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August 4, 2014 7:20 pm

EXCLUSIVE: IDF Veteran, Painter Tomer Peretz Wins Inaugural Arthur Szyk Prize of Disruptive Thought and Zionist Art (INTERVIEW)

avatar by Joshua Levitt

'Funeral,' by Tomer Peretz. Photo: Tomer Peretz.

'Funeral,' by Tomer Peretz. Photo: Tomer Peretz.

Israeli-American painter, and Israel Defense Forces veteran, Tomer Peretz, 32, was selected for the inaugural Arthur Szyk Prize of Disruptive Thought and Zionist Art, the organizers of the award told The Algemeiner on Monday.

Peretz’s work was selected out of more than 100 submissions for the $1,000 award, announced last year, that aims to provide more exposure to young artists by recognizing work that “challenges the static conception of Zionism with ideas that extend beyond the work of art itself.”

Peretz, a Jerusalemite who now lives in Los Angeles, has been featured in some 40 shows since becoming a professional artist after serving in the IDF. He’s now raising money via a Kickstarter campaign to exhibit a series of 35 life-size art installations depicting Israeli soldiers in camp and combat, called the Unbreakable Project. The images use a palette of reds, blacks, and greens to show IDF infantrymen in battle, at rest, after a long mission, or crying over a fallen comrade.

Peretz gave the Arthur Szyk Prize and The Algemeiner permission to publish two of his works. The first, a giant, six-feet by seven-feet, from 2010, entitled, ‘Funeral,‘ is part of a collection dedicated to three friends who were killed during their army service in 2003; David Solomonov, killed by Hezbollah, and Igal Lifshitz and Offer Sharabi, killed in a terror attack.

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'Play Time at the Gulf War,' by Tomer Peretz. Photo: Tomer Peretz.

'Play Time at the Gulf War,' by Tomer Peretz. Photo: Tomer Peretz.

The second is entitled, ‘Play Time at the Gulf War,’ showing two children, in black and white, playing with colored blocks, while wearing gas masks.

“Tomer’s work shows the humanity of civilian and soldier alike, and in this offers an understanding that can save us from future strife,” said Craig Dershowitz, president and co-founder of Artists 4 Israel, a co-sponsor of the $1,000 prize. “At a time of increased anti-Israel sentiment around the globe, it’s important to know that true artists identify as Zionists. “

The prize was named in honor of Arthur Szyk, a Polish-born artist known for his caricatures of political figures before and during World War II, who used his art famously to rally support against the Nazi regime.

Daniel Fink, co-founder of Jewish National Initiative, the prize’s co-sponsor, said Szyk “had the courage to pour his work into fighting for the Jews of Europe. Looking back, it’s easy to imagine that there was a united front against Nazism and in support of American intervention to stop a horrible crime from occurring in Europe. In reality, that was far from the case. Arthur Szyk put himself on the line to express his ardent support and show the catastrophe European hatred was brewing at that time.”

He said the award aims “to show young artists that there’s an alternative” to what “the art world and the academy” proclaim in “a unanimity about Zionism that is literally impossible to find in those very contentious worlds on any other topic.”

Fink said artists “don’t have to subscribe to the prevailing views, they can think for themselves, they can develop their own ideas or even do something that for centuries art has been used to do—explore difficult ideas and explode conventional wisdom.”

He said announcing the prize in the midst of the global surge in anti-Semitism that uses Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza as a pretext to espouse hateful views, reflects exactly what the award hopes to counter.

“There couldn’t be a more acute expression of the aims of the prize than the global reaction we’re seeing to Israel and to Jews around the world,” Fink said. “People opposed to Israel would love to catch this moment in isolation, as if it’s not connected in any way to the long, bloody history of hatred towards Jews and the institutions that represent them.”

“Of course, many people oppose violence and express their views in thoughtful and balanced ways. But many more do not,” he said. “For us, the prize is not about ‘changing hearts or minds’ but about offering the view of an artist who sees things differently. The prize mission says it’s intended to ‘spark new conversations’ about Zionism—and that is exactly true in the sense that each winner should be a light amid the darkness.”

Fink extended the analogy of light, saying that art can give “people a new way to look at something seen for so long in a certain light” and “there’s really no greater need” than now “for this type of perspective-shifting than on the topic of Israel, which is rife with stale cliches and entrenched narratives which are very effective when it comes to tugging heart strings but less so in uncovering truth.”

“Art is truly an open-minded endeavor, which means that when an artist looks at something he or she can shine a light that reveals truth behind all the distortion,” Fink said.

He said that was also the ethos behind his organization, Jewish National Initiative, with the motivating idea being “that there’s a new generation of Zionists out there who are waiting for something new, something that breaks the tired tropes of the previous generation to show Israel as a place where passionate, intelligent, and committed people are gathering in the name of a truly great cause.”

“One way we can reach these people is by showing them art that disregards all the anti-Israel chatter, no matter how sophisticated it might sound, and goes straight to the heart of the meaning of Israel in the world today,” Fink said.

Ashley Rindsberg, the South African-born author of short story collection ‘Tel Aviv Stories’ and co-founder JNI, said, “We’re standing at the very outset of not just this prize, but of an effort to turn the tide of cynicism, anti-Zionism, and self-denial that has characterized much of the art world in Israel for the past few decades.”

“This is an enormous challenge, in large part because the Israeli art world is filled with artists of exceptional talent but who have been given an empty inheritance when it comes to being able to face the serious issues that characterize Israeli and Jewish existence,” Rindsberg said.

“We want to see a world in which Israeli artists tap into their own heritage and history, to grapple with the spiritual issues, and not simply to sniff or deride them, in order to offer the next generation a deeper and more nuanced understanding,” he said. “Despite the significance of this challenge, we believe that not only is this something which can be achieved, but that we are at a turning point.”

“There is something very profound and very positive germinating in Israel,” according to Rindsberg, who lives in New York City and Tel Aviv. “The definition of art is changing. Artists around the country are beginning to understand that a return to the color, texture and crafts of the Land of Israel is as important to artistic endeavor as the high-minded, theory-driven aesthetics of the academy. What we hope to see is an interweaving of the two, to produce a revival that is as authentic as it is sophisticated, and looks back on a heritage as it projects forward into the future.”

Allison Chang, representing the Arthur Szyk Society, a non-profit dedicated to honoring the artist’s work, said the values the award recognizes mirror Szyk’s, “his passion for Israel, and the belief that art can stimulate change and question prevailing wisdom.”

Chang, who now works for the Cantor Arts Center, at Stanford University, previously worked for Historicana,  an antiquarian bookseller, art dealer and publisher best known for its luxury limited-edition printing of ‘The Szyk Haggadah,’ the artist’s most enduring work.

‘The Szyk Haggadah’ featured 48 drawings illustrated between 1932 and 1938, and reflected the deteriorating political situation in Germany at the time. One scene, in particular, the parable of the four sons, portrayed the “wicked son” as a man wearing German clothes, with an Adolf Hitler mustache. The expression of the series was even stronger in its original version: the drawings showed snakes with swastikas, there were also heads of Hermann Göring and Joseph Goebbels.

By the time the haggadah was published, in 1940, Szyk had to delete all of the swastikas to get the book by his publishers. Despite the edits, the work was still widely acclaimed. The New York Times wrote it was “worthy to be placed among the most beautiful of books that the hand of man has ever produced.”

A visitor to Palestine before the outbreak of World War I, Szyk also imbued his sense of Jewish identity into creating work to oppose Britain’s “White Paper,” which limited Jewish migration to Israel at 10,000 people per year, thus condemning millions in Europe to die in the Holocaust. Szyk also created illustrations to protest against the passivity he perceived by the Jewish community in the U.S. during the war.

At Szyk’s funeral, in New Canaan, CT, in 1951, Rabbi Ben Zion Bosker said, “Arthur Szyk was more than a great artist. He was a great man, a champion of justice, a fearless warrior in the cause of every humanitarian endeavor. His art was his tool and he used it brilliantly. It was in his hands a weapon of struggle with which he fought for the causes close to his heart.”

The jury of The Arthur Szyk Prize included Dershowitz, Rindsberg, and Chang, as well as David Laxer, founder of Tel Aviv design and branding firm Brandalism, and Deborah Danino, Tel Aviv University PhD Candidate in French Literature.

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