Who Was the “Father of Israeli Art”? Originally Published December 17-18, 2021.

Born on December 23, 1866, in Lithuania, Boris Schatz came to be known as the “father of Israeli art.”  His family sent him to Vilna to study in a yeshivah, but young Boris dreamed of being an artist, and began creating.  He moved to Warsaw to pursue an art career, creating his first sculpture, “Hendel,” a depiction of a Jewish peddler.  In 1889 he married Genia Zhirmunsky and they moved to Paris so he could pursue sculpture and painting.  He studied sculpture with Mark Antokolsky and painting at the Cormorn Academy, while working odd jobs and also boxing and wrestling.  In 1894, he sculpted “Mattithyahu HaHashmonai” (gentle readers will recall last week’s installment about the Hasmoneans).

As Mr. Schatz gained recognition, Prince Ferdinand invited him to move to Bulgaria as the court sculptor (1895).  Mr. Schatz founded the Royal Academy of Art in Sofia.  However, it seems also to have prompted divorce from his wife and their daughter Angelika, who was born in Bulgaria in 1897. 

It seems Boris Schatz did not stay in the court, and also did not stay long in Bulgaria.  In 1903 he met Theodor Herzl, who introduced him to Zionism.  From March to December 1904, he was in St. Louis to oversee construction of the Bulgarian Pavilion at the World’s Fair.  In 1905 he was staying with Ephraim Moses Lilien, an illustrator and Zionist.  Also in that year, at the seventh Zionist Congress in Basil, Mr. Schatz proposed an art school for the Yishuv.  [Let us adopt “Yishuv” as our word of the week; it generally refers to the group of Jewish residents in Eretz Yisrael, as traditionally defined, over the centuries.   It also may refer to the feisty group which was preparing a liberation movement in Palestine prior to 1948.]

The proposal was adopted, and Boris Schatz moved to Jerusalem.  The school opened officially on October 8, 1905, on Ethiopia Street in Jerusalem.  Mr. Schatz named it “Bezalel” after the creative fellow first mentioned in Exodus 35:30, Bezalel ben Uri ben Hur, of the tribe of Judah (one of your correspondent’s heroes, even better than Inigo Jones a few thousand years later).  The stated goals of the school were “to train the people of Jerusalem in crafts, develop original Jewish art and support Jewish artists, and to find visual expression for the much yearned-for national and spiritual independence that seeks to create a synthesis between European artistic traditions and the Jewish design traditions of the East and West, and to integrate it with the local culture of the Land of Israel.”

The school had departments for silver, brass, wicker (furniture), lithography, and eventually dozens more.  Their exhibits were the founding of a museum which would become the Israel Museum.  And Mr. Schatz took the shows on the road, around the world, for donations and sales.  The venture not only brought support to the arts, but it brought Jewish culture to a developing Israel.  Schatz favored classical art, and was often at odds with modernists, who ultimately led the school.

In 1911, he married Dr. Olga Pavzner, a writer, art history teacher, and art critic, and they would have two children, Zahara and Bezalel.  All of his children became artists.  During WWI, the Turks closed down the school.  Mr. Schatz was arrested and deported, first to Syria and then to Zephath.  Also during the war he wrote a novel, The Rebuilt Jerusalem, in which the original Bezalel appears at the school and takes Mr. Schatz on a tour of Israel in the year 2018.

After the school’s reopening, the finances were insufficient.  In 1932, on yet another world tour, Boris Schatz died in Denver, Colorado.