Sunday, 30 January 2011


26/1/11, Ben Uri Gallery

Paintings (oils and a handful of watercolours) of Jerusalem and Palestine/Israel from the 1920s to the 1960s by a Jewish artist who emigrated from Brno in Czechoslovakia in 1923. We chose the exhibition (a shopfront upstairs-downstairs gallery of Jewish art in St John's Wood) as location for an interview with Simon Sebag-Montefiore about his (truly excellent) new history of Jerusalem (watch here:

I'd never heard of Blum, though he's well-known and admired in Israel; described somewhere as a leading member of the German Expressionistic school in Israeli painting, though there's little that's expressionistic in these rather conventional landscapes that capture the dust and light of the region and the often chaotic architecture (he did portraits too, apparently).

He lived in Jerusalem and seems to have painted it from every conceivable angle. One of the biggest canvases was a panorama of the Old City from a vantage point somewhere near the Jaffa Gate at the Western edge looking towards the Dome of the Rock in the centre with the dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to the left of frame and the dome of the Hurva (Jerusalem's big 19th century synagogue later destroyed by the Arabs in 1948 and only just rebuilt) to the right. The Hurva dome is golden, the Dome of the Rock dark, and the Hurva looks higher when in reality it's not: the caption suggests Blum (a convinced Zionist) deliberately sought out this view as the only one from which the Hurva might just appear to be the taller building.

There's also a much darker view of the Old City from the Mount of Olives to the East painted in 1949 which he must have done from photographs since by then the Mount was in Arab hands and inaccessible to Israelis.

A painting of the Romanesque facade of the Holy Sanctuary failed to pass muster with Sebag who said the real thing didn't look like that at all.

Downstairs paintings of "modern" Israel -- the seafront at Tel Aviv, a kibbutz -- jostled with more conventional Orientalist subjects: camels, desert rocks, Arab street traders. The Ben Uri blurb suggests these modern paintings are less well known despite their evident Zionist political message: presumably Blum's Israeli buyers preferred picturesque Orientalism to depictions of the everyday, whatever their political zympathies.

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