Stanley Batkin first visited Israel in the 1950s (and twice annually almost until his death at 101 last year), and compiled a unique collection of souvenirs, purchasing art from every major Israeli artist, dating back to the 1920s when the then-new Bezalel School of Art emerged as the Plymouth Rock of the new Zionist creativity. Batkin’s collection eventually found its way into the Israel Museum, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, New York’s Jewish Museum and the Venice Biennale.
Batkin, a businessman and philanthropist from Scarsdale, became not only a patron of Israeli art but a friend to many in the field, eventually becoming something of an artist himself; his amateur but skillful photographs of some 200 Israeli artists earned display in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. (Forty-eight pieces from Batkin’s collection will be exhibited at Kestenbaum & Company Dec. 11-13, or by appointment, prior to auction on Dec. 14 at the gallery, 242 W. 30th St.,  366-1197, Kestenbaum.net.)
Abigail Meyer, who leads Kestenbaum’s department of ceremonial objects and fine art, noted that “every juncture” of 20th-century Israeli art is represented in Batkin’s “timeline.” She suggested, though, that “Batkin was perhaps less galvanized by individual works of art, but rather he was inspired to “catalogue the history of fine arts, the various movements,” in both the pre-state Yishuv and the reborn Israel. Therefore, said Meyer, Batkin purchased the works of not only his favorites but also of those considered the most important. The works range from those of European-born artists who, said Meyer, “expressed their wonder at the experience of living in the Land of Israel,” to those of artists depicting spiritual encounters with the land “in various degrees of expressionistic styles”; even pieces that “celebrated the local Arab aesthetic” and what became known as the Canaanite School that “rebelled against both traditional Jewish identity and then-current European artistic trends, favoring instead the animist dimensions of the ancient Canaanite world. “They created a political fusion of art and nature, referencing primitive Assyria or Mesopotamia.” Others represented include Mordecai Ardon, who “focused less on the present,” said Meyer, “but rather on the mystical aspects of past Jewish historiography.” The collection is rounded out by “the pure abstraction of kinetic artist Yaakov Agam,” whose “iconic op-art utilizes optical illusion” that toys with the viewer’s perspective.
Meyer added that several pieces were given or sold directly by the artists to Batkin, and are now on the market for the first time in 50 years.