The yekke who collected Japanese art and brought it to Haifa
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The yekke who collected Japanese art and brought it to Haifa

A documentary about Felix Tikotin, who ended up banned from the museum that housed his collection, is being screened Sunday at a film festival in the northern city

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Japanese art collector Felix Tikotin at the opening of his museum in the late 1950s in Haifa (Courtesy Tikotin)
Japanese art collector Felix Tikotin at the opening of his museum in the late 1950s in Haifa (Courtesy Tikotin)

It’s hard not to wonder how Haifa became the home of the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art.

Lush silk tapestries, ancient woodcuts and precise miniatures; none of it seems to jibe with the mixed Arab-Jewish port city that functions as the de facto capital of Israel’s north, and tends more toward hummus and ful than sushi and sashimi.

Then again, Felix Tikotin, a German collector of Japanese art, was not always known for his logical decision-making.

It’s all told in “Tikotin — A Life Devoted to Japanese Art,” a detailed, touching 77-minute documentary made by Jaron Borensztajn, Tikotin’s grandson — a software entrepreneur who always wanted to examine his grandfather’s fascinating life — being screened Sunday during Haifa’s 30th International Film Festival.

Directed by Santje Kramer, in Dutch and English with Hebrew and English subtitles, the historical film focuses on Felix Tikotin, a sophisticated, charming art collector and the challenges and secrets of his long, storied life.

Tikotin’s family name came from Chikochen, a Polish village that still exists, said Borensztajn. Felix Tikotin was one of seven children raised in Germany. He wanted to be an artist, but was influenced by his bourgeois parents to become an architect instead.

More importantly, he learned somewhere along the way how to collect what no one else wanted, said his grandson.

He became one of the world’s foremost collectors of Japanese art, starting at the age of 18, and continued to collect after fighting with the German army in World War I.

Asian art was all the rage in 1920s Berlin, said Borensztajn. His grandfather spent time with a group of German artists and eventually made the first of his many trips to Japan, where he traveled the country and purchased more art for his budding collection.

“He was into all kinds of strange things,” said his grandson.

Tikotin’s first Berlin exhibit of his collection opened at midnight, a typical event for artsy Berlin.

He fled with his family to Amsterdam from Germany before World War II, and Tikotin and his wife hid their two daughters with a Dutch family for the duration of the war. After the war, a prolonged tax argument with the Dutch government convinced him to donate his entire collection to Israel, where his eldest daughter was already living.

“He thought he should do something for the new country,” said his grandson. “He really loved Israel.”

Tikotin with his daughters, one of whom lives in Jerusalem, the other lived in Amsterdam (Courtesy Tikotin)
Tikotin with his daughters, one of whom lives in Jerusalem, the other lived in Amsterdam (Courtesy Tikotin)

With his daughter living in Jerusalem, Tikotin first thought of the nascent Israel Museum, but it was “kind of a mess” at the time, said Borensztajn. “It was full of spiderwebs.”

When he traveled to Haifa during his first trip to Israel in 1956, he found a city full of fellow German Jews and old friends. He liked that. Tikotin met the city’s mayor, a socialist who thought it would be good for the workers to have culture in their city, said Borensztajn.

They placed the museum in the Kisch House, a colonial home on Haifa’s Mount Carmel, and Tikotin imported a Japanese professor to set up the museum.

“It was a strange place to have a Japanese art museum,” said Borensztajn. “Nobody in Israel knew anything about Japanese art.”

With Tikotin’s collection,the museum became the largest of its kind in the Middle East, recently celebrating its 50th year.

For Borensztajn, the film, a four-year project, was an opportunity to learn more about his iconoclast grandfather, and the series of tragedies and successes that formed his life.

Tikotin’s youngest daughter and wife committed suicide, both victims of manic depression, and Tikotin himself was banned from his museum, after a series of “severe conflicts” with the institution’s former director, said Borensztajn. He spent the last thirty years of his life in Switzerland.

Tikotin ended up amassing another collection of Japanese art in his later years, which he sold to a Japanese museum toward the end of his life.

“It became his passion,” said Borensztajn. “It’s what he loved to do.”

The film just won the “Hearts, Minds and Souls” Grand Prize at the Rhode Island International Film Festival 2014, and will be screened this month in Spain, Bali and Switzerland, and in November in China at the GZDOC Guangzhou International Document Film Festival.

“Tikotin — A Life Devoted to Japanese Art,” will be screened on Sunday, October 12, 5:30 pm at the Tikotin Museum of Japanese Art. Tickets are available through the Haifa Film Festival website.

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