From October 12 to November 9, the Horse Hospital is hosting a unique exhibition celebrating the work of Israel’s only 1970s counter-cultural movement. It will give Londoners a rare chance to explore some of the seminal group’s subversive artwork and films, which were unearthed in a retrospective at the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art in Tel Aviv in early 2012. Led by visionary artist Jacques Katmor, the 3rd Eye group searched for revolution, free love, drug-enhanced perception and artistic experiments, shocking and angering Israel’s ultra-conservative, nationalistic society. Although the movement only existed for a few years and disbanded in the mid-70s, its impact on Israel’s left-field artists and musicians cannot be underestimated and the striking art and films it produced remain richly fascinating, a must-see for anyone interested in counter-cultural transgressions and innovations.
Below, Virginie Sélavy talks to Ori Drumer, the curator of the Nachum Gutman Museum of Art exhibition ‘The Third Eye: Jacques Katmor Is Wishing You a Good Death’, and former member of 1980s noise band Duralex Sedlex.
Virginie Sélavy: How important is Jacques Katmor to the cultural history of Israel?
Ori Drumer: Katmor was a pioneer then and is still misunderstood today. He represents a culturally repressed generation which was never researched despite its prolific output and abrupt end at the eve of the 1973 war. During that small window in time, the first left-wing counter movements were established and the first anarchist groups began to emerge – mainly by immigrants from the US, South America and France. It was the first wave of political dissent in the young state’s history and it broke on the shores of the Yom Kippur War.
The memories of Katmor and the Third eye, in the eyes of their contemporaries, carry a great deal of nostalgia. His effect on people was magical, although his works in art and cinema were forgotten.
He was the first artist to bring the influence of modernism and 20th-century avant-garde movements to Israel’s art, in particular American experimental cinema, Dada, Beat, Lettrism, Guy Debord and psycho-geography. In what way was he influenced by them?
In the 60s and in the beginning of the 70s, there were no venues for either foreign or alternative cinema and the 3rd Eye Group managed to obtain films from private collections. Katmor must have also been exposed to such types of materials during his frequent trips to Paris. In turn, he used what he saw: editing styles, sound and picture juxtapositioning, using modern pop/rock music as soundtracks, investigating the cinematic apparatus, film and screen as metaphors for the human skin. But as a painter who later entered the medium of cinema, he mainly tried to explore the transfer of painting to film. Hence his work with geometric shapes, particularly in A Woman’s Case. Katmor wanted to project an experience of expanded cinema and ‘films for the inner eye’.
Katmor studied art in Paris and Switzerland. Did he meet any important cultural figures while he was in Europe?
In Paris, he met the founder of the Lettrist movement, Isidore Isou and several of the movement’s members. He also revealed how in the 80s, Goddard made romantic advances towards his (Katmor’s) wife Anne on a Club Med vacation.
How many films did he make?
Katmor directed two feature films: A Woman’s Case (1969), and a documentary titled The Fool, which documented the Fools’ Festival in Amsterdam. Between these two films he also directed 13 short films, including documentaries about Israeli art, Israeli music as well as experimental films. Despite my exhaustive research, some materials may still be in private hands.
Despite its combination of experimental visuals and rock’n’ roll, its copious amounts of nudity and its violent undertones A Woman’s Case was chosen to represent Israel at the Venice Film Festival. What was the reaction to the film?
Film-goers in Israel rioted in the theatres, as they expected to see an erotic movie and were seemingly forced to watch an artistic film. The riots were followed by the appearance of the police, which, in the context of a Lettrist strategy, is exactly what Katmor wanted.
At the Venice Film Festival, the film was accepted warmly and its critics loved the beautiful women it portrayed as well as the innocence of its Eros & Tanathos theme. However, the public’s interest ended there. Maybe they were expecting to see more from this young and promising director, but that never happened.
Two of his short films, The Journey (1971), and Sign (1974), explore the work of two painters, Yosl Bergner and Michail Grobman respectively. Why did he choose film to explore the work of other artists?
For Katmor, cinema was a natural continuation of painting and drawing. In cinema he saw an evolutionary path from the paintings of the Renaissance to the present mediums: from the dialectics and spontaneity of painting to the intimate inclusion of film. Of course, time and motion were also an important part of that evolution.
Why did he pick those two artists specifically?
It was natural for him to choose artists among his fellow immigrants: Bergner from Canada and Grobman, who belonged to the second stream of Russian avant-garde. Jacques’s affinity with them stemmed from the exploration of mysticism and cosmology in their art. Both artists incorporated Jewish motifs with symbols from their personal world in religious visionary paintings.
Katmor’s inclusion of these artists in his films was, in fact, a journey into the private worlds of his friends. His use of music from the rock opera Tommy and the German Krautrock band Faust merged with the imagery, brought a new interpretation to both.
In The Hole (1972-74), he mixed Kabbalistic symbols and psychedelic drugs. How do those elements work together?
The Hole was part of a two-year project, culminating in the film itself. In the movie, Katmor, under the influence of LSD, draws symbols on the ground, digs himself a grave and enters it. The film starts even before the appearance of the title during the leader: Katmor flashes countdown numbers that alternate with images, combining the Kabbalistic Ladder or numbers with symbols and references to… Creation. The Triangle is a prominent symbol, appearing in his earlier and later works (brought to the Now of the film), in filmed imagery and in the movements of the camera.
He also refers to the actual physical medium of film through which we experience the movie; its transparency as it allows a blinding sun to obliterate the image with light. The film is an attempt to convey a personal experience, which, in hindsight, brought on a mental crisis.
Do you believe he succeeded in defining a new Jewish identity through his art?
Before Katmor, the Israeli art world avoided interpreting religious experiences either in secular terms or in their relation to the Jewish identity in ‘modern’ Israel. He was the first to create a visual language based on Kabbalistic symbols and personal semiology. He was especially interested in ecstatic religious visions. For example, in one of his early works he depicts Jacob’s struggle with the Angel in a homosexual context. He was heavily influenced by an ancient Kabbalistic story, ‘The Tale of Joseph Della Reina’, which depicts salvation through the gutters, cosmic journeys, drug use and art as a transformational tool.
Katmor saw himself as the archetypal Fool and Jews as such too. He saw the Jewish people as artists and the image of the Wandering Jew as The Fool. Despite his attempts at defining such a figure, he never succeeded in capturing the new Jewish identity. The Israeli art scene came to tackle these kinds of issues only later in the 70s, while Katmor preceded them by two or three years. It wouldn’t be surprising to see his influence on some of the younger artists of the time, who later became central figures of Israeli art.
Who were the other important figures of the 3rd Eye movement?
Several members of the group became central figures of the Israeli underground in the 70s and 80s. One member became a rock journalist (Michael Rorberger), another became a graphic designer (Michel Opatowski, whose exhibition I am currently preparing for in 2014). Katmor’s cameraman, Amnon Solomon, who died last year, became one of the most important cinematographers in Israel.
What sort of artistic activities did they engage in?
The group staged various shows in public spaces in Tel Aviv. Amongst them an art show at the first supermarket in Israel that sold imported goods from the US, which was the first sign of opulence in the country.
Other activities included art schools and Kibbutzim, in which some adopted drugs and orgies as part of the artistic act. Shows opened frequently to shrill sounds or motorbikes zipping through startled visitors, others opened with sexual performances.
How important was the book and record store they ran for a while?
The 3rd Eye group opened a store in Tel Aviv, which stocked rock records and musical genres that were unavailable anywhere else in Israel at the time: psychedelic rock, experimental music and such. Israel was in a cultural vacuum and the establishment had no interest in developing these avenues. (We should remember that The Beatles were not allowed to perform in Israel). The shop also carried contemporary posters, books (by authors such as Timothy Leary and Aldous Huxley, as well as books on Eastern philosophy), erotic comic books, mainly from France, and alternative magazines from San Francisco and London.
The latter were the inspiration for the group’s fanzine, Strip, designed by Michel Opatowski, who later became a successful graphic artist and political left-wing activist. Other members contributed texts, photography, illustrations and other works which were published in the only edition ever produced by the group. The fanzine was later revived in the eighties.
In addition, there was a small gallery which displayed the works of local artists. The shop became a centre of pilgrimage where visitors could drink Indian chai and candidly smoke marijuana and hashish but it never made enough money to get by. At one point the shop was burglarized, its contents stolen, which were irreplaceable due to the group’s low funds. Their ‘infamy’ also brought the police, which, together with the burglary and financial problems caused its closure only 14 months after its opening.
Why did the 3rd Eye Group disband in 1974?
Katmor and the rest of the members of the 3rd Eye were constantly persecuted by the police under the excuse of drug use. Their apartment was frequently raided and criminal records were drawn for every member. This kind of environment was impossible to operate in as Katmor saw his freedom taken away repeatedly. The tiny group seemed too insignificant to be a threat to the Israeli consensus. Furthermore, Israel at that time was in a state of post-war crisis and was grieving over its dead, with many broken families to mend. Why were so many resources diverted just to demoralize some hippies? We may never know the answer but a guiding hand is felt in these occurrences. The group, which had planted the seeds of Israeli communes and the Israeli New Age, left for London, Amsterdam and the Far East, either one by one, or in couples.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy