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 by reality.
  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 for artists.
   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," he said.
   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.