Menashe Kadishman is one of the few Israeli artists who succeeded in reaching out to an international audience. His artistic vision, however; is firmly rooted in his Israeli origins: the landscape of Israel, on the one hand, and the saga of his patents, the Zionist pioneers who fled persecution in Europe and dreamt of the creation of a just, non-alienated, new Jewish society on the other hand. The two were to him intertwined and all but unified. The Jewish cultural renaissance, triggered and informed by Zionist aspirations, was driven by an overwhelming need to complement and counterbalance traditional Jewish culture, with its professed orientation toward time and text, by a culture oriented toward space and nature.
The Zionist founding fathers of Israeli art took upon themselves the task of providing the new culture with a sense of locus, of place within a well defined space, and they regarded their artistic effort as part of the project of establishing a terra firma for the Jewish people. They conceived of themselves and actually were Zionist pioneers, cultivating the land and making it habitable in their own artistic way as much the members of the agricultural communities of the valley of Jezreel were doing it by drying marshland and turning it into fertile fields.related image
Kadishman is one of the few a if not the only one – among contemporary Israeli artists who did not reject the central premises, which had guided the founding fathers. A trailblazing innovator, he nevertheless abided by the traditional Zionist artistic Drang nach Heimat.
In all its styles and periods his artistic activity was informed by the idea of space as a living and intimate environment, or, in other words, as a motherland. Even in his early work (the l960’s and 1970’s), in which he appeared as one of the earliest exponents of the international artistic trends of conceptualism and minimalism, the landscape of Israel found full expression. His innovative and monumental sculptures of this period, totally devoid of figurative and mimetic elements, were attempts, on a heroic scale, at realizing abstract ideas through the material reality of Israel. Without ever directly referring to the country and its more recognizable features, he internalized in his works its harsh tectonics and rough texture. In mixtures of stone, sand, crushed glass and brightly painted sheets of metal he expressed at one and the same time the country’s essence and the idea of mechanizing nature and “naturalizing” the machine – which followed the civilizing ideal of the Zionist pioneers: rendering a yellow-painted tractor as ‘natural’ as the ancient rock which it was about to move from its place in order to make the land habitable. The fauna of the country too had to find its place in this artistic
conglomerate the hard, elongated lines of the figures of hungry desert dogs, the rough wooliness of sheep.
When Kadishman brought to the 1978 Venice Biennale a herd of live sheep branded with dabs of bright colors he achieved the ultimate unification of his conceptualism and localism. He was at one and the same time the artist who worked with concepts and the Israeli shepherd he had been in his early youth as a member of a Kibbutz.
In Kadishman’s later, neo-expressionist period (starting at the early I980’s with the monumental cut-iron sculptures of the binding of Isaac and of women in labor), the artist’s strong localism found new expression not only through the reappearance of the figurative element, but also, and more importantly in a new moral sensibility The concept of Heimat was redefined. It now subsisted not only of the material reality of Israel, but also of the lives its people were living. Motherland was conceived of as so many actual mothers and fathers and their children. The tectonics of the Israeli mountainous areas were replaced by convoluted and corroded metallic lines of mothers giving birth, triumphant in their pain and at the same time fearful and dejected; for were not Israeli mothers giving birth to children who might have to assume the role of Isaac and be bound by their own fathers and country as if they were so many sacrificial animals?
Kadishman became at this point the great of Israeli fears and exultation, of the baffling mixture of creativity and destruction which Israeli existence was made of. In the many hundreds of sheep heads that he now painted he anatomized this mixture, offering a vast panorama of faces and expressions, a great display of Jewish Israeli physiognomy In the many hundreds of iron death heads, of which his monumental Shalechet project (placed in the new Berlin Jewish Museum) Was made, he unified the pain of tortured and slaughtered Jews, both the victims of the Holocaust and those of Israel’s wars, with that of suffering humanity at large, redefining once again the concept of Motherland as the valley of sadness, of common human anguish and hope.
Something needs to be said about the figure of me donkey which has emerged as a central feature in Kadishman’s most recent work, As the common weast of burden in the Middle East it is a nostalgic emblem. It evokes the naive and innocent beginnings of the Zionist effort in Palestine, and belongs within a rustic and peaceful landscape, Of course, Kadishman is fully aware of the fact that this landscape is a thing of the past; and it is because of this that his donkeys are not surrounded by thatlandscape but rather they surround it, having, so to speak, swallowed it so that it could be kept intact within their bellies. Thus the humble animals were transformed into a concept and a symbol: they include and encapsulate the idea of the just, unpretentious, hardworking agricultural society the fathers of Zionism dreamt about; a society which actually existed in Israel and made it into a Jewish homeland.
One should not, however understand the donkey emblem as mere nostalgic reference to an idyllic Israeli past. It is related to the artist’s protest and expressions of pain and revulsion as well. Is not the donkey the animal that Abraham left at the foot of the mountain as he climbed together with his son toward the sacrificial summit? Kadishman believes that it was only the donkey which at that juncture fully understood Isaac’s horror and identified with it. And do the bulging bellies of the donkeys not resemble those of the Kadishmans mothers in labor? The donkey also expresses, perhaps, the artist’s optimism. As the Jewish traditional iconography would have it, it is not on the back of a mighty stallion but rater on that of an ass, that the Jewish Messiah would arrive at me Gate of Mercy (now blocked by heavy stones) in the eastern wall of Jerusalem 7 the gate offering access to the area of Solomon’s temple. To Kadishman, messianism, as symbolized by Messiahs white donkey does not involve mystical events leading to the reestablishment of an ancient Jewish kingdom, but rather a mundane event or a series of human gestures and actions leading to the termination of bloodshed,peace, and the opportunity given to all Abrahams, Isaacs and Ishmaels to become the peaceful shepherds and peasants they should be.