In many of my blogs I have featured European artist who had ancestors who were part of the European Jewish community such as Marc Chagall, Chaim Soutine, Max Liebermann, Diego Rivera and Isaac and Joseph Israels. As I look down the list of Jewish painters it appears to be dominated by male artists. In this blog today I want to feature one of the great female Jewish painters, Sionah Tagger, who was one of the pioneers of Modernist painting in Israel.
Sionah Tagger was born in Jaffa, Israel on August 17th 1900. She was the eldest daughter of Shmuel and Sultana Tagger, who were members of the Ahuzat Bayit group, the founders of Tel Aviv. Their house where she was born was at 3 Rothschild Boulevard and was the first two-storey house in Tel Aviv. Her ancestors hailed from Spain and in the latter part of the fifteenth century they moved to Holland and then later they lived in Germany and Bulgaria. Sionah’s father Shmuel, when he was just an infant, left Bulgaria with his family and immigrated to Palestine in 1868. In 1890, when he was twenty-two-years old, he married Sultana, who was the daughter of a wealthy resident of the Old City in Jerusalem. The newly-weds moved to Nahalat Shiva, the third neighbourhood built outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem in the 1860s. Later, they moved to Jaffa, where Shmuel set up a business importing furniture and trading in leather. As a practicing Jew, Schmuel was involved in the founding of Jaffa’s central synagogue and of the Ohel Moed synagogue in Tel Aviv.
Sionah Tagger had seven brothers and sisters – Asher, Baruch, Miriam, Shoshana, Hezkia, Shalom and Yosef. She was the oldest girl. Sionah attended a number of different schools in Jaffa, Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem including the School for Girls in Neve Tzedek, the Levinsky Teachers Seminar and the Alliance School in Jerusalem, before starting her first artistic education with Avraham Eisentein-Aldema, one of the early Israelie bohemians. From there she began evening classes at the Hatomer Cooperative Studio at the Gymnqsia Herzliya in Tel-Aviv, which had been founded by Yaacov Peremen. Yosef Constantinovsky (Constant) and Yitzhak Frenkel were the most important painting teachers at the studio. Both instilled in their students the spirit of Russian Futurist Cubism, which was based on French art.
From the age of twenty-one, Sionah enrolled on a course at the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem, despite her former teachers being opposed to the Academic, Romantic style of the Bezalel School’s artistic training. Whether she had been swayed by the views of her previous art teachers, Sionah was one of the students who protested against Boris Shatz, the founder of the Belazel School and Abel Pann one of the principal lecturers for their conservative approach
Sionah first exhibited some of her works at the “First Artistic Exhibition” organized by Ferman at Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv. In the late 1923 with support from her family she travelled to Paris, where she stayed for two years, living in the Montparnasse district of the capital. She attended the newly opened academy of André Lhote which was situated close to the Montparnasse railway station. The academy of André Lhote was much sought after and attracted an unprecedented number of international students. During her time in Paris, she studied draughtsmanship, composition and painting and over time she became influenced by Cubism, the revolutionary new approach to representing reality. The movement was founded by artists Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque around 1907/8 but by the 1920’s when Sionah was in Paris she was attracted to the Fauvist works of André Derain. Although she returned home in 1925, she became the first female member of the Hebrew Arts Association. She revisited the Lhote Academy during her stay in Paris in 1930/31, as well attending the Académie de la Grande Chaumière.
After two years, Sionah returned to Israel and joined the local group of modern artists. They organised many exhibitions, some at the Ohel Theatre, at the Tower of David in Jerusalem. In 1931, Tagger held a solo exhibition at Gymnasia Herzliya in Tel Aviv, which was titled “Framed Portraits.” Sionah also participated in several exhibitions in Paris. On December 7th 1934 she gave birth to her son Avraham who would later become a member of the Knesset from 1977 to 1996 and for a time was the Minister of Agriculture. In 1938, Sionah exhibited her paintings in Cairo, at the Friedman-Goldenberg Gallery.
During World War II, four of her brothers joined the British army and in 1942, Sionah Tagger, who at the time had an eight-year-old son, volunteered for the British Army, serving in one of the British army’s ATS divisions where she served mainly in Egypt and in the Western Desert where they carried out administration work. They were later also trained as ambulance and delivery drivers. World War II was at its peak, and the Jewish population of Mandatory Palestine was in danger. In 1944, Sionah was released from the army and went back to Tel Aviv, where she held a large exhibition of her paintings in the lobby of Habima Theatre. The exhibition included 40 oil paintings, 30 watercolours and sketches depicting the experiences of female soldiers in the British army.
Although she had extended stays in Paris, she also journeyed around Germany, Italy and Spain but always returned to her Israeli homeland where she would paint local landscapes. In 1948 Tagger represented Israel in the Venice Biennale. In the Northern Israeli town of Safed there was an artist’s colony. The founding members of the Artists’ Colony settled in Safed shortly after the creation of the State of Israel in 1948 and they took over an abandoned mosque which they turned into an exhibition centre for their artists’ cooperative. This Artists’ Colony was very important in the development of Israeli art.
Sionah arrived in Safed in 1951 and bought a nineteenth-century church at the heart of the city’s Christian-Arab neighbourhood. A short time after she bought the building, Sionah related that a priest had come to the house to carry off the bell that had been located in the church’s bell tower. Thirty years after settling in Safed Sionah recalled early life in the Safed Colony:
“…The views and alleyways lured painters to Safed. In the evenings we would walk around the city and talk about art. After Castel came Isakov, Shemi, Frankel, Marzer, Holtzman, Amitai, Lerner, Zachs and myself. We had no electricity during the artist’s colony’s first days, and so we used oil lamps instead. Our parties were all illuminated by the light of an oil lamp, and each one of us would tend to it in turn. Water was also scarce, and so we would carry water in cans from the dormant spring located in the artists’ colony…”
Tagger held over 40 solo exhibitions, partly because she had to make her living from the sale of her works, and she participated in numerous group exhibitions in Israel and abroad. Sionah Tagger died on June 16th 1988, aged 87.