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Imaginations: The Modern City

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Modern artists’ renderings of Jerusalem are deeply informed by the complex religious, political, and cultural history of the city. In art of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries Jerusalem appears not so much as a geographical city as a palimpsest, constructed from layers of meanings developed over centuries. Yet, while these artistic re-makings of Jerusalem unavoidably allude to the city’s long and complex past, many also respond to its most recent and highly turbulent past.

Jerusalem’s modern identity has been highly contested. Following a period of considerable persecution of Jewish communities in the latter part of that century, thousands of Russian Jews fled to the Promised Land; in Europe the Zionist movement developed in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. In 1917, Great Britain pledged its support, agreeing to help facilitate the establishment of a Jewish state. The British Empire’s support and a rapid increase in the Jewish population of Palestine over the next four decades, combined to create considerable tension with the Arab population already resident in Palestine, including several outbreaks of violence.

In 1948 the United Nations attempted to partition the land between a majority-Arab Palestine and a new, majority-Jewish Israel. Jerusalem was divided, with Israel controlling the western part of the city and Palestine controlling the east. But the allocation of the land—including access to holy sites such as the Western Wall and the Temple Mount—have remained strongly contested. In the subsequent decades Jerusalem has witnessed continual clashes as well as ongoing efforts to broker peace. While recognizing the city’s continuing and deep divisions, a number of the representations of the city in this collection express their hopes for reconciliation in the earthly city; others seek out a distant heavenly sanctuary, a New Jerusalem. 

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Dennis Creffield's 'Jerusalem Sunrise'

Dennis Creffield, a British artist known for his series of cathedral drawings, was commissioned by James Hyman to produce a collection of works on the theme of 'Jerusalem', for exhibition at the James Hyman Gallery in 2007 CE. The works created for the exhibition built in part on a 1948 painting by Creffield, created during his time as a student of David Bomberg (1890–1957), as well as on works from an earlier exhibition in Jerusalem, also curated by James Hyman, which prompted Creffield to visit the city. The body of work Creffield developed for the 2007 show constituted a response to the famous city itself and a response to William Blake’s London/Jerusalem. In the process Creffield interwove the holy city of the imagination of Jews, Christians and Muslims with the imagined realm of Blake that is so deeply embedded in the history of British art. The collection, one of which is shown here, includes images of the city of Jerusalem, the city of London, and portraits of Blake. Running through these images was a recurrent image of a dome: the dome of Blake’s head, the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, and the Dome of St Paul’s in London. Paintings of Jerusalem landscapes from Creffield's early visits to the city in the 1990s were presented alongside more esoteric and symbolic visions from the 2000s, such as Jerusalem as a bride. The juxtaposition highlighted the multifarious significance of the city, as both a beautiful geographic reality as well as a symbolic ideal. Creffield’s works thus play with the idea of Jerusalem, consciously recognising and celebrating the city ‘as an actual place but also a part of… faith, imagination and dreams - dreams of the past and even hopes of the future’ (Creffield, Jerusalem catalogue).

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Mark Wallinger's 'Painting the Divide (Jerusalem)'

Mark Wallinger is a contemporary British artist known for works on political and religious themes, including 'Angel' (1997), 'Ecce Homo' (1999) and 'Threshold of the Kingdom' (2000). This work is one of a trio of works inspired by divided cities—Jerusalem, Berlin and Famagusta—that Wallinger describes as ‘three of the most divided places you can find anywhere’. Unlike the Christianised visions of the city that dominate the visual history of Jerusalem in pre-twentieth century Western art, Wallinger’s work recognises two religious traditions, Judaism and Islam, coexisting yet divided in the city. The work itself is constructed on a folding screen, embodying the act of dividing space. On the left side of the screen is the Sultan’s Pool, an ancient water reservoir surrounded by a Herodian acqueduct. This water source was modernized by the sixteenth century Ottoman sultan Suleiman, whose extensive renovation of Jerusalem as a city of Islamic prestige earned him the title of the ‘Second Solomon’. On the right side of the screen is an image of the Mishkenot Sha’ananim, the first Jewish settlement outside of the Old City, established in 1860. The patron of this project was Sir Moses Montefiore, a wealthy British Jew deeply invested in Jerusalem, who believed it would one day be 'the seat of a Jewish Empire'. The juxtaposition of the two photographs allows the artist to create a neutral, side-by-side presentation, offering a poignant reflection on the tension of the coexistence of Islam and Judaism in Jerusalem. By placing the two sites together—one a monument of the Muslim Empire, the other a representation of ninteenth century hopes for a Jewish counterpart—Wallinger recognises the profound religious and political turmoil of contemporary Jerusalem, while also hinting of a hoped for bridging of the divide in a fractured city.

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Wim Wenders’ 'Jerusalem Seen from Mt Zion'

Wim Wenders’ documentary-style photographs capture a sense of the profound tragedy that often accompanies Jerusalem in the modern imagination. In contrast to the magisterial panorama of Reuwich’s work, or the imaginative rendering of the city in the Hague Map, Wenders captures a desolate landscape that hints at the troubling political situation of the city in the twenty-first century. Taken from Mount Zion—believed by many to be the burial site of King David and a particularly important location in the history of Judaism—Wenders’ image highlights the way in which the geography of the city has been shaped by both Judaism and Islam. As if standing on the 'holy mountain', the viewer’s eye is caught by the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the centre of Wenders’ image, implicitly placing the two sites in parallel. While Wenders’ composition recognises the centrality of these two important spiritual locations, it diminishes their power by foregrounding of a decrepit-looking graveyard, suggesting a sense of loss and degradation that exists in modern day Jerusalem.The image can also be interpreted to refer to the hope of many to be buried in Jerusalem so that they might be among the first to rise—but that that is a future reality and not the current situation.

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Anselm Kiefer's 'Heavenly Jerusalem'

Anselm Kiefer is a German artist whose work is deeply focused on the trauma of World War II and the Holocaust, German identity, mythology, and Jewish culture. The city of Jerusalem has been consistently central in his work from the late 1980s onwards. Using both Jewish and Christian symbolism, Kiefer’s work questions how it is possible to continue to make art in a world scarred by devastation. The city of Jerusalem functions as a powerful image of the human history of struggle, but also its persistent spirituality. In his vision of Heavenly Jerusalem, Kiefer eschews any biblical or historical iconography of the city, developing his own visual language instead. He plays with the dual identity of Jerusalem to create an image that is both dark and light, full of horror but also hope. In the centre of the canvas are what appear to be railway tracks, a frequent motif in Kiefer’s work, disappearing at the horizon. The tracks link the image to the Nazi use of the railway in Germany and function as a means of remembering the horror of the Holocaust. Simultaneously, their lines, carved into the landscape, resemble a ladder. This is another common motif in Kiefer's work and resonates with the story of Jacob’s vision of a crossing place between heaven and earth (Genesis 28:10-19); its use here represents Jerusalem as a liminal space between earthly and divine realms.

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Gerhard Richter's 'Jerusalem, 1995'

In this ethereal painting of the city, the German artist Gerhard Richter recreates a snapshot photograph he took of Jerusalem from his hotel room in 1995, looking towards the Christian Quarter. Discernible features of the cityscape have been all but erased in the painting, partially anonymising the city, or supplying it with a sense of timelessness. Only with very close inspection is it possible to make out a lamppost or car amongst the architectural structures. By these means Richter’s rendering of Jerusalem appears simultaneously as a vision of the city from centuries ago and a bird’s eye view on the contemporary metropolis. While the image is not a work of imagination, the ambivalent and luminescent light imbuing the painting effects a dreamlike quality in the image, perhaps alluding to the mystical and mythical status of the Holy City. Unlike some modern artists who chose to focus on the desolate quality of contemporary Jerusalem, or explore the religious and national divisions in the city, Richter’s work seems to meditate on the impossibility of visually conveying the full complicated history of the place. Instead his painting functions like a medieval visual aid for spiritual pilgrimage, evoking in its viewers a personal, individual response to the site by encouraging the exploration of their own memories and imaginings of the city, brought to the fore by his own ambivalent representation.

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David Bomberg's 'Jerusalem, Looking to Mount Scopus'

David Bomberg is perhaps most famous for his paintings influenced by cubism and futurism, such as the Vision of Ezekiel (1912) and The Mud Bath (1914). A key figure on the British art scene before the First World War, Bomberg was associated with a group of artists and writers now known as the Whitechapel Boys, a collection of Anglo-Jewish modernist artists and writers. On his return to England from the Western Front, traumatised by his experience of war, Bomberg went into crisis. He lost his passion for the modern world — abstract painting and the hopes of futurism became connected to the horrors of mechanised warfare. After a period of considerable struggle, he was given a commission by a British Zionist group, the Palestine Foundation Fund, who worked to relocate Jewish settlers in Palestine with the support of the British government following the Balfour Declaration in 1917. Under encouragement from his contemporary Muirhead Bone, the group sponsored Bomberg's travel to Jerusalem, with the expectation that he would produce a number of paintings that would serve as propaganda for their project. Although Bomberg was not a Zionist, he felt rootless and distracted living in England and the attraction of the Holy Land was strong. In 1923 he and his wife Alice arrived in Jerusalem and Bomberg set to work. The paintings he created during this period were not, however, well received by his patrons. Rather than focus on the attractions of new settlements, Bomberg’s work eschewed all reference to modernisation of the land, ignoring the promises of pioneer life so central to the PFF’s cause. Instead Bomberg favoured desolate landscapes that spoke to the long, unchanging spiritual significance of the Holy Land rather than the modern twentieth century city. The painting here is typical in presenting a serene, calm, and unpopulated view over the Jerusalem cityscape. Although its figurative style is a far cry from Bomberg's earlier work, there remains some trace of his cubist mode of working in the angular, flat planes of the city’s architecture.