Washington Jewish Week, June 15,2000
The Matisse of Israel
Amos Yaskil's painting of Galilee to
be exhibited in Chevy Chase
by Jeffrey Goldberg
Special to WJW
The first time I ever saw anyone litter in Israel, it was
a revelatioan -- a terrible, ideal-busting revelation. I was 20 years
old, and I had been on a kibbutz in the lower Galilee for all of a week,
and my Leon Uris-inspired vision of Israel had yet to be confronted
The man I saw litter may have been a good person. He may
have been a war hero, for all I knew. But what he did to me to be a
crime against Israel. He had thrown a soda can out of his moving car.
It landed on the side of the road, where it sat. I couldn't believe
it. How could anyone throw trash on the Land of Israel? The soil on
which our forefathers walked? I had grown up a socialist Zionist, and
at summer camp we made believe the hills of the Catskills were the hills
of Galilee and the Jezreel Valley. We were taught to revere the land,
as a way if nothing else, of claiming legitimate ownership.
Flash forward three years I am just out of the Israeli
army, driving with my girlfriend through the Druze town of Daliyat-el-Carmel,near
Haifa. It is a town that is home to a number of excellent art galleries
We pick one at random, walk in, see the paintings of Amos Yaskil, and
all of a sudden I find a little bit of my idealism restored.
The paintings I saw that day were landscapes, breathtaking,
intoxicating landscapes. they were beautiful, and blessedly devoid of
kitsch (unlike all-too-much Israeli art). It was dear Yaskil drew his
inspiration from the Galilee -- I could see Mt. Tabor and the Golan
and the sea itself in his work -- but these were impressions, romantic
impressions Of a place that in reality was no longer so idyllic. His
paintings exploded with color -- this Yaskil, whoever he was, was in
love with the colors of the Galilee, the lavenders and reds of its flowers,
the greens of its mountains and the blue of its sea. If Matisse had
lived the Galilee, this is the way he would have painted.
So who was this Matisse of Israel? I planned to find out,
but life intervened. It wasn't until last year, when I happened to be
back in the north of Israel, driving the spine of the Carmel, that I
came to the town in which I saw Yaskil's work, and I took a shot at
finding the gallery. I succeed and I fell in love again. I told the
owner, a Druze man of obvious good taste named Salah Elkara, that I
wanted to meet Yaskil. Two weeks later, my phone rang: It was Yaskil,
calling from Tiberias.
We met there, in his studio, which is built into the old
city wall. He was charming and charismatic and kind, a man of 65, a
father and grandfather, a kind of warrior-painter -- he fought on the
Golan in '67, on fields he later returned to paint.
I told him exactly what drew me to his paintings: his vision
of the Galilee as a place of over- whelming beauty, undisturbed by the
intrusive hand of overdevelopment and pollution.
"There are so many things now in the Galilee that
disturb the nature, and disturb me," he said. "It is hard
to find an area that is untouched by big electrical towers or phone
towers. They are cutting trees like crazy. The people who came to build
here don't think they can combine trees into their vision."
Art, like everything else in Israel, is political, and
Yaskil, I would learn, fights the political fight for the Galilee, its
nature and its culture. He designs small museums around the Galilee
and counts as his friends Jews,Arabs and Druze. I asked him why a Druze
gallery is the only one to show his work in Israel. He has strong ties
to the family that owns the gallery, he said; besides, 'The Druze are
recognized for the way they see nature, the way they pick the places
they live. When Salah's father saw my paintings, he said, 'Amos sees
nature even better than the Druze,' which is a very big compliment."
Yaekil, like the Druze, belongs to the Galilee. He was
born in Haifa to a German mother and a Polish-German father, who was
also a painter. Yaskil him-self began painting when he was 10. He came
to Tiberias to paint, he told me, because it was uncharted territory
We had moved to his house by now, which sits on a high
hill overlooking the sea and its fisherman, and the Golan Heights lord
over the sea in the background. At first light, early in the morning,
Yaskil comes out to his terrace to paint.
"It is very important to be open to the place where
you open your eyes each morning, the place whose air you breathe,"
By Israeli standards, Yaskil is a success: He is popular
in Europe, wildly popular in Germany. but he is mostly unknown here,
something I hope will change, beginning this weekend with his first-ever
show of his paintings in the Washington area.
Twenty-four of Amos Yaskil's paintings
mill be exhibited at the Marin-Price Galleries, at 7022 Wisconsin Ave.
in Chevy Chase from June 17 until July 6. For information on the opening
reception, call the gallery at 801-718-0622. Jeffrey Goldberg is a writer
for The New York Times Magazine who lives in Washington.