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“Both You and I are Immigrants”

Miron Sima and Israeli Art

By: Galia Bar Or

Miron Sima

Several weeks after the death of the artist Miron Sima, friends and critics gathered at the Museum of Art in Ein-Harod to talk about his work. Around them, on the high walls of the museum’s colonnaded gallery, his monumental paintings were displayed: unemployed from Germany raising dull eyes to a point in time connected with the past, their bodies rigid, imprisoned in a narrow, exit-less space; a self-portrait of the artist during his first years in Tel Aviv, his head covered with a paint-stained white keffiyeh, while his eyes, attempting to gaze straight ahead, recoil from the direct light; figures of refugees, desperate, abandoned and exhausted on the high seas.

The eye wandered from one figure to the next, measured the width of a large-scale painting, became acquainted with a tradition of high art after it had seemed that this no longer existed, with the presence of a “master”, with the promise of happiness (“La promesse de bonheur”) implicit in the painting even when it dealt with the world’s pain.

It is not easy to speak critically about an artist so soon after his death, when he is absent and the creations of his spirit serve as silent witnesses for him. The speakers, seated in the center of the hall with Sima’s paintings around them, focused on evaluation of his oeuvre and on its complex relations with the local art scene.

One of the speakers began and said some harsh words:

“Miron Sima the artist failed in Israel. In Germany he was known as an involved artist, and painted the unemployed. These paintings, which were done as part of the Communist struggles in Germany, achieved a resonance. It appears that in Israel something dies in him. He painted ma’apilim [immigrants who broke through the British blockade and entered the country “illegally” (Tr.)], for example, as refugees in a random context. He was no longer committed to a social ideal, his work had become severed from its roots and was no longer relevant”.

Miron Sima | Museum of Art, Ein HarodSacrilege? No, this is legitimate discourse in the art world. The critic is required to situate the artist’s oeuvre in broad contexts of time and place, to point out its uniqueness and its faults, and to judge whether the artist’s oeuvre is relevant to him and to his time.

The question that was raised during the discussion at the Museum of Art in Ein-Harod is a troublesome one: Is there room for the works of Miron Sima as a distinctive artist in “the story of Israeli art”?

In my opinion, a new perspective, from the beginnings of the 21st century, will situate Miron Sima’s oeuvre in the contexts that are relevant to Israel society and art. The messages of this oeuvre grow deeper and more acute with the years, especially in these days.

A reappraisal of an artist’s work entails an undermining of the accepted ways of regarding his oeuvre. A known artist has “symbolic capital”, which is his position at an intersection in time or in the a distinctive stylistic development. The “official” interpretation has quite a rigid character, and at times it continues unchanged through several generations. Beside the “symbolic capital” (which, in the best case, influences the high price of the works in the art market), the fixation of interpretation has problematic ramifications: at times it is impossible to bring the artist’s work to life through a dense screen of accepted conventions, and the coefficients of the mediation cause the vitality of the work to evaporate.

This has also happened to Miron Sima’s life-work. In the accepted interpretation, his early oeuvre, the period of “the unemployed”, has become fixated as painting that is bound up with the Communist ideological struggle. The acceptance of the ideological interpretation as a coefficient for understanding the oeuvre has blocked other possibilities of interpretation, damaging the works’ shocking prophetic power.

The truth is not only that Sima’s paintings on the subject of the unemployed did not correspond to any Communist ideology at all, but also that the message implicit in them aroused the ire of the Communist circles in Dresden. In those days, it was claimed that Sima’s pessimistic works were sowing despair in the hearts of the workers. In these paintings there is no cry to the impoverished masses to rise with clenched fists for the final battle. They contain none of the Communist optimism that promises a new world, and offer no indication that at any time the light will shine forth and man will be emancipated.

Many great artists were active in Europe during the thirties; nonetheless, I have not found a more focused and precise painting than Miron Sima’s painting An Unemployed Youth, 1931 – a painting which conducts a sense of time and points to the seeds of a catastrophe after which nothing will ever be the same again. The unemployed youth stands on a threshold, with his legs apart and his pelvis drooping, as though his soul has left him, and a heavy frustration charges his hips, which are inclined forward. His rigid body is pale and barred with red, like a corpse; his eyes are hollow, as though the human spirit has been taken from them and its place taken by a foreign spirit that gathers his hands into clenched fists. The figure of the youth is perceived from an elevated point of view that distorts the proportions of his body, emphasizing his impotence and presenting him as a condemned person, without hope. In the near future this unemployed youth will become material to be shaped by the blows of the Nazi hammer.

Sima’s Communist friends, Hans and Leah Grundig, painted different paintings on the very same subject, and continued doing so after the war as well, in Communist East Germany, where they found their home. The Communist ideology that has been erroneously attributed to Miron Sima’s painting was not connected at all to the character of his artistic work. Rather, the attribution stemmed from his social connections in Dresden and to his joining the anti-Nazi struggle which, by the nature of things, was led by the Communist circle. When Sima arrived in Israel and exhibited works that he had painted in Germany, he quickly understood that in Israel, painting on social subjects was identified with Communist painting.

The “Shooting in a Closed Space” series, which was begun in Dresden and continued in Tel Aviv, as well as the prolonged “Refugees” series (1938-1950), are part of the same orientation that characterized the “Unemployed”. In Israel, Sima made a deep study of the acute subject of the upheavals of the time, and focused on the human condition, aware that pain cannot be converted into ideology. He dealt with horror, despair, annihilation, and, above all, with the condition in which “man ceases to be himself”, as he put it in the introduction to his exhibition “Refugees” (Bezalel National Museum, Jerusalem, 1950).

Just as he had aroused disputes among the Communist circles in Germany, he also aroused criticism in Israel: “For some reason Sima has chosen to paint only the sufferings of people on a ship on the high seas. He appears to be unaware of the heroic aspect of the ma’apilim.” “Does Sima see only the suffering involved in the Return to Zion? And where is the heroism it entails?” (Ma’ariv, 4 September 1950).
“Miron Sima’s ma’apilim are not healthy people, full of power and vigor. They are wretched, exhausted creatures, borne upon the waves of the seven seas, to their final haven” (Ha’aretz, 4 May 1945).

A new discussion of the issue of the refugees/ma’apilim has begun in recent years. The researcher Edith Zertal has engaged with the way in which, as she sees it, death and bereavement were omitted from the narrative of the historical events, as in the case of the ship Exodus. These events, she says, were used for the deliberate structuring of a myth: “A myth that sanctifies blood and sacrifice was built upon the backs of these people.” The title of her essay carried a clear message: “The Martyrs and the Sanctified: The Creation of a National Martyrology” (Zmanim 48, 1994).

Even those (myself included) who are not in the habit of interpreting a national myth as a one-sided conspiracy to mobilize the masses are aware of the price of the repression of pain and of the way that collective mobilization flattens the regard. Miron Sima was one of the few artists who sought to give expression that was free of ideological dogmatism to death, bereavement, and the worst condition of all, in which “man ceases to be himself”.

During the second half of the forties, a chasm opened between Miron Sima and the leading art circles in Israel. Sima was not a partner to the progressive artists and critics who aspired to “an existential national modernist revolution” – a code name for a Hebrew national identity which was everyone’s hope. While they engaged in formal abstraction, Sima engaged in his own subjects, which were focused on the human, and conducted a non-modernist dialogue with art history, adapting a pictorial tradition of high painting to his own topical interpretations.

In a series of articles in Itim (February-March 1948), expression was given to the way in which Sima’s world-view deviated from the agenda of public discussion in Israel and from the accepted discourse in the local art world of the time. One point of departure for these articles was an article on the subject of Israeli art that had appeared in one of the French periodicals. This article had been written, so it was reported, after a meeting between the French author and Miron Sima. Israeli art had been described in this article as “an art of immigrants, which only now is beginning to come in contact with the soil of the homeland it has adopted for itself”, and it spoke about “the complicated situation of this art, which was born already mature.”

The article provoked sharp responses in Israel, such as that of the critic Eugen Kolb, for example: “I cannot mend anything – but whenever I hear the expression ‘immigrants’ in connection with the Eretz-Israeli Yishuv, in connection with our project of upbuilding and its culture, I get very angry. Certainly: all those who were not born here “came from abroad” – but to the extent that are active or passive participants in the process of renascence, they can no longer be considered ‘immigrants’. Immigrants means people who become assimilated or have to become assimilated in a foreign world. No, the best of our art is not “immigrant art”. It is the art that is coming into being, of a people whose process of coming into being is still continuing. The blending of the multitudinous human factors who have come from forty to fifty countries into a single unity, which has the power to conduct the struggle that has been forced upon us – that is today the greatest project of our people in Eretz-Israel.”

Miron Sima did not understand what all the anger was about: “Both you and I are immigrants, and even the direction that you’re defending is something you’ve brought with you from abroad.” Miron Sima was a warm-hearted Zionist, and was active in artists’ organizations, both country-wide and Jerusalem-based. Nonetheless, he perceived Israel as a country of immigrants and Israeli art as an art that had been imported, with its artists, from the art centers, and that was gradually becoming connected to its new place. He did not believe that a modernist revolution and a “natural” and “authentic” growth was occurring in Israel. For this reason he did not recoil from connecting his topical works with the European past, with art history, with the stratified tradition of discourse on painting and the place of man.

Sima’s identification with the Zionist “process of renascence” did not dull the trauma he bore with him, the memory of the pogrom in Proskurov that he had experienced in his youth, which he recorded in a series of woodcuts titled “The Scream” (1923-1924). The subject of the refugees haunted him and he dealt with it tirelessly (1938-1950), just as, more than ten years later, he engaged in incessant drawing of the course of the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem (1961). Sima set out for Marseilles in the wake of the “illegal” immigrant ship Exodus, with the hope of meeting the refugees on board, but was unsuccessful in this venture, and returned to Israel without managing to meet them face to face. The refugees in his paintings have no identification with a particular time or place, and cannot be associated through their features or dress with any particular people or period. The slain and the survivors in the “Scream” series, the horrified figures in the “Shooting in a Closed Space” series, the collapsing figures in the “Refugees” series – all express a human existential condition that transverses time and space.

In the “Refugees” series we can identify different stages in the course of the work which went on for more than ten successive years, and we can discern a dynamics of thematic and formal development. In the final stage of the series the refugees became survivors of the camps, and Miron Sima painted each of them as a “Mussulman” – a person “who has ceased to be himself”, in the most horrible appearance that mankind has known.

Concurrently with his work on meaningful series such as “Shooting in a Closed Space” and “Refugees”, Sima engaged in portrait and landscape painting. In these works we find the expression of his color sensitivity as a painter, a sensuality of the texture of the painting and a construction of arrays that attests to a profound affinity to nature and landscape. One of these landscapes, Jerusalem in the Six-Day War (1967), seems to express those values that Sima expressed in his works that focused on people. In contrast to the paintings that were prevalent in those days, which responded to sweeping images in poetry and literature, such as “Jerusalem of gold and of copper and of light”, or “Stones with human hearts”, Miron Sima painted Jerusalem spread out beneath a blood-red sky, illuminated with flashes, and covered the foreground of the painting with sack-cloths, as though it were an army position, or wrappings worn by mourners.

The “Miron Sima” exhibition at the Artists’ House in Jerusalem is the first comprehensive exhibition of the artist’s works after his retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Art in Ein-Harod in 1997. Miron Sima attended the opening of the exhibition at Ein-Harod, and passed away on 20 December 1999, a little before his 98th birthday. His works that are on display here, which are permanently held at Ein-Harod, grew out of the twentieth century but were not conditioned by any local, contemporary or dogmatic orientation. Perhaps this is why they have not lost their savor, and they bear their different, always relevant human message, with them into the future.