Merzer, Arieh

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MERZER, ARIEH (1905–1966), Israeli artist specializing in repoussé reliefs, mainly in copper and silver. Born in a small town near Warsaw, Merzer studied art in Warsaw and began his career as an artist there. From 1930 he lived and worked in Paris. After the occupation of France he was detained in a concentration camp, but in 1943 managed to escape and made his way to Switzerland. At the end of 1945 he immigrated to Ereẓ Israel where he lived alternately in Holon and Safed. He was one of the founders of the Safed artists' colony.

Merzer revitalized the ancient technique of hammered metal which has a long tradition in the Jewish creative arts, especially in the decoration of ceremonial objects. His style reflects the Jewish popular art of Eastern Europe, and his subjects were drawn from the Jewish lore of the past: the ghettos and shtetls of Poland whose culture he knew from his youth. His work includes scenes of Jewish feasts and religious ceremonies, daily life, genre and figures of craftsmen, as well as illustrations of folksongs and of stories by the great Yiddish writers.

In Safed he found an atmosphere not unlike that of the small towns of the Diaspora. The Ashkenazi and Sefardi inhabitants of Safed are depicted in their traditional garb, their earthly simplicity strongly recalling the Jews of the ghetto. Many of his works reflect everyday scenes of Safed, its Old City, its famous synagogues, narrow lanes, and ancient stone houses with wrought-iron railings. He also depicted stories of the Bible as he saw them in his imagination when he first studied them as a child in the ḥeder. Biblical heroes are shown as real characters from the Eastern European Jewish world, those very Jews whom he had encountered in his childhood flavored with Oriental elements with which he was impressed after his arrival in Ereẓ Israel. Occasionally he also addressed himself to contemporary Israeli subject matter, but the bulk of his work is a testament of love to a way of life that has disappeared.

Ornamental elements are emphasized in his reliefs by the frequent use of symmetry especially notable in the decorative effects of the backgrounds, in details and elaborated patterns. He frequently designed animals, plants, and ornamental motifs taken from the rich resources of Jewish folk art. He combined tactile values of the figures, which are the main components of his depictions, with pictorial effects in the backgrounds and landscapes. His work, deeply rooted in Jewish folklore, has a charming simplicity and a naive air and represents a direct continuation of the traditional Jewish folk art.

[Mira Friedman]