A tribute to the passing of Israel’s internationally renowned sculptor – Dani Karavan
By David E. Kaplan
Internationally famed for making his monuments blend into their environment, Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan – who died this past May 2021 at the age of 90 – blended into the public, hardly recognized when walking about his native Tel Aviv.
I put this question to the artist in a co-interview with Moshe Alon in 2013 when we asked:
“While you are an internationally acclaimed artist, admirers of your work might not recognize you standing alongside one of your masterpieces? Does this bother you?”
“Not at all. I think you hear about the noisy ones more than the quiet ones but this is true of any group. People hear about the extroverts and less about the introverts. Some artists prefer to create their work in peace and quiet, and you don’t hear much about their personal lives.”
Karavan’s work can be found across Europe, Asia and Israel. It’s hard to escape his distinctive style that blends sculpture, architecture and the landscape into unique and monumental pieces. Through molding and meshing of the environment, Karavan’s works showcase the urban or natural elements of their respective surroundings. As such, his materials range from concrete – in the construction of large geometrical structures – to the lands natural offerings – trees, water, grass and crusty surface.
We noted that “Your works are not ‘sculptures’ in the traditional sense – pieces that are exhibited in a museum or placed in the middle of a public square,” and asked. “You integrate the natural environment using the land – as if sculpting the landscape?”
“That’s correct. This is what characterizes my work which is rooted to a physical environment and not to an atelier [artist workshop]. I was once privileged to meet the distinguished sculptor Henry Moore and observe him work in his environment – how he molded a model the size of a suitcase handle and enlarge it ninny-nine times its size.
For me it’s the opposite, because the large environment where I work emerges as part of my composition.
One example is the wall at the Knesset, rooted to the environment – physically and conceptually. Another is the Negev Brigade Memorial – my first big piece as a sculptor – and which was a groundbreaking project. Up until then, “site-specific” environmental sculpture did not exist. To some degree, it is similar to architecture, where the architect designs specifically for a particular environment.
In effect, I am a sculptor that does not search for a place, but rather the place seeks me. Michelangelo said that the statue already exists within the stone; I say that the sculpture already exists within the environment. I just unearth it. This is essentially my contribution to the evolution of sculpture. I wanted that sculpture be something people can climb and children play on – that it will be full of life and not pieces where people visit once a year to lay flowers.”
How true when I think of Karavan’s massively monumental work at the Edith Wolfson Park on the eastern edge of the city of Tel Aviv. If its Tuesday, “we, the grandparents”, are usually there with our grandson. Perched high, the park offers a magnificent view of the city from its most iconic Karavan “The White Square”, the monumental work overlooking “The White City” as Tel Aviv is famously known because of its white Bauhaus architecture. Karavan’s sculpture is a complex geometric work that is an ode to the city itself.
If Tel Aviv is a city not so much to see but to experience, then so too is Karavan’s sculpture where it is less viewed than it is walked, climbed, roller-skated and rollerbladed upon. I invariably join the “kids” in sliding down the sculpture’s colossal “sundial” on carboard as well as scampering up the large “pyramid”. The sculpture exudes physicality – it is a metaphor for Tel Aviv of open-ended action befitting its reputation as “the city that never sleeps.” If you are generally “into art”, then visiting The White Square you literally, “get into” this art as you climb in, over, upon and through it!
Feeling his Way
On several occasions, he was commissioned to create memorials for victims of Nazi Germany.
The horrific atrocities suffered by Jews, and others during World War II, was a key theme in Karavan’s work, not least because his parents’ families lost many members during the Holocaust.
Another notable example is the “Way of Human Rights” at the Germanic National Museum in the Bavarian city of Nuremberg.
Karavan’s “Passages” memorial in Portbou, Spain, also became well-known since its unveiling in 1994. It commemorates the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who died in the small Spanish border town in 1940 while fleeing from the Nazis.
It was named “Passages” in remembrance of Benjamin’s final passage from France to Spain, as well as his enormous unfinished work Passagenwerk (Arcades Project) on 19th-century Paris. The name also refers to the several passages visitors make during their time at the memorial, from the journey down the steps to the glass view of the ocean whirlpool and back up to the rectangle of sunlight in the dark.
Taken from Walter Benjamin’s On the Concept of History, etched in German are the words:
“It is more arduous to honour the memory of anonymous beings than that of the renowned. The construction of history is consecrated to the memory of the nameless.”
That “nameless” Dani also ‘rectified’ in his memorial created in 2005, depicting the foundation of the Regensburg Synagogue in Bavaria, Germany that was destroyed during a pogrom in 1519. On February 21, 1519, the Jewish community of Regensburg – that had lived in the city for 500 years – was ordered to leave but only after its members had demolished the interior of their 13th-century synagogue.
Demolishing more than a synagogue, they were forced to demolish their past.
Despite his international fame, when asked which award among all those he has received touched him the most, he answered unwaveringly:
“The Israel Prize which I received at the age of 46. It stands today as my greatest honour. I received it during a very special year and the person who shook my hand at the ceremony was Yitzhak Rabin… an added honour. While I hardly mention the international awards I have won, I am never reticent about my Israel Prize.”
‘Portrait of an Artist’
The recurring flower motif in Karavan’s work is reminiscent of his memories of his childhood and of his father’s garden. The ‘sights and smells’ of nature from his home in Tel Aviv – before it was the bustling city it is today – continued to influence the artist’s’ work.
Dani probably drew his inspiration from his father who had been a landscape architect. He studied art in Israel (at Bezalel), Florence, and Paris. During his youth, he was also involved in the establishment of kibbutz Harel, located in the Jerusalem Corridor. A week following our interview in 2013, he travelled to Berlin to dine with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. A man of the world, he relished in recalling “raising mice and lizards” as a child and “weeding my father’s garden in order to earn a small allowance to buy falafel and soda.”
Known for creating poignant monuments in Israel and around the world, Karavan’s most recognized local work is the huge wall carving in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, named “Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem”.
While Karavan could mold material to articulate his dreams and visions, he lamented “an inability to influence better relations with our Arab neighbours. My father arrived in Israel in the 1920s. He came as an idealist, and I inherited that idealism and what better vision to work for, than the pursuit of regional peace and happiness. If you ask what I still want to do, yes, I need to finish my autobiography but also, to collaborate with a Palestinian artist on a project toward peace.”
Not all endeavors “towards peace” are invariably fulfilled. However, that task, even though Dani Karavin has passed on, still maybe possible. If Dani Karavan is no more, his most notable work in Israel, the huge wall carving decorating the plenum of the Knesset – is.
Appropriately named, the stone mural of an abstract Jerusalem landscape depicting surrounding hills and the Judean desert, faces the elected members of ALL the people of Israel – and under the shadow of Dani Karavan’s creative mind and hands, they can continue his ‘unfinished work’ – to pursue peace.
Some of Karavan’s important works:
The “Path of Peace” sculpture by artist Dani Caravan. An environmental sculpture which is one of the attractions of Nitzana
UNESCO Square of Tolerance – Homage to Yitzhak Rabin, Paris, France
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