This article explores Jerusalem-based art practice from the 1930s to the 1960s, focusing particularly on the German immigrant artists that dominated this field in that period. I describe the distinct aesthetics of this art and explain its role in the Zionist nation-building project. Although Jerusalem’s art scene participated significantly in creating a Jewish–Israeli national identity, it has been accorded little or no place in the canon of national art. Adopting a historiographic approach, I focus on the artist Mordecai Ardon and the activities of the New Bezalel School and the Jerusalem Artists Society. Examining texts and artworks associated with these institutions through the prism of migratory aesthetics, I claim that the art made by Jerusalem’s artists was rooted in their diasporic identities as East or Central European Jews, some German-born, others having settled in Germany as children or young adults. These diasporic identities were formed through their everyday lives as members of a Jewish diaspora in a host country—whether that be the Russian Empire, Poland, or Germany. Under their arrival in Palestine, however, the diasporic Jewish identities of these immigrants (many of whom were not initially Zionists) clashed with the Zionist–Jewish identity that was hegemonic in the nascent field of Israeli art. Ultimately, this friction would exclude the immigrants’ art from being inducted into the national art canon. This is misrepresentative, for, in reality, these artists greatly influenced the Zionist nation-building project. Despite participating in a number of key Zionist endeavours—whether that of establishing practical professions or cementing the young nation’s collective consciousness through graphic propaganda—they were marginalized in the artistic field. This exclusion, I claim, is rooted in the dynamics of canon formation in modern Western art, the canon of Israeli national art being one instance of these wider trends. Diasporic imagery could not be admitted into the Israeli canon because that canon was intrinsically connected with modern nationalism.
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