To mark the 50th anniversary of German-Israeli diplomatic relations, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art allowed some of its most precious works to visit Berlin. A bold metaphor for the ties between the countries.
Art historian Karl Schwarz founded the Jewish Museum in Berlin on January 24, 1933. Less than a week later, Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany. Call it bad timing.
If some Jews hoped the country's new authorities would tolerate their presence, Karl Schwarz did not have any illusions about the Nazis. He knew he had to leave the country.
As the foundations of society started crumbling for Jews living in Germany, the timing wasn't that bad after all for Schwarz. The mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, was urgently looking for an expert to build up his new art museum. He invited the prominent art historian, who left Berlin without hesitation.
Karl Schwarz became the first artistic director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which officially opened in 1932 within the private residence of the mayor himself.
When he left for Israel, Schwarz took along his private collection of over 2,500 works on paper, most of them by expressionists, and later donated 1,300 of them to the museum. He also convinced Berlin-based art collector Erich Goeritz to send the bulk of his collection to Tel Aviv, including works by Edgar Degas, Max Liebermann, Oskar Kokoschka and many more, saving them from an unknown fate during the Second World War.
A strong historic symbol
Now, as part of the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the establishment of German-Israeli relations, the heritage of Karl Schwarz and his successors has made its way back to Germany for the first time.
With the Martin-Gropius-Bau in Berlin, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has organized an exhibition highlighting 72 works from its rich collection. "This whole exhibition serves as a metaphor for the dialogue between Israel and Germany, marking their diplomatic relations," says Raphael Gamzou of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
For Suzanne Landau, director and chief curator of the Tel Aviv Museum, letting the masterpieces leave her institution and the country for the first time was a bold move. "It wasn't an easy decision. It's such a huge responsibility," she told DW.
The preparation work for the exhibition provided a whole new perspective to the paintings in the collection. As Ellen Ginton, the museum's senior curator of Israeli art explained during a press conference: "It suddenly highlighted the story behind the paintings." Going through the logistics of sending the works to another country makes it possible to imagine collectors doing the same in troubled times, she added.
Some works of the Tel Aviv collection were donated by the artists themselves. The first piece of the museum's inventory was a present Marc Chagall gave to Tel Aviv mayor Dizengoff in 1931. Max Ernst offered "The Bewildered Planet" to the museum in 1955. This work, which strongly influenced Jackson Pollock, is being shown for the first time in Berlin.
Modern meets contemporary
As in the museum in Tel Aviv, the Berlin exhibition juxtaposes 20th century classics with contemporary Israeli art - including video works and installations which open up the thematic perspectives developed for each room and stimulate a dialogue between the more recent works and the modern classics. "Most of these pieces combine historical research and fantasy. Fiction runs through the whole show, along with a confrontation between the past and the present," said curator Ginton.
Director Suzanne Landau sees the exhibition as an opportunity to offer an alternative to famliar images provided by news outlets. "But we don't flee from reality, That would be impossible. Many works are political. We cannot be neutral," she adds.
The mockumentary "Gaza Canal" by artist Tamir Zadok, for example, plays on the idea of a canal dug in 2002 to separate the Gaza Strip from the mainland. "He used grotesque means to describe a very painful situation," says Landau. The polarizing video showing this fictive situation went viral on various internet platforms. "Some of the comments are heartbreaking," explains Zadok.
Yael Bartana's video trilogy "And Europe Will Be Stunned" also plays on documentary conventions, allowing fiction to trickle into reality. In the first film, a real-life Polish political activist delivers an imaginary speech in an empty stadium in Warsaw, urging three million Jews to return to Poland - about the number of Jews who lived in the country before the Holocaust. The film reflects the style of German propaganda films of the 1930s by Leni Riefenstahl.
Like a number of Israeli artists, Yael Bartana lives in Tel Aviv and Berlin. The one-way path to exile taken by Karl Schwarz in 1933 is now open in both directions.
The exhibition "The Century Mark. Tel Aviv Museum of Art visits Berlin. Modern and Contemporary Art" will be shown at the Martin-Gropius-Bau until 21 June, 2015.