Aharon Bezalel / Gideon Ofrat
In 1938, the extended Bezalel family reached Palestine from Afghanistan; with them, their 12 year-old son Aharon. The clan, ramified and devout, was named for one of its forebears, Bezalel, a master craftsman who was brought, some time in the distant past, from Italy to Persia to build the royal palace. So the story goes. Now, the family took up residence in a Jerusalem neighborhood. After a time at a religious school, young Aharon went to work for silversmiths of Kurdish origin who specialized in filigree work. Shortly afterwards, in the mid-forties, the boy heard of Martin Rost, a refugee from Germany, who employed himself making statuettes of Jerusalem characters (painted by his wife) which were then sold as souvenirs in British army canteens. Young Aharon apprenticed himself to Rost, and found himself carving wood miniatures of various characters:
dancing Yemenites, a Jewish woman blessing the Sabbath candles, an Eastern family on a donkey etc.
At that time, the “New Bezalel” art academy hunched a special course for youngsters working as apprentices for Jerusalem craftsmen. A number of lessons from Ardon, Ascheim etc. led Aharon Bezalel on to a private sculpture circle under the direction of the sculptor Ze'ev Ben-Zvi. The classes, including several members of the upcoming generation of Jerusalem sculptors, were broken off with the outbreak of the 1948 War of Independence. On his release from the army, Aharon Bezalel was taken on as a teacher at the Seligsberg Trade School in Jerusalem, setting up a department of practical craftsmanship where he would teach for the next 18 years. At the same time, in 1950 - 1951, he continued his training in sculpture under Ze'ev Ben-Zvi, now as an external student at the sculpture lessons offered by the New Bezalel metal department. All this time, throughout the fifties, he continued to manufacture miniature wooden statuettea for sale at Jerusalem souvenir shops, an occupation that enhanced his fondness for wood and honed his skills in this medium.
A consideration of the sculptures Aharon Bezalel created during this early period lights upon “Hagar and the thirsty Ishmael”, a plaster sculpture semi-abstract and Expressionist, fashioned in 1950 during his studies with Ze'ev Ben-Zvi. Ben-Zvi's influence is marked here, bringing to mind the monumental “Memorial to the Children of the Diaspora” the sculptor had designed in 1946 at Kibbutz Mishmar Ha'Emek While Aharon Bezalel's characteristic 2 inch statuettes do not transcend the elementary folkloristic figurative (albeit exhibiting curiosity) other statuettes of this fifties series, likewise of olive wood and 3 inches in height, display a bent towards minimalism and abstract in the manner of Brancusi, a principle residue of Ben Ze'ev lessons. Indeed, the Middle Eastern characters and the horse-like animal from this series of statuettes are condensed into the geometry like a narrow elongated pyramid with a tiny oval crown. Another series, of oak and 6 inches in height, represents “The Meeting of Jacob and Esau” (with their wives and children) in a figurative Expressionism that dispenses with detail and tends towards primitivism.
The sculptural point of departure for young Aharon Bezalel is notable for the dual hallmarks of popular/biblical motif and a modernist formalism rigorous while yet Expressionist.
All the same, Aharon Bezalel's sculptures display a complexity from the outset. While his sculptural works from the late fifties sill bore the hallmarks of semi-abstract Expressionism, and hinged upon the human form (which would never depart from his work) the residues of Ben-Zvi's lessons were fading: an impermeable massiveness is refined into an organic mass resembling an ancient object (to be sure there is an affinity with the sculptures of Henry Moore) associated with a Gothic design, loftier and slimmer, of figures replete with the Expressive, also bringing to mind an affinity with the sculptures of Ernst Barlach. From both aspects, the sculptor exhibited an evident interest in a play of volumes, whether positive or negative, and likewise, in an organic flow of forms. And it already seems possible to identify the tension between the pagan and the spiritual (monotheistic), a duality of elements that would feature throughout Aharon Bezalel's work.
Some of Aharon Bezalel's creations, mainly those of the early sixties, focused on polarities, as in his mother-and-child sculptures with a heavy physical basis, the torso or neck extremely elongated into an elegiac lie of the head. Yes indeed, there was something monumental present in these sculptures. Yes indeed, the classic motif of maternity does domesticate itself within Aharon Bezalel's creativity in advance of its personal refinement.
At this stage, Aharon Bezalel's early sculptures display a sculptural clash between the proclivity towards physical ponderousness and a spiritual hovering: sculptures from 1959, 1964 etc. stand on one leg, striving towards weightlessness (which British sculptors of the same period were developing in minimalist and geometrical channels). But the Jerusalem sculptor was drawn towards primitivism (vide wood sculptures of “Heads” from the years 1964 - 1966, which are heavily indebted to African mask and/or Polynesian sculptures) seeming to tie him to a paganism of soil and material. Aharon Bezalel would find the solution in the principle of the pagan buoyancy of the ritual statuette.
In the course of the sixties, Aharon Bezalel refined the bipolarity of his sculpture. From his first exhibition, at the Nora gallery in the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, by way of his next show at the Ezri Gallery in the city centre, and his exhibit at the Boston branch of the Jerusalem “Safari” gallery - he fashioned two-dimensional wood sculptures (2 - 3 inches in height) on biblical themes. Now looking for a local connection, Aharon Bezalel picked up on the archeological finds uncovered at Tel Beersheva by a French archeologist - in particular, ritual statuettes of ivory or bone dating to the Chalcolithic period (4500 - 3500 B.C.). It is noteworthy that these selfsame statuettes also influenced Mordecai Ardon in 1962, when he painted “Venus of Beersheva” and “Tammuz”. Aharon Bezalel's sculptural language expanded from these pagan miniatures, some of which he enlarged in wood (and, subsequently, in bronze, at a height circa one metre).
The Middle East of antiquity was obviously putting in a presence in these figurines, which were characterized by slimness of body, launching the Jerusalem artist into a sculptural dialogue with Alberto, Giacometti. The eye slits and other holes in the sculptural space owe a debt equally to the ancient finds, and to the archaist language of Henry Moore, which also exercised a growing attraction upon the young sculptor. It is noteworthy that Moore's spirit also had a powerful influence on another former pupil of Ben-Zvi, David Palombo (1920 - 1966). Aharon Bezalel and Palombo can therefore be held up as the outstanding representatives of a new generation of sculptors who grew up in Jerusalem in the late fifties and early sixties.
The wooden statuette-like effigies that Aharon Bezalel fashioned In the semblence of a sculpted silhouette, for the most part depicted biblical characters (Nimrod, Samson, Yiftah the Gileadite, Jacob and Rachel, Miriam, etc.) with some portraying signs of the Zodiac, “Halleluya” etc. Apart from the biblical portrayal of character with attribute (Nimrod with stag or wolf, Samson with lion, Yiftah with horse, Miriam with tambourine etc. - certainly a renewed predilection for juxtaposition of man and beast) the statuettes exhibited a penchant for ritual (lyre and violin in “Halleluya”, Miriam dancing, David playing his instrument, Saul's anointing to king etc.). In the formal aspect, the statuette displayed an arabesque abundance of slender figures in the multi-member family, or group of dancers or musicians, or flock of angels, or heroes etc. The renewed tension of composition - between the vertical “Giacomettian” figures and the animal, or other horizontal figure - guaranteed a fundamental balance between tuning down the movement - rhythmical, meandering, “snake-like” - simultaneously intensified by the “calligraphic” sweep of arms and legs.
Herein lies the underpinning of Aharon Bezalel's unique personal sculptural language - the principle of copiousness which subjugates the silhouettes to the unity of plurality. We should recall this foundation, which links the sculptor to his family and cultural roots in the Middle East pre-dating his arrival in this country. We should also mention an Israeli painter very highly considered at the time, likewise of Eastern (Yemenite) origins: Yosef Levi (1923- ) who specialized in ritual paintings of characters and animals engaged in a “pilgrimage”. He was a cultural “brother” in an intriguing trend in Israeli art of the time.
The transition from wood carving to aluminum castings with bronze plating (in the mid-sixties, at the behest of the proprietor of a Tel Aviv metal foundry) and subsequently to bronze castings - rendered the shaping of the mould in polyethylene foam quicker and softer. In particular, the ease of deep penetration into the material, and of slicing off the surplus, “coaxed” Aharon Bezalel into exploring the expanse of volume, which he had commenced in Paris in the course of a 1971 stay in “Le Cite” (the international city of arts).
For the most part, Aharon Bezalel's brass sculptures from the latter half of the sixties strictly observed a rough texture. As yet they inclined to frontality, but the characters and creatures he fashioned were now characterized by an unpolished, even defiant, cumbersomeness in shaping the surface. Above all, Aharon Bezalel now evolved the group syntax, combining together numerous elongated figures into a single two-dimensional union. Aharon Bezalel's multitude of shrunken figures clustered together, raising arms as though in a political protest or appeal for help, or just huddled together like victims or mourners. The spaces opened up between the figures took on the appearance of gaps torched by a fiery conflagration. Indeed, the sculptural aesthetics of fire, bearing memories of the Holocaust (at that time finding their principal expression in the sculptures of Palombo) propelled Aharon Bezalel into the sculptural composition so uniquely his. His “seared” groups, residues of skin and thin, high bones, now joined together into a rough, perforated entity conveying “victim”. The previous sculptural chapter, with its elation, sensuality and Eros, now seemed to give way to tragic sculpture. These works clearly exhibit something of the tom and scorched figures of Germain Richier (and the “New Image of Man” wave, as expressed in the 1959 group exhibition of that name at the New York Museum of Modem Art, curator Pater Seltz, and including works by Giacometti, Armitage, and Richier). Occasionally too, “Art Brut” in the manner of jean Dubuffet (likewise an exhibitor at the “New Image of Man” show) insinuated itself into Aharon Bezalel's sculptures of the time, some of which were designed to resemble corroded basalt rocks, or burt tree-trunks, or mud sculptures.
Towards the late sixties, the abstract played a growing role in these sculptures, when the relationship between the figures and the nothingness (of the intervening gaps) attained to an archaist calligraphy representing itself as silhouette of a hurdle in space (a brass hurdle of this nature was indeed emplaced at a square on Agron Street in downtown Jerusalem). All this time, Bezalel persisted in fashioning his “neo-Chalcolithic” biblical sculptures embracing the values we recall, even if the treatment was “brutal” and in dimensions no longer miniature.
In 1971, in the course of his sojourn in Paris, Aharon Bezalel began setting the figures apart from one another. This advance initially arose out of from technical constraints: in the absence of suitable tools in the Cite', the sculptor was obliged to cut out separate figures from polyethylene foam before gluing them together for the casting process. Having stumbled upon the principle of bodies separated and reconnected, this led the sculptor into the next phase where he decided to cast the figures separately, with the aim of creating connection and tension between the components in the manner of the modular sculptures of the Spaniard Miguel Berrocal (1933 -). However, whereas Beroqal's bronze sculptures hinged upon a realistic torso, lending itself to dismantlement and re-assembly of numerous fragments, like a jigsaw puzzle, Aharon Bezalel was meticulous in preserving the integrity of the figure itself merely detaching the figures from one another, or attaching them together or with the background objects: mother and son, stated figures, figures and animal, figures and landscape objects, animals (horses) and cart, figures and chessboard etc. etc. - all of these allowed for the bodies to be entirely adapted to one another in rounded niches, with body parts misshapen until they join up into a seemingly-hermetic union.
Standing out among these detachable units were bronze spheres whose separation into two halves reveals within, like a pip or core, figures of a male and female, which can be united into a single body (“Couple in Globe”, 1970; “Lovers in Heart”, 1972; “Adam and Eve in Globe”, 1982). With these works, Aharon Bezalel came close to the sixties sculptures of the Italian Arnaldo Pomodoro (1926 - ), an artist who specialized in fashioning brass spheres split and cracked. However, whereas Pomodoro's sphere (which cannot be dismantled!) enveloped within its hub abstract bodies (disks, miniature balls, geometrical “triangle sides” etc.), Aharon Bezalel, forever the organic sculptor, pursued the principle of biological increase, the principle of coupling and detachment. On occasion, a sculpture in the manner of “Patriarchial Family” (1975) - representing half a dozen abstract figures, each with tiny head and plump spherical body (the six join together to form a large spherical mass) - draws a link between the round works and the group sculptures of the “together-yet-separate” style. in other instances, a womb-like ball supported by it pelvis on legs (1975) Is likewise composed of a pair of modular bodies suggesting inner pregnancy. In yet other instances a pear-like spherical structure devides in two with the abstract form of a baby within (“'Nursing Mother”, 1978). Particularly “Pomodoro-like” Is a convex relief commemorating the Holocost (1977) with swastika-shaped cracks cut into it, at its centre a being that could either be embryo or victim.
Aharon Bezalel's work was becoming sculpture of impregnation. What had been distinguished in the late sixties by fire and annihilation, now bore the hallmarks of life, creation anti impregnation leading to proliferation.
“The individual does not exist per se in the work of Aharon Bezalel. The sculpture's point of departure is the pair. Two are a couple; two are woman and the embryo forever in her belly (if we do not see the baby, then an extended pelvis bears the tidings of pregnancy). In Aharon Bezalel's work, one eternally hears the potential of two, if not three: a kernel splits into man and woman, with the child within. One is also a multitude: whenever the individual is revealed in a group, he will invariably seek to cluster and huddle together. Clearly, the principle of modular assembly applying to a considerable portion of Aharon Bezalel's sculptures, is a necessary consequence of this concept of unity and plurality. For to him, modular assembly is an act of fertilization or self-defense.”
Toward the mid-seventies, Aharon Bezalel's sculptural language matured: while abundantly lyrical (their torsos sprouting fine extremities of head and legs) combined together to generate family groups. One figure complements the other, leaning against it, existing simultaneously as individual and part of a whole. Father, mother and son; Adam and Eve; a couple; a family blessed with numerous children (supported by animals likewise interwoven) etc. and in all of these, matrimony and family are a world of harmony and complementary matching of body and soul. Male and female utterly compatible; a match, to the ultimate millimeter, between the son, or the children, and the bodies of their parents, between or within whom they are located. No, don't expect Aharon Bezalel to portray a family environment of conflict and tension. Sigmund Freud and Melanie Klein can find no footholds here. There will be no patricide; no mother will devour her son, no father will offer up his son as sacrificial victim. Protection, defense, love, warmth - these are the values underlying the sculptural encounters that Aharon Bezalel offers in his works. The sculpture's elements are dismantled solely for the purpose of an ephemeral special tension; the “natural” placing of the pieces is in their unifying, all-embracing uterine unity.
Aharon Bezalel seems to bring to his sculptures a traditional Eastern concept of familial “clannishness” and an equally traditionally patriarchal family hierarchy, where the male is the great protective figure wherein the female finds refuge, while she in turn envelops within herself the son. Such sculptural trinity of figure-within-figure-within-figure was produced in the mid-seventies, going on to re-appear in 1982 in modular version of “Body, Spirit and Soul” (body = the male, spirit= the female, soul = the son).
It is noteworthy that the modular principle in Aharon Bezalel's sculptures leaves the observer broad scope for creativity by means of re-arranging the various parts in relation to one another. Thus, to take just one example of many, the sculpture “Fertile Family Seated” (1980) allows the external envelope to be divided into two - abstraction of parturient mother - producing a tight group of five tall, slender figures. The three components of the statue (two maternal “shells” and the inner cluster) permit of numerous variations in special placement.
The unity dominating the dividing multitude does not affect humans alone: it also dictates relationships between man and beast, or man and landscape. For example, in “Biblical Caravan” (1982) two abstract bodies of animals join up in perfect correspondence with the tall, slender figures in the middle. At this level of unity of man and nature, Aharon Bezalel refers to times and places remote from the modern or post-modern urban expanse within which he works. It could be argued that the unity principle encloses the timelessness and myth of his sculptures.
Into the eighties, Aharon Bezalel began to advance from the expanse of living fauna to that of the flora. V/hat had been foreshadowed by the split-open “fruit” and its human kernel, now evolved into a form of “germination”, where concentric circles surround a tiny human nub. These circles rested upon the layers of defense and protection that shielded the “son” in the seventies sculptures. Now they were converted into a “Ecnos” (aluminum. 1981): some ten convex gate structures enfolding within their interior a triangle, which in turn houses an abstract egg and sperm. In the next phase, “Lonely Man in the Atmosphere” (wood. 1981) the encompassing layers extend into circular forms resembling tree-rings. A crack leading to the “embryo” at the centre marks the way out, the channel by way of which the seed shall sprout.
A number of wood sculptures from the 80's draw formal and metaphorical conclusions from the crowding ensemble of the “Giacomettian” figures; pinned closely together, while preserving a narrow gap, they began to resemble a tree trunk split asunder by age (“Standing Figures”, wood, 1981 ). And in “Structure” (wood, 1985) Aharon Bezalel's “totem” puts in an appearance: a lofty tree trunk (102 cm.) from which quasi-modular structures are squeezed out, at its crown an assembly of abstract figures, the “son” in their midst. “Telephone Line” (height 206 cm.), likewise dating from 1979, exhibited intrusive carving of the elements (akin to furniture decorations), displaying an interest in the assemblage sculptures of the American Louise Nevelson, (1900 - 1988). This interest, which found expression in other wood sculptures, did not gainsay the modulation of coupling and impregnation.
In the years 1981- 1982, Aharon Bezalel's sculptures, alternating between wood and brass, again affirmed a compositional inclination hovering somewhere between the protective family shell and the sacred shells safeguarding the “Holy of Holies” (“The Complete Temple”, 1981) or “The Evolution of the Bud” (brass, 1982). Ancient Middle Eastern traditions of burial in a coffin-within-a-coffin-within-a-coffin (ancient Egypt), or of protection of the inner hub of the temple by strata of rooms, halls and walls - charged the fertility metaphor with sublimity and ritual residues. In 1982 he designed a “Palace of Lovers” (Perspex) as a modular vertical body, architectural, biological and vegetative, its components - adhering to, and complementing, one another - enclose an abstract vaginal coupling. The totem-like structure instilled a mythic element into the procreative process, the process of life.
At this stage, the “Pomodorian” principle of fissuring had evolved into splitting a tree trunk, exposing the interior as an expanse of germination-coupling-impregnation. Aharon Bezalel made use of the fibrous grain of the tree trunk - just as he was skilled in carving it in other, even contradictory, directions and patterns - to expose the pair of adjoined figures, or the splitting egg etc. Compositions of intersecting lines of longitude and latitude continued to put in their traditional appearance in Aharon Bezalel's sculptures. Frequently the vertical lines seemed to affirm creation-procreation-life, while the horizontals resembled linear lines of disintegration foreshadowing death. Be that as it may, these were signs of the passage of time that the sculptor introduced into the lifeless body. The duality of life and death also found expression in slices of tree trunk (1985, 1986, 1989 and 1990) where the carvings had the appearance of worm holes, while simultaneously exposing the fertility forms familiar from his other sculptures. The tree trunk as victim and impregnator. Likewise, the affinity to the obelisk (wood, 1984) brings together the polarities of the monumental and the phallus.
The totem-like sculptures of the early eighties were offering a contradiction in terms: they subjected the tree trunk to aging by drying up the wood fibers and splitting them apart, but they also promised eternal renewal of blossoming-birthing. It was a kind of Holocaust-and-resurgence that could be attributed to some of these sculptures (like “Figures”, wood, 1981) which are not devoid of a monumental presence (as ever, of the “ember” salvaged from the flame.
Aharon Bezalel was beginning to come full circle. From wood, back to wood; from the biblical miniatures of his early career to monumental tree trunks; from “seedling” sculptures up to their germination and growth into totems from biblical legend and an archaist style up to the internalization of tine and myth into the wood medium and the “time-keeping” of its fibers. In a quest seeking to mature his sculptural language, Aharon Bezalel consolidated a position distinct from the avangardist course of Israeli sculpture, which had turned in the late fifties to the abstraction of geometrical plates of welded iron, going on to “pop art” and geometrical minimalism; and in the sixties and seventies dabbled in environmental and conceptual works in everyday materials. Aharon Bezalel took no hand in these experiments. At most, his sculptures can find a most oblique and limited association with a handful of Israeli sculptors who were not inter-connected - including Zvi Aldubi (1904 - 1992) whose 1967 sculpture “Watchman, what of the Night” comprised a dozen vertical tree trunks combined into a single cluster, or Hava Mehutan (1925 - ) who, in the sixties, created, out of trunks and branches, “sacrificial” sculptures in the form of altar and offering; or Moshe Hoffman (1938 — 1983) who, in the early seventies, fashioned “primitive' figurative sculptures of large tree trunks carved into relief depictions of mother and son, etc.
Over the next twenty years, Aharon Bezalel continued to refine his sculptural language of wooden totems. The refinement called for modification of the forms and screening the signs of impregnation in the gashed-yet-blocked tree trunk. In other words, an inclination to minimalism that underlined the “silence” of the movement as decreed from on high. However, underneath this cloak of silence, a major surprise was brewing.
In 1998, Aharon Bezalel completed the cycle when he reverted to figurative sculpture in wood. But these were no longer souvenirs portraying folkloristic “characters”; instead, monumental sculptures of nude women, large women formed with a minimalist special awareness. One 1998 sculpture depicts a woman seated, her head drooping down upon her knees (a bereaved mother). The sculpture stresses the symmetry of ankles, hips, shoulders, with the spherical head serving as focus and crown of the basic forms which constitute the meticulously carved wooden block (avoiding anatomical detail that might mar the fundamental formal tension). Aharon Bezalel was returning to the lessons he had learned from Ze'ev Ben-Zvi, reverting to the fundamental sculptural values, bearing with him the sum total of his mature world, of everything he had learned as man and artist. In 2001 he sculpted in wood a nude woman reclining. Yet again, a lesson in pure sculpture, where the figurative was condensed into abstract values of basic forms such as cylinder, sphere, cone etc. The torso, a truncated pyramid of feet and head, “remembers” Brancuzi, but in entirety reflects a profoundly mature advance beyond influences in favor of a personal utterance, refined and strikingly beautiful.
Indeed, the female form that had lurked within the tree trunks like a concealed fertility entity now emerged in all its glory. No more protective males; instead, the male artist intones a hymn of praise for woman and femininity. In 2002 we encounter her in a Gothic relief of armless frontal nudity; to her rear hints of the fading figure of a man. The bark is still raw, but the long-legged woman emerges in the smooth finish of the surface and the flow of forms. Mother and son from 2003 (height 170 cm.) pose in a formation replete with spirituality and tranquility, drawing upon the essential simplicity of the forms: the heads of mother and son are utterly oval, located above one another in a vertical line and linked together in triangular symmetry of the mother's arms encountering the head of her son. A few additional minimal details - hints of breasts and posterior; nothing more.
In these sculptures and others, the familiar Aharon Bezalel of old courses with the grain of the tree trunk, thus contributing to the soft, organic, surging flow of the sculptures. Aharon Bezalel resorts no longer to the metaphors of seed and germination, nor to the suppressed tensions of unity and division. His refined utterance renders homage to the goddess woman, the woman as lover, woman as mother. His sculptural utterance now rises above all the tensions of figurative and abstract, or those of classic and modern. He is no longer obliged to prove virtuosity or the dramas of revelation and concealment. As a sculptor, he has achieved his patrimony, his creativity exhibiting a mood of happiness, tranquility and peace. He is calm, he fondles spaces, he sculpts transcendental beuty, he has discovered the secret of the body that is spirit, and spirit that is body.
Translated by Peretz Kidron
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