While many Israelis took advantage of the beautiful weather to see wildflowers (and clog the roads), I took myself to the Israel Museum, a 25-minute dawdle from my house.
The shortest route passes the fortress-like Monastery of the Cross, built on the site of the tree that, according to tradition, served as the cross. The Greek Orthodox monastery is surrounded by olive trees, and today the ground was covered by a profusion of red poppies, lavender cyclamen, and assorted yellow flowers. A couple sat under a tree playing chess; others picnicked or just strolled, some leashed to their pets.
The Israel Museum, the country’s largest, sits on a hill above the monastery and across from the Knesset (our parliament). The land on which the museum and the Knesset stand, like much of the land in central Jerusalem, belongs to the Greek Orthodox Church, which has leased it to Israel.
I came to the museum with the intention of seeing just one smallish exhibition, a didactic history of design, and indeed I did see it, but long before I got to it my attention was caught by other things at the entrance. The museum reopened in 2010 after a three-year makeover and expansion, designed by James Carpenter with Tel Aviv-based Efrat-Kowalsky Architects. When I reported on the reopening, I wrote that some people thought the new enclosed entry passage was more suited to an airport.
Now, however, a few pieces of sculpture and mosaics enliven (somewhat) that gray passage. The three mosaics are parts of a large carpet mosaic from a sixth-century CE Jewish public building in Beth She’an, in the north of the country. One part depicts Odysseus bound to the mast to save him from the Sirens, and another depicts the god of the Nile River. The third part has an inscription in Greek.
The explanatory note states that “the use of pagan figurative images and mythological stories to decorate a Jewish public building reflects the persistence of the Hellenistic culture in Beth She’an, even during periods in which most of its inhabitants were already Christian, Jewish or Samaritan.”
It’s an important point, because today we often hear claims that in the past “all Jews did X” or “all Jews believed Y,” and especially that Jews eschewed figurative art. In fact, such unanimity never existed, and Jews did use figurative art, even in synagogues, and that is apparent from the rich trove of mosaics found in the Holy Land, which I wrote about in detail in Hadassah magazine last year.
At the end of the entry passage is Olafur Eliasson’s “Whenever the Rainbow Appears,” a 44-foot-wide rainbow of narrow painted panels representing the progression of colors in the spectrum visible to the human eye. It is one of two works commissioned for the reopening. When I first saw it, I didn’t find it very exciting, but today I noticed what I hadn’t seen before. The painting is reflected on the burnished floor in front of it, but that reflection recedes as you approach, just as real rainbows do. Suddenly the brilliance of this site-specific work was revealed to me. Click here to see it.
And on my way to the design exhibition, I stopped to see a new acquisition, a three-screen video by Hiraki Sawa, “Going Places Sitting Down,” which takes viewers on an enchanted trip of the imagination. Indeed one can go many places sitting down.
As I again passed all the wildflowers and relaxed people on my way home, my face hurt. I had been smiling for two hours straight.
Text copyright 2012 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.