A naive look at the land we love

The State of Israel, our 70th birthday and a genre of art that is virtually impossible to not like. Combine these three potent elements, and what we get is “The Land We Love: The Naive Art of Israel,” a warm, colorful exhibition of feel-good paintings now showing at GINA, the Gallery of International Naive Art in Tel Aviv.

Says Dan Chill, owner, founder and driving force behind Israel’s only gallery of naive art: “This is an exhibition that will highlight the leading naive artists of Israel. And the exhibition is in honor of Israel’s 70th birthday.

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We call it ‘The Land We Love,’ and that is reflective of the whole exhibition. The artists have prepared work that celebrates the human narrative, and here in Israel our narrative is different from the narrative of many other countries. We have artists in this exhibition who are reflecting on their youth from before statehood, and there are artists reflecting on the Israel of today.”

What is naive art? Like impressionism or abstract expressionism, naivism is a distinct, recognized genre of painting. Formerly referred to as “primitive,” it was initially popularized by artists like Henri Rousseau and Anna Mary Robertson (“Grandma”) Moses. One of its defining characteristics, according to Chill, is an enchanting innocence and use of childlike perspective and scale. Another is an idealized view of the world – life not as it is, but as it should be.

Nowhere, perhaps, is this feature more evident than in the works of naive artists from South America, who produce lavishly colored paintings of people planting gardens, picking coffee and feeding chickens, in which everyone is smiling, including the chickens. Another defining characteristic is what Chill calls “a punctilious attention to detail,” in which the artist seems to believe that his or her painting of a tree is not complete without a clear rendering of each of its 1,614 very green leaves. And a final characteristic –more a norm than a requirement – is that the artist is self-taught or, at least artistically, “naive.”

Which raises an important issue. While it is easy to ascribe the word “naive” to an unschooled, unsophisticated farmer living along the Amazon River in Brazil who one day decides to pick up a brush and paint, can this term really be applied to artists from one of the most technologically advanced and, arguably, least “naive” countries on earth? Chill unequivocally says yes.

“The short answer is to remind ourselves that even though the genre is called naive art, it doesn’t mean that the artist is naive or that he or she comes from a naive place.

It means that the elements of his or her artworks reflect the elements we define as naive art: simple and easy to understand scenes; the artist looking at the world very simply – the way a naive person looks at life; the artist looking at the world not as it really is, but in an idealized way; a refreshing innocence in the way the artists looks at life – a childlike, not childish innocence.

“The childlike aspects are seen in the perspective, the scale, and the punctilious attention to detail, the breathtaking colors.

We also remind ourselves that the artist is an autodidact. And finally, naive art celebrates the human narrative. Every painting tells a story, a positive story that warms the heart. You don’t see depictions of war. You don’t even see someone smoking a cigarette.

The negative aspects of life are forgotten.

The artist is putting forth a narrative of joy.”

Galia Ron, whose idealized paintings of Galilee landscapes and of childhood on a kibbutz grace this exhibition, seems to personify Chill’s conception of a “naïve artist.”

Asked about her work, she says, “Well, I guess that’s what came out of me. It was in my belly. I never learned. I guess when you don’t learn, and you’re not academic, the art just comes out naive.

“I always painted. As a child it was my favorite thing as a child. After that I stopped.

But I started to paint again when I was not in a very good place emotionally. My life wasn’t so good. The painting came from a dark place. It was the way I expressed my feeling. I guess I wanted to surround myself with something more happy. It was my way of healing myself.”

Ron’s paintings, for example, of children happily dancing the hora at a long-ago kibbutz festival, show how much her therapy succeeded.

Shlomi Asher’s three paintings – two spectacularly colorful views of South Tel Aviv and a whimsical look at three people washing their feet at water faucets on a beach – exemplify the idea of “putting forth a narrative of joy.” He says, “I think that beauty is around us everywhere. And light! You know, even in bed, watching the light come through the window excites me. My painting is naive, but something like realistic, because I like the play of the lights and the shadows. But I make an idealization. I see the beauty of everything, and I make it more nice, more colorful, more alive.”

Making things more colorful and alive is the leitmotif of the more than 90 paintings that comprise this exhibition. The 14 painters whose works are on display range in age from Zoe Sever, 34, whose paintings combine naive art with various non-naive elements, to Nira Lev, whose paintings depict festive scenes from her childhood in pre-state Israel. Some of the artists, like Tirza Horin-Kalagula, depict exquisitely beautiful rural scenes that make you want to jump into and spend a day in – or perhaps never leave. Others, like Dvora Gutman and Christina Burkhart, show us respectively such surprising scenes as people on a big green Egged bus and a small toast and coffee stand in drab-looking daytime and at glittering, colorful night. Particularly interesting are a series of six paintings by Aviva Soncino, chronicling her aliya from Poland to Israel after World War II.

This illustration of Israel as seen through the eyes of naive artists leaves us with an enchanted, loving view of our country available perhaps nowhere else, which is not a bad way to celebrate our 70th birthday.

“The Land We Love: The Naive Art of Israel” is showing until May 4 at GINA, the Gallery of International Naive Art. Opening hours: Mon- Thurs 12:00-21:00, Fridays and holiday eves 10:00-14:00. For further information: (03) 544-4150 or www.ginagallery.