Nationalism in Motion: Monuments, Processions and shared visual cultures in the works of Boris Schatz and Pierre Huyghe / Merav Yerushalmy

translated by Margalit Rodgers

Boris Schatz, who founded the Bezalel School of Arts in 1906, as well as the Bezalel museum, spent much of his life developing various forms of nationalism and national art. In Israeli art history, especially since the 1980s, he is often referred to as the “founding father” of Israeli art – the first person who set the local national art in motion. Schatz’ actual impact on the trajectories of Israeli art remains, however, fraught in local discourse, and his fundamental ambition to set up a national art of the Jewish people in Palestine has encountered numerous critiques over the last century. From the very beginnings, the Zionist Board of Berlin which funded Bezalel, criticized Schatz’s aspirations to create a national art, preferring that the students acquire a practical crafts education that would help them become financially independent. In the 1920s, the Eretz Israel school of art, led by Reuven Rubin, rebelled against Schatz’ art and pedagogy which were deemed outmoded and out of touch with everyday life in Jewish Palestine. In 1929, Bezalel itself closed due to insufficient funding, to reopen only in 1935 in a format quite different than the one fashioned by Schatz.

Contemporary writers also criticized Schatz’s work in Bezalel: Yona Fischer viewed Bezalel as merely an episodic affair which left very little impact on Israeli art;[1] Yael Guilat critiqued Schatz’ appalling treatment of the Yemenites crafts people he had settled at the Bezalel colony in Ben Shemen;[2] and Sara Chinski discussed the gender discrepancies prevalent in Bezalel, and the financial exploitation of its young female students.[3]

So what reason is there to go back to Schatz’ work today? Some, like Yigal Zalmona and Gideon Ofrat, have returned to his work in order to restore his “rightful” place in Israel’s art history[4], while others, such as Dalia Manor, have been interested in the growing need of the field to establish itself a “forefather”.[5]  This essay, though, focuses not on Schatz’ resurrection or the need for it, but rather explores how his ambition to create a shared visual culture and a space for nationalism through and within the art practices of his time, might once again be relevant for our era. Following the analysis of Schatz’ work, and the demise of nationalism as a relevant category for both modernist and post-modernist art, the essay turns to the work of Pierre Huyghe. It argues that the “communal turn” of contemporary art in the late 1990’s and 21st century seeks, not unlike Schatz, to use art once again to create communal spaces and shared visual cultures, and that such practices open the doors to a productive return not only of the “communal”, but also of the “national”.

Boris Schatz worked and wrote extensively throughout his life, and especially during his time at Bezalel, gradually formulating his vision of Jewish nationalism and the roles of art in its formation. Some of his most detailed thoughts concerning these issues were elaborated in his utopian book The Rebuilt Jerusalem: A Daydream published in 1924, in which he laid out his plans for the rebuilding of Jerusalem by 2018. In the book he also details the rebuilding of the Jewish Temple Mount as a contemporary museum housing the best of Jewish culture.[6] However, it is his activity prior to coming to Jerusalem, and especially his work in Bulgaria, where he lived for almost a decade (1895-1904) before coming to Palestine and where he began to formulate his understanding of nationalism and art, that can attest most clearly to his growing understanding to these issues. Schatz’ work in Bulgaria has not been widely discussed in Israeli art history, but several writers have researched this period, and especially Eugeny Kotlyar.[7] In his essay titled The Making of National Art: Boris Schatz in Bulgaria, Kotlyar clearly shows not only how Schatz developed his national art practices in Bulgaria, but also how they impacted his later work in Bezalel.

Schatz was born in 1866 in Kovno, Lithuania, where he was educated in a yeshiva, studied art in Warsaw and came to Bulgaria after spending six years in Paris where he studied with Mark Antokolsky – one of the first modern Jewish sculptors. Schatz moved to Bulgaria following the invitation of the Bulgarian prince Ferdinand I who had seen Schatz’s sculpture Mattathias the Maccabee in Paris, and was spurred on by his ambitions for a more secure financial life. In 1895 when Schatz moved to Sofia, Bulgaria was a young modern nation which had only been granted autonomy from the Ottoman empire, seventeen years earlier, with the aid of the Russians.[8] Schatz was one of the founders of modern Bulgarian art, and together with Zheko Spiridonov and Marin Vasilev he set up the foundations for modern Bulgarian sculpture.[9] During his time in Bulgaria, Schatz planned and built numerous monuments marking historical and contemporary events in the nascent Bulgarian nation. Schatz’ monuments served, as monuments often do, a dual purpose: for other nations such as Russia, the U.S. and the European states, they represented Bulgaria as a unique young state proudly taking a part in the “family of nations”, whereas inwardly they presented the Bulgarian nation to its own people creating a basis for a shared visual culture. One of Schatz’s first monuments was The Coronation Album, commissioned by the Bulgarian prince, and presented as a gift to the Russian Tsar Nicholas II upon his formal coronation in 1896. Measuring 2.2 meters in height, the monument consisted of a marble base mounted with a silver and bronze album containing twenty-three paintings by leading Bulgarian artists. Alongside direct representations of the state and its rulers such as the portraits of Tsar Nicholas and his wife, and the indication of Bulgaria’s years of independence, Schatz also incorporated geometric motifs from medieval Bulgarian churches and sculpted two figures on either side of the album: one a “typical” peasant Bulgarian, and the other of a “typical’ peasant from Macedonia – a region Bulgaria considered part of its homeland, but which remained outside its borders.[10]


Figure 1: Boris Schatz, The Coronation Album, gift from the Tsar of Bulgaria to the Russian Emperor Nicholas II, 1896, bronze, silver, and marble, height ca. 2.2.m., photo: O. Geo-v, “Bolgarskoe iskusstvo” Iskusstvo i hudozhestvennaya promyshlennost’ 20 (1900): [unpaged] Courtesy of Eugeny Kotlyar

Schatz continued to make numerous monuments during the years he spent in Bulgaria, as well as sculptures and reliefs marking national events such as the death of Princess Marie Louise (Prince Ferdinand’s wife) in 1899. Schatz was commissioned to design the princess’ death mask, as well as to create a relief frame for her portrait painted by Ivan Mrkvička. As with the coronation album, Schatz’ frame featured various portraits, including those of Macedonians and Bulgarian Jews, and it was intended to serve as an emblem of the Bulgarian nation’s diversity and solidarity.

Towards the end of his time in Bulgaria, in 1904, Schatz was chosen to oversee the artistic aspects of the Bulgarian Pavilion in the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, also known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. The fair, which was part of the global phenomenon of fairs that developed in the nineteenth century and combined entertainment, nationalism, trade, and technological innovations in huge exhibitions, marked the acquisition of Louisiana and other territories by the United States from France.[11] It was the first large-scale international event in which Bulgaria presented its commercial and cultural abilities to the world’s nations, as its earlier participation in the Chicago 1893 World’s Fair was on a small scale, a fact that drew criticism from the Bulgarian press.[12] Consequently, the Bulgarian government invested considerable efforts to ensure that the participation in the fair at St. Louis would leave a more positive impression both on the Bulgarian press and on international visitors. Schatz exhibited some of his works at the fair, but as the director of the artistic programme of the Bulgarian Pavilion, he also created a purpose built monument placed in the centre of the pavilion. The monument featured a Bulgarian fighter ambushing an Ottoman soldier standing on a cliff above him, while rose water – a well-known symbol of Bulgaria – trickled down the cliff. The monument thus presented Bulgaria as both the unique and exotically perfumed seat of the “east”, as well as a modern nation formed by a heroic struggle against a ruthless and archaic enemy.


Figure 2: Boris Schatz, Fountain, 1904, Courtesy of the Missouri Historical Society

This was to be the last monument designed by Schatz for the Bulgarians, for he had already agreed with Benjamin Herzl and the Zionist Berlin Board to set up a Jewish national art school in Jerusalem, and from St. Louis he travelled to Berlin and then to Palestine. The plaster cast monument was not preserved unfortunately, and all that remains from it are photographs, but it seems that not only did its physical existence perish, but also many of the aesthetic and political ideas it embodied. The modern art that developed in the first decades of the twentieth century turned towards abstraction, and saw explicitly national and figurative images, such as those favored by Schatz and others of his time, as propaganda, inappropriate for an autonomous modernist art.

The postmodern art of the late twentieth century which brought back politically and socially engaged art and abandoned (for the most part) the modernist idea of a pure aesthetic autonomy, also found difficulty with nationalist art such as that of Schatz. For not only were his “typical” figures always men presenting the hegemonic narratives of the nation, but the very desire to construct a “nation” or any other large scale ideology did not abide well with postmodernist ideas. It was the deconstruction of such ideologies rather than their construction that became the relevant aspiration for contemporary art.[13]

Nationalism itself had also become an “outmoded” idea during the late 20th century, especially after the fall of the Communist bloc in 1989 which was seen as marking the “end of history”.[14] Within liberal, and increasingly neo-liberal regimes, it was globalism, rather than nationalism that became the relevant paradigm for understanding politics, social issues and culture. The search for a shared visual cultures of the national collective was put aside in favor of the fluid, gendered and trans-national identities of individual subjects.[15]

Contrary to expectations, nationalism proved to be acomplex and resilient notion. Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the election of Trump in the U.S., the continuation of bloody national conflicts throughout the world, and the rise of neo-nationalism in Israel and elsewhere, all demonstrate that nationalism has continued to play a significant force in our global world. The role of national identity, has also remained an important aspect of the self-definition of individuals and groups, and is a recurring issue in public discourse world-wide.[16]

The contemporary art discourse seldom refers directly to nationalism and usually aligns with global network and individual subjects, branding nationalism and collective identities as irrelevant, outmoded and overly conservative. But despite or perhaps because of these tendencies, the engagement of artists with various aspects of communities and the “common” has been on the rise in the past decade or two. The bottom up (re)building of communities by artists and art organizations has become prevalent in various parts of the world, artist collectives are back in fashion, and the “turn to community” – ranging from the relational and inter-personal to the large scale collective – has become a catchphrase in contemporary discourse.[17]

One of the prominent artists discussed in these contexts since the 1990s is Pierre Huyghe who in 2003 created the work Streamside Day. At the center of the work is a procession Huyghe organized for a new neighborhood in the Hudson Valley, New York, which sprouted rapidly with the construction of new homes built in a “typical” New England style. For the procession, Huyghe chose symbols that would reflect the community and its location between city and nature, and serve as a common platform for identification, focusing on “cute” forest animals which could be found in the neighboring woods. The main symbol of the project was a fawn which resembles the familiar Walt Disney character Bambi. Appearing in one of the exhibition’s video works, it can be seen roaming through the empty gallery spaces, moving between the forest and the new neighborhood, traversing the new community and the world of art. Another video artwork documents the procession itself, made up of primarily white middle-class American families, featuring balloons, forest-animal costumes and of course, the roaming fawn.


Pierre Huyghe, Streamside Day, 2003, Event, Celebration, October 11, 2003, Streamside Knolls, USA
Courtesy the Artist and Hauser & Wirth, London

Huyghe’s work was well received and discussed in various publications. A comprehensive interview with the artist in which various aspects of the work were discussed was published in the October journal, commenting on the common symbols Huyghe had produced for the residents, and his construction of a local identity.[18] Huyghe’s work did not explicitly address nationalism, as Schatz’s work had done more than a hundred years before, and its central symbol –the Fawn/Bambi is not the creation of a national collective but of a patented, multi-national, commercial corporation. Yet, despite these obvious differences, I would argue that Huyghe does engage with American nationalism and its hegemonic narratives. Huyghe not only utilizes a well-known symbol produced by the Disney corporation which plays an important role in American nationalism and visual culture, but his work also presents some of the most canonical American myths of a town situated at the edge of the wilderness.[19] In many ways, Huyghe’s Streamside Day is a depiction of an “all-American town” whose community is white and homogenous, and which harks back to 1950’s when American nationalism had seemed “natural” and “simple”. Huyghe’s location of his work in the Hudson Valley, the site of the most canonical art schools in the U.S., is also significant. For like Huyghe, the Hudson River School and its main artists explored the relationship between nature and human settlement, and portrayed small American towns on the verge of wilderness, formulating a shared, national visual culture. [20]

Despite the considerable political and aesthetic differences between Huyghe and Schatz, various aspects of the Streamside Day project seem to evoke the issues and practices that were also central for Schatz’s work in Bulgaria. Like Schatz, Huyghe uses common symbols to evoke identification among his participants (albeit on a smaller scale), and like him, Huyghe is keenly interested in designing sites and practices in which shared social and visual experience may be performed. It is perhaps not surprising then to discover that like Huyghe, Schatz also staged processions, incorporating familiar symbols and numerous participants in the creation of shared sites and identities.[21]

What is most notable in Huyghe’s work and its reception, is not merely that an interest in shared visual culture has arisen in one of contemporary art’s key figures, but that such an interest is now seen not as retrograde, but as an avant-garde attempt to rebuild communities and common identity. This is especially noteworthy in an aesthetic and political world which has underlined for years the importance of individual identity and the deconstruction of social structure. The comparison with Schatz highlights the issues and practices of nationalism that underwrite Huyghe’s work (and others like it), and demonstrates how such issues are often sidelined within the art discourse and discussed only within the framework of communality. It also demonstrates how the seemingly outmoded notion of nationalism may come to serve once again, not only as a basis for exclusionary politics and art as it is often depicted, but also as a productive platform for solidarity and inclusive identities. Will today’s art take it upon itself to rethink these possibilities of the national? It is difficult to tell yet, but it seems that works like Huyghe’s, as well as the ideas and works developed by Schatz, could provide a platform for art which proliferates solidarity and national identification while preserving diversity, difference, and reflexivity.

[1]   Fischer, Yona, Art and Craft in the Land of Israel in the Nineteenth Century, 1979, p. 109.

[2]   Guilat, Yael, Yemeni Jewish Silver Craft in the Israeli Melting Pot, 2010.

[3]   Chinsky, Sara, Kingdom of the Meek, 2015, Chapter 3: Popular Jewish Art in the Era of Nationalism – An Identity Construction Mechanism, pp. 91-139.

[4]   Zalmona, Yigal, Boris Schatz: The Father of Israeli Art, 2006; Ofrat Gideon, Boris Schatz: Monograph, Gideon Ofrat’s Warehouse, 2006. https://gideonofrat.wordpress.com/2011/01/08/%D7%91%D7%A6%D7%9C%D7%90%D7%9C-%D7%A9%D7%A5-%D7%9E%D7%95%D7%A0%D7%95%D7%92%D7%A8%D7%A4%D7%99%D7%94/

[5]   Manor, Dalia, Art, Nationalism, and Public Relations: The Myth of Bezalel, Iyunim Bitkumat Israel: Studies in Zionism, the Yishuv and the State of Israel, Vol. 18, 2008, pp. 417-441.

[6]   Schatz, Boris, The Rebuilt Jerusalem: The Rebuilt Reality, 1924.

See Doron Bar’s discussion of the book in:

Bar Doron, The “Rebuilt Jerusalem” Between Reality and Imagination, History & Theory: the Protocols, no. 6, 2007. http://bezalel.secured.co.il/zope/home/he/1192600242/1192698536, accessed 12.2.2018

[7]   Kotlyar, Eugeny, The Making of National Art: Boris Schatz in Bulgaria, Ars Judaica, Vol. 4, 2008, pp. 43-60.

[8]   Crampton R. J., Bulgaria (Oxford History of Modern Europe), 2007. Pp. 81-190.

[9]   Kotlyar, Eugeny, Ibid., p. 46

[10]  Kotlyar, Eugeny, Ibid., p. 47.

[11] Missouri Historical Society, The 1904 World’s Fair: Looking Back at Looking Forward.

https://web.archive.org/web/20071114023956/http://mohistory.org/Fair/WF/HTML/index_flash.html,

accessed 12.2.2018

[12]  Extensive information on the participation of the young Bulgarian state in international and local fairs can be found in: Neuburger, Mary, Fair Encounters: Bulgaria and the “West” at International Exhibitions from Plovdiv to St. Louis, Slavic Review, Vol. 63, No. 3, 2010, pp. 547-570.

[13]  There are innumerous accounts of post modernism and art. An interesting read in Andreas Huyssen’s

“Mapping the Postmodern” which was written in 1984 and documents some of the postmodern

developments as they were occurring:

Huyssen Andreas, Mapping the Postmodern, New German Critique, No. 33, Autumn 1984.

Pp. 5-52.

[14]  Fukuyama Francis, The end of History and the Last Man, Free Press, 1992.

[15]  Within the contexts of Israeli society and art, these changes can be seen clearly in Yehuda Shenhav’s

edited volume: Shenhav Yehuda ed., Coloniality and the Postcolonial Condition: Implications for Israeli Society, HaKibuttz HaMeuhad & Van Leer Press, 2004.,

[16]  An interesting discussion on the absence of nationalism in the sociopolitical discourse can be found in Calhoun, Craig, Nations Matter: Culture, History, and the Cosmopolitan Dream, 2007; and about its suppression in the contemporary art discourse in Henriksson, Minna & Sezgin, Boynic, Nationalism and Contemporary Art: Critical Reader, 2007.

[17]  On the “turn to community” in contemporary art, see for example Journal of Art and Communities, Vol. 5, Nos. 2 & 3, 2013, which were devoted to the issue.

[18]  Baker, George, An Interview with Pierre Huyghe, October, No. 110, Fall 2004, pp. 80-106.

[19] On Disney’s role in American nationalism see:

Smoodin Eric ed., Disney Discourse: Producing the Magic Kingdom, Routledge, 1994. Pp. 71-131.

On myths in American nationalism see:

[20]  See for example the discussion on the creation of the professional identity of Hudson River School artists as part of creating American identity in Strazdes, Diana, “Wilderness and its Waters”: A Professional Identity for the Hudson River School, Early American Studies, Fall 2009, Vol. 7, No. 2, pp. 333-362.

[21]  Zalmona, Yigal, Ibid., pp. 36-37.