Artists’ Colonies in Israel – Alec Mishory

Art Colony‘ or Artsits’ Colony is a site in which artists of various media live and create as a collective, enjoying mutual inspirations. The earliest artists’ colonies in the modern period were created in Europe and in the United States in the 19th century. Between 1830 to 1914, more than three thousand professional artists are known to have moved out of urban centers to settle in rural areas. Artists made frequent visits during the summer to villages like Giverny and Honfleur in France. Others lived as full time residents in villages like Barbizon in France and St. Ives in England.

Artists’ colonies had strong ties with the 19th century’s growing nostalgia for peaceful rural life when urbanization and industrialization were the signs of the time. Artists who decided to settle in rural sites had a specific economic reason to do so: the 1850s exhibited a large market for depictions of rural, simple village life. The art market preferred paintings that express the essence of escapist dreams of the Bourgeoisie, out of which derived the highest number of art collectors.

The foundation of art colonies in Israel focused on the utopian aspect of the phenomenon; its initiators saw in their mind’s eye a grouping of artists of various media, leaving the tumultuous city life to perform their creativity through collective cooperation.

The first to envision it and realize the idea of an artists’ colony in Jewish Palestine was Boris Schatz, founder and head of the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem (1906). He advocated the foundation of such an institution in his utopian publications and finally realized it in the Ben Shemen Artist Colony (1914). The artisans that comprised the colony were Jewish goldsmiths from Yemen who were expected to produce Jewish ceremonial objects and jewelry. Bezalel offered them lodging and monthly wages. The ‘colony’ survived for a few years and then was dismantled.

Forty year after the failure of the Ben Shemen colony, the utopian idea of an Israeli artists’ colony surfaced anew in the 1950s. Three such colonies were founded in Israel:

• ‘Old Jaffa’

• Artists’ Colony in Eyn Hod

• The artists’ Campus in Safed.

Jaffa and Eyn Hod were the fruit of an establishment initiative; the Safed Art Campus was, more or less, a private initiative by a group of Israeli artists. Artist-architect Marcel Janco (1895-1984) was the key figure in the establishment of the Jaffa and the Eyn Hod artists’ colonies. In the framework of his work at the Israeli Prime Minister office’s Planning Branch, Janco was familiar with political, financial and commercial decisions made by various municipal committees; at the same time, he was a member of the Israeli Association of Painters and Sculptors. Through these functions he was able to connect artistic public bodies and the Israeli political establishment, through which to realize his utopian ideas.

The chosen locations for the artists’ colonies in Israel were abandoned buildings and edifices, most of which were mapped after Israel’s War of Independence (1948) and formerly owned by Arabs. The history of artists’ colonies in Israel is referred to briefly in the historiography of Israeli art. My research will focus on a detailed historical survey of the conceptual processes that brought about the foundation of each of the three artists’ colonies, from the early formation of utopian ideas to their materialization in situ. This part of the current project will be based on archival material as well as on articles published in contemporary professional journals and daily newspapers.

Analyses of each colony’s manifesto will introduce its aims and principles. A survey of the nature of each unique group of artists will conclude whether their aims were fulfilled – if at all. I will argue that the foundation of artists’ colonies in rural, peripheral areas of Israel was part of the Zionist ‘pioneering’ decree for the settlement of peripheral areas, ‘meha’eer el hakfar’ (From city to village).

The three artists’ colonies lasted officially for a few years within the format advocated by their founders’ manifestos. Fifty years after their inauguration, the sites still exist; however, their nature has totally changed. Their population is different, no longer picked and chosen by selecting committees. The utopian ideals that governed their raison d’etre during their early years are hardly fulfilled by its contemporary inhabitants. Two of them – Jaffa and Safed – have transformed into production centers for what may be labeled as ‘popular Jewish art’, focusing on production of hand-made, artisan Jewish souvenirs and cheap Jewish religious artifacts.

The process of establishing the Israeli artists’ colonies is a fascinating micro cosmos reflecting the creation of secular, Jewish-Israeli art and its metamorphoses throughout the years. From sites, envisioned as centers for painters, sculptors, poets, authors, dance and theatre people, whose collective productivity was expected to produce unique, ‘native’ Israeli art, the artists’ colonies have turned into tourist attractions, Jewish-Israeli (and not necessarily Zionist) versions of Disneyworld.

Alec Mishory is an independent art historian, art critic and visual culture scholar.