As Tel Aviv spends a year celebrating the life of poet Natan Alterman, the writer and political activist whose very work was intertwined with Israel’s establishment, a newly opened exhibition looks at the art and life of Tzila Binder, his longtime lover, known for her children’s book illustrations.
“Tzila Binder’s Cheerful Eyes” refers to the name of one of her illustrated volumes, and the exhibit is situated in the bright, one-room gallery of the Magid Community Center in north Tel Aviv, where the nearby sounds of preschoolers playing echoes in the space.
The curator, Moran Shoub, has spent a fair amount of her time as a researcher of children’s illustrations. In this exhibition, she closely examines Binder’s work, protectively separating the illustrator’s professional existence from her complicated personal story.
The result is this engaging, accessible exhibit, with walls that are lined with books and reproductions of some of Binder’s most famous work, her mostly black and white illustrations of children as they play, think and dream.
It’s a very low-tech, tactile exhibit, said Shoub, with none of the art placed in frames, and all of the original illustrations were scanned to allow children and adults to look closely and touch the works of art mounted on the wall and on low tables situated in the middle of the room.
Binder’s illustrated children are thoughtful, pensive, engaged, and they’re often girls, remarked Shoub, and even more frequently, channeled Binder herself. They’re often self-portraits of girls enthralled in whatever they’re doing at that moment.
Binder was known for her economy of drawing, her dramatic ink sketches, where one slash of black marks the cheek of a girl, as well as the outer line of her hand.
Binder illustrated about one book a year for over 20 years, from the mid-1940s through the 1960s. Some of the books have become part of the Israeli canon of children’s books, including “I Have a Secret” by Miriam Yalan-Stekelis, “Cheerful Eyes” by Fania Bergstein, “Good Night, Chair” by Miriam Yalan-Stekelis and “The Magic Overshoe” by Natan Alterman.
The daughter of a bookbinder, Binder was intimately acquainted with books from a young age and familiar with all aspects of books, from their double-sided interiors to the usually empty, orphaned flyleafs, open canvases that she often filled with flocks of birds, or a girl sitting in a field.
“Her illustrations were amazing for the time and place,” said Shoub. “She worked as someone who understood the making of books.”
The exhibit is part of a larger exhibition Shoub created about Binder in 2016, for the Herzliya Museum of Art. She’s also familiar with Binder’s work from her own childhood, as many Israelis are.
In fact, children dive right into this exhibit, from toddlers to older kids, running their hands over the pages and remembering with delight the books that are so familiar to them.
The second wall of the exhibition dives into Binder’s work relationship with Alterman. While Shoub spent months reading letters between the lovers, she didn’t want to expose that personal intimacy in this exhibit.
Rather, she noted the signs in Binder’s work when she was more involved with Alterman, particularly in the books they worked on together.
“When she illustrates for him, she’s noisier,” said Shoub, pointing to the illustrations for “The Magic Overshoe.” “She wants to be with him as much as possible.”
In their correspondence, noted Shoub, Binder is poetic and full of love, angst-ridden with pining for Alterman.
“She writes the letters when he’s not with her and there’s a lot of pain,” she said.
But in the illustrations for the books they worked on together, there’s an active feeling of life, an almost manic sense of activity and energy that jumps off the page.
They met when Binder was in her early 20s, a few years after Binder’s family had immigrated to the British Mandate of Palestine from Lithuania.
Binder never formally studied painting, but rather acquired her artistic education as an auditor at the Bezalel art school. She was also encouraged by her brother, the painter Abraham Binder, and she became part of the cultural and artistic life of Tel Aviv, illustrating books and plays, designing theater sets and costumes and exhibiting around the country.
She met Nathan Alterman in 1939 and the two had a long, continuous personal relationship until his death in 1970. After her death in 1987, she left her complete estate to the Alterman Archive at the Kipp Center for Hebrew Literature and Culture at Tel Aviv University.
Shoub wrote an original audio play based on the personal correspondence between Binder and her poet lover. It’s performed in Hebrew by Chava Alberstein, Aya Lurie, Oded Menda-Levi, Zvi Salton and Shoub, and is available on the audio guide of the exhibition.
Visitors are invited to linger at the exhibition, sitting on the couches set at the center of the exhibit, and get to know the artist whose life was bound by books.
The exhibition will remain at the Magid Center (63 Nordau) through April 2020. The year in commemoration of Natan Alterman will continue through August 2020.