationship with Western art. In his homage to Aroch, Patkin directs the viewer to focus on the originality and uniqueness of the content of Jewish and Israeli painting. He suggests a new reading of the multiplied and reversed image of Herbert Samuel in The High Commissioner -- less focused on the influence of the repetitive use of multiplied image in American pop art, but rather originating out of Jewish and Muslim sources specifically as they appear in the symmetries and repetition so characteristic to the composition in Oriental rugs.

The paintings in Host Culture fall into two groups. The first is more abstract, and consists of two paintings: Shiviti and Ve-ahavta. In both of them, Patkin begins to tell both the story of a traditional culture of Persian carpet weaving that hosts the creation of a Jewish rug and of the transformation that the host and the hosted contribute to each other’s creativity in the process. The viewer discovers the parallels between the rhythmic multiplications of symmetry and reflections in the composition of the Oriental rug, and the way in which the Jewish interpretation inserts its religious verses and proverbs into the Persian-Islamic weaving tradition (p.17,18). In the Jewish carpet the meaning of the written verse become an image in itself; the "Shiviti" verse is a metaphor for man made in the image of God. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" ("Ve-ahavta le re-acha ka-mochah") is a metaphor of man's dignity mirroring that of his fellow man. Both are images of symmetry and reflection. Another important source for Patkin’s series is Anton Felton’s book, Jewish Carpets: A History and Guide[13] whose illustrations he made use of in some of his works.

The reference to Aroch’s High Commissioner in Patkin's Shiviti emerges as the red and blue stripes in the center of the painting, echoing the pair of colors that Aroch defined as primary to "thinking in flags". In many Jewish carpets, weavers included the verse known as Shiviti (Psalms 16:8); Patkin repeats the verse in mirror-writing, in keeping with the carpets symmetrical composition. The grayish-white hue of the piece calls to mind the grayscale tonal underpainting of the European painting technique of grissaille, on top of which the translucent colored pigments were applied. In weaving, of course, there is no underpainting and the reverse painting technique cannot be used in grissaille. In the spirit of the series, Patkin intentionally commingles traditions and cultures.
Ve-ahavta contains a written fragment from the Biblical expression that appears in the rug on which the painting is based: "thy neighbor [as]  thyself." Patkin repeats the text in mirror-writing at the top of his piece. At the bottom, as in the original carpet, there is a six-branched Menorah. The principle of symmetry helps Patkin to engage cultural affinities: the candelabra, symmetrical by definition and standing on a tall pedestal as it did in the Temple, is part of Jewish iconography and the same time alludes to the symmetry of the tree of life composition typical to the Persian carpet.

The second group consists of four figurative paintings: Homage to Aroch, the smallest in the series, is based almost directly on the Iraqi Jewish rug from 1928 (p.40). In this painting, Patkin takes on the principle of mirror image by painting the rug from the back of the screen, and purposefully not correcting the right-to-left reversal. The result is that the texts are backwards, as is the image of Herbert Samuel. The connection to the mirror image of Samuel in Aroch’s The High Commissioner is that it is displayed here as if Aroch himself had viewed the rug in a mirror.
The three paintings Eshkach yemini (Let my right hand wither) (p.47), Reu shalem (O Jerusalem) (p.__) and  Eshkach smali (Let my left hand wither) (p.__), each contain an image of the High Commissioner, to whom many rugs were dedicated in 1920s Palestine (p.15).
Instead of reproducing the image of the commissioner twice, as in a mirror and its reverse as Aroch did, Patkin bisects the image lengthwise (along Samuel’s spine, as it were) and duplicates one half of the image twice -- thus making one figure with two left sides and one with two rights. In contrast to the ideal figure of perfect classical symmetry, the symmetry of Patkin appears provocative and repellent, even monstrous. Patkin’s split figures evoke a dynamic of internal conflict rather than the pleasant dynamic rhythms and patterns of the Oriental rug.

In Eshkach yemini, the right side of the image of the commissioner is missing, while the left side appears twice. Both hands are facing inward, and at the top of the work the verse Shiviti  appears. Patkin painted three flags on the lower part of Samuel’s body: the Palestinian flag on the left, the British flag in the center and the Israeli flag on the right. By placing the flags in a congruent manner, Patkin implies a political narrative that speaks in favor of cultural coexistence and of mutual hospitality, as opposed to defining one entity while negating another.
In Eshkach smali, it is the left side of Samuel’s image that is missing and the right side that is repeated. The hands are facing outward and the Biblical verse at the top is broken, like the mirror image in the center of the composition of Ve-ahavta. In between Eshkach yemini and Eshkach smali is Reu shalem, in which Samuel’s portrait appears in a normal manner. (Reu shalem means see whole in Hebrew). He is depicted as a colonial master against an Oriental background which adds that "certain atmosphere" of cultural and political weight. The reference in the title Reu shalem is to Jerusalem, a city that is holy to three religions. The painting is based on a 1921 rug in which a rectangle to the right of the high commissioner bears an inscription (p.15); Patkin lavishes attention on this text, which bears the name of the weaver and an ode to him: Hillel Chai Shetefaer... praise and embellish life. 'Hillel' (praise) and 'Chai'  (life) being literally the name of the weaver. In each corner of the rug is a Star of David with the Hebrew word Zion in its center; on each of the small triangles composing the six-pointed star is a Hebrew letter; read together, they spell out the words Magen David [star, literally shield, of David]. Biblical quotations inside twenty small frames around the edge of the rug identify the high commissioners appointment with the messianic expectations that some parts of the Jewish community held with respect to the first Jewish governor of Jerusalem after 2,000 years of exile - In contrast to the weaver's name, Patkin renders these texts illegible, practically gibberish.
The titles of the three works refer to the Zionist ethos: "If I forget thee O Jerusalem let my right hand wither (Psalm 137:5)."
Culture of a lesser host: Judenporzellan

At the same time that Patkin was painting the Homage to Aroch series, he was also working on another series -- "Judenporzellan" -- which was exhibited at Tel Aviv's Alon Segev Gallery in February 2003, concurrently with the opening of his exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. This series, too, is based on decorative foundations that are saturated with the joy of creation and anchored in nostalgia for the artist's childhood in Israel and in the emotional connection to Jewish tradition. The series consists of giant collages made of paper cutouts that were attached to each other by weaving, folding and stapling. The collages were pinned to loosely hung, unstretched, wall-size canvases.  The cloth "walls" of the installation evoked associations with the Sukkoth Festival of Booths, when Jews build temporary structures that they exchange for their permanent home-- either symbolically or actually -- for the duration of the holiday. The booths are typically hung with sheets of cloth and decorated with paper chains and paper cutouts. Regarding the connection to the sukkah booth, Patkin says: "My first contact with art was as a child, making sukkah decorations. The sukkah was in effect the first place in which my work was 'hung' in public and thus given importance. So it was my first experience as a creative child 'that counted,' and that is significant both rationally and emotionally. If for a Christian child it was a Christmas tree, for me it was a sukkah. When I was working on the exhibition I decided to pin the paper works on cloth, not on the walls. I had already hung the cloths in my studio in New York and at some stage I sat with a friend and we made paper chains. Two people in their late 40s, staying up the whole night stapling paper chains like children. There was this magical feeling of the joy of creation that was both sentimental and nostalgic. At the age of 40, the nostalgic begins to possess the weight of history and my sentimental childhood memories are a story that can be woven together with this exhibition’s historical narrative.
I generally build my narrative by meshing a few themes together and by choosing a technique that in itself is a narrative. The technique relates the theme and the theme relates the technique, and both are inseparable."[14]
The story began with a visit to the Museum for German-Speaking Jews in Tefen, in the north of Israel, in 1996, where Patkin came across the 18th-century china known as "Judenporzellan" -- Jewish porcelain. The story of the Judenporzellan leads to the Prussian emperor Frederick II (1740-1786), and the edict he issued on March 21, 1769, requiring any Jew who received any type of license or permit to purchase a specific amount of porcelain from his failing royal factory (KPM), which was notorious for its inferior merchandise. Moses Mendelssohn was forced to buy 20 porcelain monkeys as well as other undistinguished pieces.
By means of the paper cutouts, Patkin revives this chapter in the history of German Jewry: "To me, the story about the Judenporzellan is a narrative that is both funny and horrific. It's both surrealistic and farcical, a kind of bureaucratic anti-Semitic anecdote that also became a kind of synonym for bad taste, like in Israel years ago when people would speak of 'Arab taste.' Frederick II, who collected fine porcelain, forced the Jews to buy the inferior china as if to prove that Jews had bad taste... The Mendelssohns, who lived in Berlin, were an uncommonly talented family who contributed greatly to Jewish society and to society at large. In today's terms, we may say that they attempted to be politically correct and the story of the Judenporzellan was something they swept under the rug, in other words they swallowed in silence. But if we look back, what remains? The inspired works of Moses Mendelssohn, the legacy of his daughter Dorothea, one of the pillars of feminism in Berlin, the music of his grandchildren. Judenporzellan was their daily existence, but it didn't leave cultural-historical marks. In other words, in my exhibition it was important to me to underscore the redemptive qualities of the artistic imagination and of the intellectual process, as it were, from the narrow lens of trends and current events. For that reason I tried to be very physically inventive in my manipulation of the paper in the collage works. A lot of today’s artworks deal with issues of politics and identity in a manner that is cool and distant, often employing video or photographic documentation. It was terribly important to me that I bring in and play up the handmade aspect, the act of doing, the material trace of being involved. It's full of staples because I didn't want to hide the process of creating or the joy of creating. And the sloppiness of the staples? People hate sloppiness but finding the beauty in unsightliness is a wonderful thing. We don't need the posturing of the professionals, like in the museums, that isn't where the depth of the matter lies.... The story grabbed me immediately at Tefen and it came to live inside my soul. I am constantly collecting stories, and my works always tell stories. It must be understood that the important international exhibitions of the past decade have been based on the themes of pluralism, multiculturalism, but for some reason both the Israeli and the Jewish voices have been absent. Curators bring in voices with ethnic traces from various places in the world -- voices of the 'other.' [But] I haven't seen or heard the voice of my Jewish Israeli roots in these exhibitions."[15]
In both the homage to Aryeh Aroch and in the "Judenporzellan" series, in the rug-like screens and in the handicraft of the paper cutouts, Patkin mediates between cultures, he crosses worlds. The works are a vehicle for passing from one world to another, from interior to exterior, from the visible to the concealed, from the finite to the infinite.
Thanks to the Narrative
It seems that above all else, Patkin connects to the unique way in which Aroch established his visual narrative. Like many of his contemporaries, Aroch, in the spirit of the Israeli "New Horizons" group, admired the freedom that abstraction seemed to promise for the future of painting. Unlike the New Horizons painters, however, for Aroch the need to preserve the narrative was more precious and he never made do with the formalistic promise of abstract painting.

"I think," Patkin summed up in a letter he sent shortly before the opening of his exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, " that modern painters who drew from their Jewish experience, whatever it might be, always had an ambivalent reaction to 'pure' form and negation of narratives. Terms that were associated with the Holocaust." By way of example he mentions the unfathomable difference between Marc Chagall and Casimir Malevich:

 The rivalry at the Vitebsk Academy  between Chagall and Malevich defines the two sides of the modernist revolution. Both struggled for a satisfying expression of deep spiritual quests. Malevich invented the Suprematist model of purging any frivolous markers other than essential painterly forms. Malevich gives a checkmate to the two dimensional painting: There can be no question of painting in Suprematism; painting was done for long ago, and the artist himself is a prejudice of the past, Malevich wrote. Chagall takes on the newly found freedom of painterly forms, but not for the sake of purging stories or erecting end game monuments. He seizes the opportunity to expand on visual poetry and metaphors, narrative. Look at the murals he painted for the Yiddish theater in Russia during those formative revolutionary days; His squares on squares, whites on whites are metaphors of rays of light. His syncopation of geometric forms as they floated upon the surface of his canvas become  metaphors for time, for dance, for winds of change, for a clocks ticking, a violins wail. If a square can float, what would stop a lover? Ultimately, Chagall left the academy. Malevich’s work became an art-historical milestone of a singularly focused and well defined achievement. When he tried to return to narrative, he was punished and accused of betrayal and weakness. Today we know that Malevich’s leveling of the Icon became an icon and a narrative in itself.
In 1966, when Aroch painted The High Commissioner, he didn’t need to look backward in order to refer to the dilemma of Chagall (a dilemma that I find rooted in all visual expressions of Jewishness in modern art). Aroch could have found a similar ambivalence toward form and content in Robert Rauschenberg and other peers -- American Pop artists who attempted to build a bridge between the desire to advance formal aspects of the painting process and the need to say something about their lives in a euphoric post-World War II America. Finally, at the height of American influence on Western art, Andy Warhol meticulously chose narrative images from popular culture. In his works he passed over the old icons and created a bold American expression of a new defining element: The Now! Warhol’s liberation from conventional painting, and his juxtapositions of mechanically duplicated pop images with assertive geometric shapes, were the American answer to Malevich’s Russian revolution.

Aroch is seemingly Pop in The High Commissioner's image. He is seemingly Abstract Expressionist his painterly style. But he differs from the American Pop painters of the period chiefly in his relationship to history. He chose Herbert Samuel not for nostalgic reasons, not as a readily available pop image, but rather as a figure charged with ambivalence. He had to - he  was painting for Israel. For Aroch there was no postwar euphoria, his country was in the midst of conflict. Following his intuition and his circumstances led him into a kind of historical referencing that became very widespread two generations later. In the 1980s, regionalism became a strong factor in the art world as a counter-response to cultural imperialism. History apparently did not want to end with Pop, just as painting did not end with Suprematism. This is where I found Aroch’s originality. This is where he speaks to me in way that is different than any other painter.

My entry into Aroch’s The High Commissioner was simultaneously homage, love and gratitude, as well as a departure from it; narratives of ambivalence pique my curiosity -- doubt is what protects against fundamentalism. But I do not have an ambivalent relation with narrative itself. It is all about stories for me. I have no ambivalence with regard to icons; an icon is a story (the vessel). I have no ambivalence with regard to the painterly process; the process in itself is a story (the carrier). These stories become 'actors' in my narrative. My responsibility as the narrator, is to let my actors (the stories) change and respond to circumstances that I subject them to, so they become complex.


1.     L'Orient en question, 1825-1875, Exhibition Catalogue, Musee Cantini, Marseilles, 1975, p. 21.
2.      Paul Gauguin, "Diverses choses," Oviri, ecrits d`un sauvage, Paris, Galimard, 1974, p. 178.
3.     Pierre Schneider, "The Revelation of the Orient," Matisse, New York, Rezzoli, 1984, pp. 155-185.
4.     Ibid., p. 164.
5.     R. Escholier, Matisse from the Life, London, Faber, 1960, p. 308 (note 31).
6.     In the early '90s, I visited Patkin's studio in New York. When I saw the series, Gardens for the Global City, I drew his attention to the fact that in 1966 Aroch had already referenced a Persian rug in his painting The High Commissioner. A discussion of the social and political context of this work appears in my article, “Jerusalem: Between Agrippas Street and The High Commissioner,” which was first published in the journal Kav, No. 9, January 1984, pp. 100-103. It was sent to Patkin and is quoted in this article.
7.     Aroch in an interview with Heda Boshes, “Hahipusim shel Arye Aroch,” Haaretz, April 26, 1966.
8.     Ibid.
9.     Op. cit. Haaretz
10.   From an interview with Aroch, June 26, 1974, Arye Aroch: Zmanim, Makomot, Tzurot, Exhibition Catalogue, curator Yona Fischer, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 1976.
11.    David Hockney by David Hockney, My Early Years, Thames & Hudson, 1976, p. 90.
12.   In 1987, Natan Shor discussed this subject in a chapter dealing with the justification of the Jewish revolt against the Romans: “For the sake of comparison, let us turn for a moment to the recent past. In 1940, when the Lehi organization began its activities against the mighty British Empire, the majority of the Jewish population in the country saw this as a completely hopeless project. Yet before half a century had passed, this  empire was totally annihilated. In other words, the moment for the revolt was well chosen, and for this reason it also succeeded in the end, when it was joined by other organizations and groupings. The Roman Empire, in contrast, was at the height of its power at the time of the Great Revolt, and continued to rule in the Land of Israel for over 550 more years. One cannot conceive any international or internal constellation in the Roman Empire that could have led to the revolt’s success. Is the lesson to be learned from all this that it would have been better had the revolt not broken out at all? With this, we have arrived at the answer to our last question. In retrospect, one can say that the revolt played an important, even essential, function in the history of the Jewish people. It gave expression to the mighty innate vitality within the Jewish people, in its religion and culture, which differentiated it from all its neighbors.” Natan Shor, Toldot Yerushalayim, Dvir, Tel Aviv, 1987, Vol. 1, p. 268.
13.   Anton Felton, Jewish Carpets: A History and    Guide, Antique Collectors Club, Woodbridge, Suffok, England, 1997.
14.   Izhar Patkin in a conversation with Dalia Karpel, Haaretz Magazine, January 31, 2003?, p. 22.
15.   Ibid.




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Izhar Patkin's "Host Culture"
By Daniel Ben-Simon
Tel Aviv Museum catalog, 2003

The first time we met, Izhar surprised me with his deep familiarity with contemporary Israeli society. It is certainly natural for Israelis to know their culture, and I realized that those who left it to live elsewhere were no exception. This was true for Izhar as well.
In the 1970s, he moved to New York. Only 20 years of separation perhaps, but in terms of the changes it has undergone, Israel is now a profoundly different country. Izhar left Israel when its founders were still leading the state. Other hands have since grabbed the helm, those of the immigrants who arrived after its establishment.

Those 20 years were a kind of transition stage between the first Israel and the one that followed. This transition period created a sense of the twilight of the gods. The founders were forced to share leadership. For the first time since the state was founded, it was headed by leaders who did not come from the Labor Party. Not all Israelis welcomed the change. Some likened it to the end of the world. Others saw it as a new age.

The old Israel faded away; the new Israel arose. It was not only the leadership that changed. Other areas were about to undergo changes that would reshape society. That reshaping is still taking place more than two decades later and there is no end in sight. It is a soul-searching process unprecedented in Israeli history. The result will almost certainly determine the face of Israeli society in the future.
Whenever we met, Izhar could not hide his curiosity. He always asked about events in Israel and the changes it was undergoing. He was interested in the past of Israeli society and fascinated by its future. So deep was his desire to understand Israeli society that he felt the subject burning inside him. He was eager to decipher Israel's mystery and its unceasing engagement with the question of identity.
We spoke about Israel's fledgling civil society, the complex relations between the state and the military during times of crisis and the dangerous proximity between them. Civil society is the real test of a stable democracy. Military might can protect borders, but a society's real strength lies in its ability to empower its citizens with a feeling of belonging and equality. Israeli society suffers from an excess of heterogeneity that threatens to erupt at any time. Each group has its own interests. Each group wants to make its mark. The result is that these interests and desires conflict to the point where they damage the state's governing authority. This is the revenge of many groups in Israel for the state's continuing neglect of them. For years, these groups have felt that the state had turned its back on them and discriminated against them. This is the reason for the alienation and anger felt by many Israelis. It is also the reason that Israeli society today looks like a federation of tribes, each pulling in a different direction.

A No-Holds-Barred Struggle for Identity
This internal conflict, which still threatens to tear Israeli society to shreds, fascinated Izhar. On one hand, he was filled with foreboding at the thought of the price that the country could be forced to pay. On the other hand, he was filled with admiration for the Israeli groups that demanded their fair share. This is the price paid by a society living without recognized borders, which has not yet established a clear identity, which is still living under external threat and has not had the leisure to deal with its internal problems. Sometimes it seems that no other society in the world has as many deep rifts and divisions. The religious-secular rift is so deep that it could tear the society apart. The same is true of the rifts between Jews and Arabs, founders and new immigrants, rich and poor -- not to mention the rift between left and right, which has become the most dominant of all.

All these rifts seem designed to prepare the ground for the real struggle, the struggle to shape Israel's society and identity. There is no greater challenge, and it undoubtedly will take center stage the day after the war ends, once the threat to Israel's security has faded.
Conventional wisdom holds that as long as external enemies threaten Israel, it cannot allow itself to engage in national psychotherapy. But Izhar would not wait. He felt that especially in such difficult situations national soul-searching is called for. Culture does not take a break even in the toughest times.

This soul-searching is likely to determine the face of Israel's society in the future: one with rifts and conflicts or one that is harmonious, and hospitable to all. That is the essence of any society that purports to be a "host culture." In such a culture, reconciliation is the name of the game. In a culture of conflict, division and alienation are the name of the game.

In the aftermath of the 1996 elections, I wrote a book describing the political turnabout that took place in Israel. Those elections had consequences that were not limited to politics. They exposed conflicts over not only the future of the territories and the settlements but also the attempt by new groups to shape the state according to their own lights. Many observers painted the newcomers' victory over the founding groups in dark colors. Many people feared it heralded the end of the state, but I disagreed. I wrote in my book, "Eretz Aheret" (A Different Country), that the accession of new groups to power did not necessarily herald the end. Perhaps it augured a new beginning. New immigrants from Russia joined those who had immigrated from North Africa earlier. The latter joined the religious and the ultra-Orthodox in order to mount a great rebellion against the way in which "Israeliness" was conducted. They put their own priorities on the agenda because they believed that everyone must be heard. Now their voices seemed likely to join the others in search of the magic formula that would enable all Israelis to feel that Israel was truly their home.

The first time we met. Izhar told me that the book had upset him greatly. He was browsing in a bookstore in Ben-Gurion Airport, about to board a plane for New York, when the book -- or its provocative title -- caught his eye. He bought it to while away a few hours of the long flight. "The founders and their children did not know and did not understand the new immigrants, and that was largely due to the pride they felt in being the pioneers of the country," Izhar related. "I, too, as the child of founders, did not know that our pride was interpreted by the new immigrants as arrogance. The book helped me to understand. Had we been sensitive to the pride of the new Israelis, perhaps everything would have looked different."

A Culture That Links People
That he was shaken up embarrassed me. Since when does a political book, written in language that is almost academic, provoke such an emotional reaction? Izhar revealed to me that the conflicts over the question of Israeli identity helped him to better understand and decipher the restlessness affecting his own work. I admit that at first I did not follow him. How could a discussion about divided identities connect to artistic motifs and even enrich them? Only after visiting his studio did I fully understand him. In truth, I was amazed by his ability to link worlds that to me seemed alien to each other. With great skill, he linked art to issues of identity, political outcomes to artistic outcomes. His metaphors leaped out from all his works. I now understood the essence of the connection between us. I had written a book about politics and society in a torn and divided country, and I now realized that the messages it contained matched the messages that Izhar tried to sow within his artistic endeavors.

"In the place where politics ends, culture begins," Izhar explained to me with a teacher's patience. He was surely referring to that difficult, occasionally Sisyphean effort that humans make to connect and to live together.

It was this vision that led Izhar to the notion of "host culture." When he spoke about the concept of the host culture, he found it difficult to conceal his enthusiasm. It was as if he had cracked the code to a safe. He spoke admiringly about man's need to invade and to be involved in the experience of the other. He spoke about the ability of one culture to influence and be influenced, harmoniously and peacefully, by another culture. And what, if not a woven rug, can contain within itself the intricate and extraordinary web of colors and threads of meaning. "We have become accustomed to the experience of photography, an experience that is a kind of mirroring of reality that provides the impression of the immediate, the now," he explained. "A carpet is woven gradually, it is a give and take between warp and weft that is intended to bind the different elements into a new reality."

It is not by chance that Izhar chose the carpet metaphor. "A carpet has no polarity," he explained, "everything is woven together. The deeper meaning of 'multiculturalism' is that it's not enough to live near each other, but that within each of us is a little of the Jew, the Arab, the other -- and all are woven into our identity."

The big question hovering over it all is the question of what our culture will be like after the wars are over. Can we find a common denominator that will allow us to live as civilized human beings? Will we have the desire to merge with the other, to approach and accept him as a friend?

Awaiting a Reconciliation
Two months before the September 11 attacks in New York, I was a guest in Izhar's home near the World Trade Center. I had come to the United States in order to speak to Jewish groups about the bloody conflict that had claimed so many Israeli and Palestinian lives. It was about a year after the start of the Al-Aqsa Intifada. Izhar accompanied me to a lecture at a large Reform temple in East Hampton, Long Island.

When the lecture was over, Izhar said that the confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians had divided American Jews and put them in a bewildering situation. Most supported Israel's struggle but felt there must be another, non-military solution. Izhar identified with their dilemma. Although he lived far from the scene of the conflict, it haunted him. He had left Israel, but Israel did not leave him. He remained concerned for its wellbeing. He searched for new ideas and ways of thinking that could bring about the reconciliation of the two sides.
"We are so much alike," Izhar said about Israelis and Palestinians, "close geographically and also as two sides of a joined historical narrative. It is terrible to think about how much energy has been wasted on wars between us." Occasionally he switched gears to focus on the leaders of the Israelis and the Palestinians, whom he saw as the generation of the wilderness (in a Biblical reference to Moses and others who brought the Israelites to the Promised Land but did not themselves enter it).

The day after the lecture, we had lunch in the delegate's dining room at UN headquarters. Diplomats, peacemakers and bureaucrats waited politely in line and chatted about everything under the sun. Their faces radiated a buttoned-up seriousness appropriate to their status. Waiting for us at one of the tables was the Lebanese-born Raghida Dergham, the New York diplomatic correspondent of Al-Hayat, a London-based Arabic daily. Izhar invited her to sit next to me, an Israeli journalist. Our conversation began tentatively. Apparently, putting a few Israelis and one Lebanese together was not a surefire recipe for harmony. At first, she was wary. We later came to understand that Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 had left her with deep emotional scars that were still not fully healed. She viewed political reconciliation as an option whose time was not yet ripe.

Izhar did not give up. It was only after the main course that Raghida began to thaw. She even suggested that we publish an op-ed in The New York Times together. "If it can promote peace," she said, "there's no reason not to do it." Izhar, who had cooked up the idea, smiled a broad grin of satisfaction. Another gesture of reconciliation was launched.

As an artist who is interested in how cultural metaphors come into being, Izhar knows that the character of the reconciliation process will determine the character of the peace between Israelis and Palestinians. He does not believe in a cold peace of walls and fences. Only a warm peace can create meaningful coexistence.

For generations, the two peoples have been fighting each other to the death and sacrificing their young to attain their goals. Under no circumstances can one side be saved at the expense of the other. Under no circumstances can the conflict end without both people accepting each other fully and accepting the right of each to exist in peace side by side in two states.

"A healthy society is like a human face. The features on each side are similar but not identical; a society with no difference between left and right would appear deformed."

Memories from Netanya

This past year, death came to Izhar's family. At a time when he was disturbed by the growing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, his father, Aryeh Patkin, passed away. For many weeks, Izhar tended to his father in his sickbed. His father, nearing the end of his life, confided in Izhar and shared memories and stories with him.

Aryeh Patkin was the first boy to be born in the new Jewish town of Netanya. The period of his slow decline coincided with a period of terror and horror throughout the country. Each terror attack was followed close on its heels by another, and death showed no mercy. Of all the towns in the Sharon region, Netanya was hardest hit. The worst was the suicide attack at the Park Hotel on Passover Eve, in which 29 people were killed and hundreds more injured. The entire country was in shock at the sight of the destruction wreaked to the banquet hall just minutes before the Pesach Seder was due to begin. The Passover tragedy revived memories of another tragedy, when in October 1973 the sanctity of Yom Kippur was violated by a war that ended with the death of thousands of Israeli soldiers.
The Patkin family home, located at 9 Herzl St. in Netanya, was part of another terror scene. The second suicide bombing of the Al-Aqsa Intifada damaged the facade of the building. "I recognized the location by the ficus trees growing in the yard," Izhar recollected his astonishment. "I was glued to CNN and realized that the attack had taken place in front of the family home. My father called and told me that everything was fine and no one was killed."

It was during those days, while Netanya was still nursing its wounds, that Patkin senior related to his son that in the city of his birth the relations between Jews and Arabs had once been much better. The early days gave hope for a brighter future. In a chronicle of the city's history, Moshe Shaked wrote the following regarding early Jewish-Arab relations in Netanya:

A group of Jews and Arabs sat at the edge of the Umm al-Khaled well, which produced fresh, restorative water. The owner, a typical villager -- short, broad-shouldered and with a long, white beard -- stood nearby, heaping upon them words of friendship and love, love of working the land, a believer in toiling the land and in God and in Mohammed the Prophet.
He spoke the following words: "This land that you see, the valleys and the hills whose borders touch the waves, I hereby give to you and your children in exchange for a safekeeping fee."

According to the tradition the man had inherited from his ancestors, his people were appointed by the Almighty to protect and guard the land for God's Jewish sons, who were exiled and driven out from their patrimonies for their sins. That is how a homeland arose out of the land of Umm al-Khaled, which was purchased in order to found the city of Netanya.

Another story, which has become part of the history of Netanya, shows how strong the culture of hospitality was and how close the Jews and Arabs of Netanya and Umm al-Khaled were in those days. As news of the 1929 pogrom in Hebron spread throughout the country, many Jews fled for their lives. In Netanya, only 16 Jews remained, hidden in their tents. The elderly sheikh of Umm al-Khaled, fearing that rioters from the nearby Arab town of Tul Karm would harm them, gave shelter to the Jews and their livestock. He provided for all their needs and appointed guards to watch over them. When the threats against him for protecting the Jews became too great, the sheikh decided to smuggle his charges to Hadera in the dead of night.

When the tiny community was emptied of its Jewish inhabitants, the sheikh ordered his sons to water and cultivate their orchards and to guard their property as if it was their own. He himself died the same night that he said goodbye to his Jewish charges. The people of Umm al-Khaled relate that the old man died from sorrow and from the dishonor he suffered as a result of being unable to guarantee the welfare of his Jewish neighbors.

When the bloody riots were over, the Jews returned to their homes. They were overjoyed to discover that their fields and orchards had been cared for. Their property was in the same condition as when they had fled, nothing was missing. The Jews later held celebrations to which they invited their Arab neighbors. The sounds of singing were heard until dawn.


Merging Flags
"That Netanya, too, was carved into my father's memory," Izhar related. "After his death, a new world was revealed to me: a world of continuity. Dad had entrusted his story to me. 'Always remember, son, you come from a family of builders, not destroyers.'
I remember that the attacks did not stop, each attack was followed by another and the atmosphere in the country was terrible. But something very strange happened to me. Each attack brought with it a paradoxical thought. So much blood had been spilled that I began to see this war as an expression of the blood covenant between the two peoples. I felt as if our pain and that of the Palestinians was mixing and that our common history was inseparable. If not in life, then in shared blood. Now we are engaged in a bloody war but eventually we will discover that our war is in itself a common history."

One of the six paintings of "Host Culture" that Izhar painted on wire mesh bears the stylized likeness of Sir Herbert Samuel, the British High Commissioner who was sent to Mandatory Palestine. The fact that Samuel was a Jew thrilled Jews throughout the world. They saw Samuel as the symbol of the approaching salvation of the Jews in the Land of Israel.

Izhar painted the British, Israeli and Palestinian flags on the lower part of Samuel's body, mingling the three national symbols together. "The meaning of this mixture is that we are all immersed in each other," Izhar explained. "We are each other's hosts. The culture of hospitality is Mediterranean, Levantine, it suits both the Palestinians and us and it can be a great model for coexistence. If the cultures of the two peoples cannot find a hospitable place for each other, there will be no real peace. Our war is ultimately a blood covenant. Our history and that of the Palestinians is written on the same pages. Our fate is joined permanently."

That is the reason why Izhar does not put his trust in fences and walls. Even the wire mesh he uses instead of canvas is not impermeable. It is a metaphor for how cultures can permeate each other. His cultural yarn easily passes from one side of the mesh to the other.

November 5, 2002

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