Tumarkin, Igael (1933–)

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Tumarkin, Igael

Israeli artist Igael Tumarkin was a 2004 Israel Prize laureate. He is best known as a sculptor of monumental public works and autonomous sculptures. He is also a painter and a graphic artist, who works in collaboration with novelists and poets on books for adults and children. Tumarkin is a highly controversial person, renowned for his sometimes blunt public criticism of accepted notions and values.


Tumarkin was born in 1933 in Dresden, Germany, as Peter Martin Gregor Heinrich Hellberg, to a Jewish mother, Berta Gurevitch, and a Gentile father, Martin Hellberg, who were divorced. When the child was two years old his mother immigrated with him to Palestine; later she married Herzl Tumarkin, whose name he bears. As a young man Tumarkin served for two years in the Israeli navy, after which he entered the studio of the sculptor Rudi Lehmann in the artists' village of En Hod on Mount Carmel. In 1955 he traveled to Berlin to meet his father. There he joined Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble as a set designer and produced his first iron sculptures. From Berlin Tumarkin moved to Amsterdam and then to Paris, where he began working with polyester and industrial and urban waste, the scrap of the First Machine Age, according to the artist. Tumarkin returned to Israel in 1961. He is an extremely prolific artist whose work has been shown in many one-person exhibitions in museums and private galleries in Israel and abroad. He represented Israel at the Venice Biennale (1964), the São Paulo Biennale (1967), and the Tokyo Biennale (1968). His works are in the collections of major museums and in many public spaces in Israel and abroad.


Tumarkin's major contribution to art in Israel lies in his social commitment, his use of materials, and his choice of subject matter. On his return to Israel, Tumarkin pursued his lifelong interest in public, site-specific work. His first sculptures in the desert (Arad Panorama, 1962–1968, and Age of Science, Dimona, 1962–1969) are built of whitewashed concrete walls of varying heights and forms, straight and curved; they incorporate sunlight and shade, and invite bodily involvement. The visitor's movement in and around the forms completes the sculpture. Most works in the Tumarkin Garden (1993) at Kokhav 'ha-Yarden (Belvoir) in the Bet She'an Valley are made of local basalt and forged steel, some painted in red, yellow, and blue. The works, some soaring high above the horizon, others lying at ground level, enter into dialogue with the archaeological ruins across the field.

Tumarkin measures time with the use of new materials and with travels that lead to further discoveries. In Japan (1962) he grasped the language of the brush and the use of spraying. In 1964 he incorporated weapon parts that in their new context lose their original function and provoke reflection on militarism and war. The year 1965 marked the time of the human body, first in reliefs and later in three dimensions. At the same time Tumarkin used many materials that to him were new: bronze, nickel, and stainless steel. A prolonged stay in the United States in 1974–1976 introduced him to the use of glass and Cor-Ten steel that mirror the environment. In 1977 the artist's interest in earth architecture took him to India, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Senegal, Mali, Upper Volta (now Burkina Faso), Mexico, Peru, and other places. The travels gave birth to a book of photographs and commentary, From Earth to Earth Art (1989), and to Tumarkin's new work, made of earth and scraps of iron, wood, and fabric. A 1984 visit to Berlin and a walk by the Berlin Wall suggested sculptures made of two parts, and a walk along railroad tracks solved the problem of the base, which the artist made out of railroad cars and signals. In the early 1990s Tumarkin used a computer to enlarge the drawing of a small-scale vertical form, and working in an iron foundry with professionals allowed him to shape tall and narrow or short and wide pillars, reminiscent, according to the artist in his "Autobiographical Andmardk," of "a flame, a fist, a column, a totem, an obelisk." Painted aluminum and wood formed the heads of playwrights, poets, and literary heroes the artist produced in the late 1990s. The heads were often supplemented with paintings incorporating mixed media: photography, computerized prints, acrylic, and markers.


Name: Igael Tumarkin

Birth: 1933, Dresden, Germany

Nationality: Israeli

Education: Informal


  • 1935: Taken to Palestine by mother, fleeing Nazi Germany
  • 1955–1961: Lives and works in Berlin (with Brecht's Berliner Ensemble), Amsterdam, and Paris
  • 1960s: Represents Israel, Venice Biennale 1964, São Paulo Biennale 1967, Tokyo Biennale, 1968
  • 1974–1976: Lives and works in United States
  • 1970s–1980s: World travel and study
  • 2004: Awarded Israel Prize


Itzhak Danziger (1916–1971), Israeli sculptor, 1968 Israel Prize laureate, was born in Berlin and immigrated to Palestine with his parents in 1925. The family settled in Jerusalem but moved to Tel Aviv after the violence of the 1929 Western Wall Disturbances. Danziger studied art at the Slade School of Art, University of London (1934–1937). In 1938 he returned to Palestine, and after the Second World War traveled among Paris, London and Tel Aviv. Danziger returned to Israel in 1955 to teach at the Technion, Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa. In 1939 Danziger created Nimrod, a major masterpiece of Israeli art. The statue, 90 centimeters high and carved out of red Nubian (Nile valley) sandstone, depicts Nimrod, the legendary king of Mesopotamia, as a naked hunter, carrying a bow and with a hawk on his shoulder. Stylistically, the statue is a synthesis of ancient Egyptian, Middle Eastern, and modern idioms. The sheep sculptures, made of iron, evoke desert rocks, canals, and Bedouin tents. Danziger also worked on the conservation of sites, notably the rehabilitation of the quarries of the Nesher cement plant on the western slopes of Mount Carmel. Danziger was killed in a road accident in 1977.

Tumarkin's imagination is often literary, his references cultural, and his subject matter frequently culled from the history of art. Tumarkin has produced new versions of Dürer's Melancholia, he has presented modern visions of the crucifixion (Ecce Homo and Agnus Dei), revisited the images of ancient gods (Prometheus and Astrare), revised the likenesses of historical heroes (Cleopatra and Jeanne d'Arc) and paid homage to old and contemporary masters such as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, and Brancusi. The only Israeli artist to appear in Tumarkin's pantheon is the sculptor Itzhak Danziger, who inspired him to construct his first iron sculpture in 1956. In a large body of work the artist comments on the conditions of war, sacrifice, heroism, and memory. The first sacrifice in Jewish collective memory is the Binding of Isaac, which is daily revived in the continuous offerings on the altar of the century-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tumarkin has presented irreverent and thought-provoking versions of both biblical and contemporary sacrifices.

Behold the Fire and the Wood: But Where is the Lamb for a Burnt Offering? (Genesis 22:7), 1962–1983, quotes Isaac's question to his father Abraham. The multipart work consists of a dirty toilet bowl, an open pipe for sewage, a trash altar, a fetish, an old typewriter, two buckets, a chair, and some twigs. To Tumarkin, this accumulation is a shrine without religion or cult, a collection of objects that represent "the fire and the wood," whereas the lamb for the burnt offering is the spectator who chances to sit on the toilet bowl. Sinai (1967), a mixed-media triptych the artist produced after the 1967 War, shows the devastation of war and represents its price in human life. The central black wood panel holds disjointed body parts, feet, hands, and bare and helmeted heads, with empty military boots scattered in between. Stains of red paint complete the picture. Tumarkin's best known challenge to the notions of hero and heroism bears the title of a canonical Israeli literary work in order to criticize its assumptions. He Walked in the Fields (1967) borrows from the title of Moshe Shamir's novel, which narrates the life and death in battle of the writer's brother, Eli, in the 1948 War. Eli represents the New Jew, the kibbutznik, who lives on the land and dies for it. Tumarkin's hero, a life-size bronze figure, is blind, his teeth are rotten, and his long red tongue hangs out of his gaping mouth. His arms are amputated, his chest is torn open, revealing weapon parts, and his pants are down, with his penis hanging over them. Similarly, in Hakhnissini Takhat Knafekh (Let Me Under Your Wing) the artist quotes Haim Nachman Bialik's love poem of that title, only to subvert the lover's longing and change the wing into an iron mantle that conceals rifle barrels.

Rifles, guns, screws, nails, and pipes protrude out of many lacerated bodies in Tumarkin's work, and replace necks, arms, and legs. The subject is the human condition in general, and in a country at war in particular. Tumarkin's first war monument, in the Galilee town of Kiryat Shmona (1969), consists of three battle tanks, each painted in a primary color. Tumarkin's other war monument, in a remote, unfrequented site in the Jordan Valley (1972), is built on the contrast between whitewashed concrete walls of varying widths and heights and a tall black sculpture made of iron. In its sheer size, and in the twenty-meter height of the black sculpture, this monument dwarfs the viewer and contradicts the artist's usual antimilitarist stand. In contrast, the Monument of the Holocaust and Revival (1975) stands in a busy square in the heart of Tel Aviv. This is an iron and glass pyramid that stands on its apex over a large triangle to form a Star of David. To the artist, the upside-down pyramid connotes anguish, and the wide opening upward sends forth shouts of hope and joy. The nation's rebirth is symbolized in the reflections of city life, as the glass panes between the iron bars reflect children, adults, houses, and cars—the triumph of life over death in the concentration camps. Tumarkin's public works engage in dialogue with the viewer and the environment; they reflect sunlight and shade, and change with the time of day and the seasons of the year.


Tumarkin conducts dialogues with the past and the present. He constructs his work out of earth, stone, and bronze, he incorporates urban detritus and uses iron and glass, the quintessentially modern building materials. For Tumarkin, a work of art can never be divorced from its embodiment in matter. To compellingly voice his essentially materialist notion of the artwork and his objection to conceptual art, he showed in the early 1970s mockeries of works that rely on the word alone. The accumulation of objects in reliefs and three-dimensional works is indebted to Dada collages, and the artist's intense social and political engagement follows the tradition of the Dada Berlin artists and Brecht. In this tradition, the work of art is never self-referential, and all formal innovations carry social significance. The site-specific works converse with Danziger's commitment to the landscape and to local conditions, and they parallel similar works by Robert Smithson and Richard Serra, for instance.

Tumarkin is the first Israeli artist to represent the crucifixion theme, which is totally foreign to Jewish culture, and he is among the first to challenge collective values. The artist's opposition to collective values confused a society that in the early 1960s still formed an ideologically cohesive group. Moreover, Tumarkin's return to the human figure contradicted the abstract idiom that had allowed the previous generation of artists to escape the grip of ideologically determined subjects, like life and work on the kibbutz or the depiction of the land.


In his visual work and in his numerous verbal communications Tumarkin repeatedly insists on his dual origin and his divided allegiance. He is firmly committed to Western European culture and art, yet he is from the Middle East, he belongs to the region's open spaces, to the Mediterranean sun and sea; at the same time he carries in him the traditions that were formed in the great cities that lie overseas. In his autobiography, I Tumarkin (1981), the artist confesses that he is both from here and from there: "I do not feel a Jew and yet I am from here. Not from there. I feel no bond with Germany—the country, the landscape, the people. Yet my culture is mostly from there, not from here…. I am from the shores of the Mediterranean."


"Belvoir, Tumarkin Sculpture Garden." Exhibition catalogue, Tel Aviv Museum of Art (1996).

Poseq, Avigdor W.G. "'To Be of One's Time': Technology and Inhumanity in Tumarkin." Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Available from http://www.tau.ac.il/arts/projects/PUB/assaph-art/assaph5/articles_assaph5/poseq.pdf.

"Tumarkin, Igael." Israeli Art Center, Israeli Museum, Jerusalem. Available from http://deadseascrolls.tv.

Tumarkin, Igael. Trees, Stones and Cloth in the Wind. Tel Aviv: Massada, 1981.

――――――. From Earth to Earth Art. Tel Aviv: Zemora-Bitan, 1989.

"Tumarkin: Sculptures 1957–1992." Exhibition catalogue, Tel Aviv Museum of Art (1992).

                                           Esther Levinger