The first half of the 20th century was dominated by the desire for authentic homegrown art, art that would convey the experience of the Jewish people's rebirth in its own land. Zionism strove to repair the physical and mental infirmity of the Diaspora Jew, transforming him into the New Hebrew. The artists did their part, depicting the "new and improved" Jew as a mighty pioneer-warrior. This Jew was highly physical: virile and uninhibited, dynamic and masterful, with a natural connection to the local landscape. Zionism held that such a hero could only emerge in the Land of Israel, and the setting portrayed by artists was fresh, unspoiled, and clearly Middle Eastern - the antithesis of alien Europe with its long and often hostile history.
Over time this attitude changed, as artists began to deal critically with other aspects of the body and its relationship to the Land. The earlier idealistic images became ambiguous; they were replaced by damaged figures with far less control over their destiny, and landscapes that questioned the national narrative. The idealized emblematic Jew, reborn in the Promised Land, became an individual haunted by questions of personal and national identity, as well as by the difficulties of realizing the Zionist vision.
The Israel Museum's collection of Israeli art is arranged in the galleries according to some of the key themes addressed by Israeli artists in the past 100 years. The exhibition brings together old and new, displaying a range of styles as well as differing worldviews.
The first space in the gallery contains works that reflect and respond to the Zionist engagement with the Land of Israel. Some of the works seek to define a distinctive personal and collective identity rooted in the new-old country. Others move away from optimistic devotion to the Land, adopting a more sober and critical attitude.
The second part of the exhibition celebrates the autonomy of artistic creation, free of dependence on realistic depiction. The works there are personal, more abstract expressions of the artist's memories and inner world, focusing in some works on the creative process and its components.
Finally, the different aspects of the exhibition come together through iconic works that demonstrate the diversity of Israeli art and the varied, elusive nature of "Israeliness."