Israel and the Middle East Matthew Teller

| August 10, 2011

Matthew Teller is a multi-award winning journalist and travel writer. Specialising on the Middle East, he has travelled widely throughout the region and his work is published in newspapers and magazines in Britain and around the world.

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COX & KINGS: Israel is somewhere that most people might not immediately associate with art. What are people likely to see when they visit and where should they go?

MATTHEW TELLER: Both Israeli and Palestinian contemporary art are thriving, set against a backdrop of quite different historical contexts.

Israel's history before and after the Second World War brought widespread influences from around the world, but chiefly from central and eastern Europe. Israeli culture developed within and around those influences, which fuelled, for instance, a significant stream of Russian and Yiddish art and literature within the mainstream culture, and an extraordinarily rich legacy of original Bauhaus architecture, particularly in Tel Aviv. A strong tradition of patronage of the arts has given rise to a number of important artistic institutions both there and in Jerusalem, alongside dozens of small lively galleries.

Palestinian society within and beyond Israel also nurtures vibrant cultural influences in the visual arts, originating from wider Syrian and Arab contexts but developing specifically Palestinian themes stemming from the experience of occupation and displacement. Although there are few outlets for Palestinian art in Israel, Palestinian artistic influence on Israeli culture remains widespread, from music and architecture to textiles and even cuisine.

Art isn’t confined to galleries and museums. As you move around you have to be constantly alert to all the different means of cultural expression within what is a fascinatingly complex and massively heterogeneous society.

C&K: You mentioned Tel Aviv and Jerusalem as the main centres of art. What are the main differences between those cities?

MT: If it's possible to generalise, Tel Aviv is a largely secular city, with a freewheeling Mediterranean ambience and an engagingly lively take on the arts, while Jerusalem – with all its religious and historical baggage, and its status as Israel's self-declared capital – hosts mainstream institutions that, on the whole, take fewer risks.

That means Tel Aviv has the Museum of Art – founded almost 80 years ago it displays world-class pieces by Van Gogh, Chagall, Kandinsky and Picasso alongside contemporary shows and changing exhibitions – but it also has a clutch of edgier small galleries such as Raw Art, Dvir and P8. Jerusalem, on the other hand, has the stunning Israel Museum – where art takes second place to history and archaeology – but relatively few smaller galleries, many of which focus more or less exclusively on Judaica. 

C&K: How did Bauhaus architecture come to Tel Aviv and where will people see the best examples?

MT: During the 1920s and 30s, Jewish architects who had left or were expelled from Germany settled in the newly founded city of Tel Aviv, particularly following the Nazis' closure of the Bauhaus school in 1933. Under Tel Aviv's 1925 master plan, devised by British sociologist Sir Patrick Geddes, these new arrivals were able to put their creativity and training to striking use. Tel Aviv's city centre still has around 4,000 original Bauhaus buildings, of which around 750 were collectively listed by Unesco as of world heritage importance.

Many of these are clustered on and around the broad Rothschild Boulevard: just strolling along this street and dipping into side-streets reveals a wealth of gloriously restored, gleaming white Bauhaus buildings, with their distinctive sleek lines and curving balconies.

C&K: The Gallery of Contemporary Art in Umm Al-Fahm has had wide ranging reviews. How did the museum come about?

MT: This is a fascinating development. Umm Al Fahm, up in the north, is the largest Palestinian town in Israel, with a population around of 40 or 50,000. Way off any beaten tourist tracks, it has a reputation for Islamic conservatism. Yet here, a former police officer named Said Abu Shakra runs an amazingly dynamic and successful gallery of contemporary art, showing both Israeli and Palestinian artists and building bridges of culture and participation between communities.

For now, the gallery is shoehorned into a small building within the town centre. I first met and interviewed Abu Shakra there in 2005: even then he had plans to expand. Recently he announced that funding has been secured for the first phase of a $30m redevelopment, to build what would be Israel's first museum of Arab art and culture, on a large site at the edge of town. It is scheduled for opening in 2014. I, for one, hope he succeeds.

C&K: If you only had time on your next trip to the region to visit two art-related places, where would you go?

MT: Good question. I'm going to cheat a little by saying first I would do a walk through the middle of Tel Aviv, to take in the visually striking Bauhaus architecture in its original setting. Then I would visit the single most sublimely beautiful and significant building in the country (and perhaps the entire Middle East), in place for more than 1,300 years: the breathtaking Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. After that, anything else is an anticlimax.

C&K: For someone that’s never visited Israel before, what would be your one bit of advice?

Don't trust the naysayers!

Cox & Kings organises expert-led group tours to Europe and other worldwide destinations on behalf of the Royal Academy. Matthew Teller is leading its tour to Israel in October. His blog can be read at

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