The foundations of the Israeli art collection at the Israel Museum were laid at the beginning of the twentieth century with the establishment of the Bezalel Museum. The collection was begun with works by the teachers at its sister institution, the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, the first modern artists in the Land of Israel. When the Bezalel Museum became the national museum in 1925, it adopted a policy of collecting local work and exhibiting it to a large and eager audience. This activity was particularly intense in the 1940s and reached a peak in the late 1950s and the 1960s, when Bezalel was the only public body in Israel to present exhibitions of contemporary Israeli avant-garde artists.
When the Israel Museum was established in 1965, it became the heir to the Bezalel Museum in all its holdings and character, and the collection of Israeli art continued apace. The Israeli Art unit was created as a separate department of the Art Wing in 1979, and from its first years the Israel Museum implemented an active program of acquisition, research, and exhibition of Israeli art. Directors and curators were strongly committed to this program and keenly aware that excellence in the field of Israeli art must be one of the Museum's priorities. Building the Pavilion of Israeli Art in 1985 afforded the prime museological conditions for displaying art created in Israel.
The Museum’s Israeli Art acquisition policy is based on two principles: the first concerns excellence and selectivity, concentrating on in-depth acquisitions from a limited number of artists from different periods. This has ensured the formation of important bodies of work by the best Israeli artists in the Museum’s collection. The second principle is to maintain a balance between the older generation, the intermediate generation, and younger artists.
The works of Bezalel teachers from the early twentieth century represent the first chapter in the annals of Israeli art, among them unique works such as Ze’ev Raban’s Elijah’s Chair and the large sketch for a carpet by E. M. Lilien, the greatest of the early Zionist artists.
The Modernist revolution during the 1920s is represented by a group of works that have become icons of Israeli art, including paintings by Nahum Gutman, Reuven Rubin, Israel Paldi, and their peers. The sculptures of Rudi Lehmann stand out among the art of the 1930s and 1940s, as does Itzhak Danziger’s Nimrod, widely thought to be the most famous work of Israeli art.
The next chapter in Israeli modernism opens in the 1950s and 1960s, with many works by artists such as Yossef Zaritsky, Yehezkel Streichman, and Arie Aroch, whose Agripas Street is considered one of the most important works created in Israel.
The late modernism of the 1960s and 1970s is represented by salient holdings of the finest works of masters such as Moshe Kupferman, Michael Gross, Igael Tumarkin, and Raffi Lavie. The policy of acquiring works of young artists has made it possible for the Museum to amass a comprehensive body of art from the 1970s to the present, which is augmented and updated from year to year.
This broad spectrum affords the opportunity for in-depth study of the most incisive questions posed by generations of Israeli artists in their search for a better understanding of the reality in which they live.
The Museum’s concentrated activity in the field of Israeli art has special significance in light of the wealth of its holdings in the archaeology of the Land of Israel, Judaica and Jewish ethnography, and contemporary international art. Historic connections are interwoven with local art, imparting to it a striking and unexpected dimension.