When artist Nahum Gutman traveled to South Africa in 1936, he discovered a land where lean giraffes and fierce tigers, white elephants and other wild beasts roamed the land — a jungle he had only ever imagined.
The spectacular experience helped inform his first book, “In the Land of Lobengulu, King of Zulu,” which Gutman wrote in installments that he sent home and had published in the children’s section of the Davar newspaper.
More than 80 years later, the Man and the Living World Museum in Ramat Gan has curated an exhibit, “The Wild Animals of Nahum Gutman and Friends,” based on Gutman’s sketches and art and quotes from the book, and interspersed it with pieces from the museum’s collection of more than 800 animal artifacts.
“It’s hunting and painting,” said curator Moshe Esh, referring to Gutman’s play on the similar-sounding Hebrew words tzayad for hunter and tzayar for painter.
Have you ever paid attention to how much the word tzayar (painter) is similar to the word tzayad (hunter)?
When I was a boy, I wanted to be a hunter,
And even now I’m a kind of hunter. I have the character of a hunter.
Not to kill the animal,
But to capture its soul on the canvas.
— Nahum Gutman
“The Wild Animals” is a small exhibit filling one of the spacious galleries of the museum, displaying a combination of art by Gutman and other Israeli artists, as well as activities that allow visitors to draw and create their own connections between nature, art, and literature.
The Gutman artwork for “The Wild Animals” exhibit, including the sketches, watercolors and paintings, are all copies of his work. The originals are held by the museum named for him, the Nahum Gutman Museum of Art in Tel Aviv’s Neve Tzedek neighborhood.
Some of the artworks were made during Gutman’s trip to Africa, others he created while studying in Paris in the 1920s following his earlier studies at Bezalel Academy for Art and Design. He and his parents had moved to Ottoman-era Palestine in the early 1900s.
The copies of Gutman’s artwork include full-size copies of the two cardboard sides of a refrigerator carton used by Gutman and his son, Chemi, who drew African animals on the sides after Gutman’s return to Israel.
Once I dreamed and here I am in Africa, hunting for wild elephants, lions, rhinos, parrots.
I woke up and my heart pounded hard; I could not actually go there!
Why should not I go there really?
— Nahum Gutman, “In the Land of Lobengulu, The King of Zulu”
The children’s book, long at 140 pages, is displayed along with other books about the animal kingdom in a cozy corner of the gallery.
Visitors’ attention will be drawn by the work of other artists as well, such as delicate wire sculptures of elephants juxtaposed with a weighty piece of real elephant skin hung alongside the sculptures.
A collection of hand-sized origami animals by Israeli artist Eyal Reuveni, is exhibited next to Yonatan Ofek’s rows of stencil prints of red heifers in different stances.
Next to the impossibly long leg bone of a giraffe hangs the remarkably realistic stamp art of Tuvia Kurtz, whose detailed paintings of deer are akin to photography.
The museum dug into its treasure trove of animal artifacts, exhibiting a sizeable stuffed black bear as well as a massive alligator from the next-door Ramat Gan safari, who froze during a particularly cold winter.
Alongside the artifacts and art are activities for kids, including an oversized magnet board for forming animal shapes, a comfortable table for working on origami animals, and a memory game based on the red heifer stencil prints.
“It’s a unique opportunity to put it all together,” said Esh, whose co-curator is Timna Binimov. “It’s a privilege to get to do this.”
A particular thrill for both Esh and Binimov was a visit to the exhibit from Chemi Gutman, Nahum Gutman’s son, who lives in Ramat Gan, and was touched by the exhibit and art that formed such a crucial part of his childhood.
“It creates a meeting of art and nature, and, for adults, we’re filled with nostalgia for our own childhoods,” said Dorit Wolenitz, the museum director.
The museum is hosting a special activity for Shavuot, at 10 a.m., 11 a.m. and 12 p.m on Wednesday, May 31, and Thursday, June 1, geared around getting to know animals better.
Museum hours are Sunday through Thursday, 9 a.m.- 2 p.m.; Shabbat and holidays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Prices are NIS 26 per adult and NIS 20 per child over 5; NIS 21 for Ramat Gan residents and NIS 17 for Ramat Gan children.