Israeli painter Avigdor Arikha died in Paris on Thursday night, one day after his 81st birthday.
One of the giants of modern figurative painting, he was among a few 20th-century artists who made the journey from abstract art toward representationism and not the other way around.
Born in Bukovina, Romania, to German-speaking parents, he was deported at age 12, with his family, to a concentration camp in the western Ukraine, where his father died. Arkiha himself was perhaps saved on account of his talent, when delegates of the International Committee of the Red Cross saw drawings he made of scenes from the camp and helped him and his sister move to British-ruled Palestine in 1944.
Upon arriving, he moved to Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha, where he lived until 1948. From 1946 to 1949 he attended the capital’s Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, and was then awarded a scholarship to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He made Paris his permanent home in 1954.
Arikha fought in the War of Independence and was severely wounded in 1948. He was taken to a morgue where a paramedic noticed he was still breathing. After fully recuperating he continued his studies in Jerusalem before going to Paris.
He considered himself an Israeli in spite of having spent only five years here, the first four of which preceded the establishment of the state. Despite his short stay, his Hebrew was fluent.
Concentrating initially on abstract art, Arikha abruptly stopped painting in 1964 and from then until 1973 worked exclusively in monochrome, creating drawings and etchings, only from observation and always finishing each work in a single sitting.
In 1973, he began painting again, avoiding the use of preparatory sketches and again making a rule of finishing every painting in a single sitting.
Arikha also worked as an illustrator, and among the books he illustrated were works by Samuel Beckett, the Irish avant-garde author and playwright who was his close friend. A monograph on Arikha was jointly written by several writers, Beckett and esteemed Australian-born Time magazine art critic Robert Hughes among them. Arikha was also held in high regard by his friend the French art historian Jean-Pierre Cuzin, who wrote texts to preface several of his exhibitions.
Arikha’s most recent work as an illustrator was published only last week: A luxury edition of Haim Guri’s love poems, titled Ve’at Sihat Hayom betoh Dami (And you are the talk of the day within my blood), published in an edition of 85 copies leather-bound by hand and bearing the autographs of both Arikha and Guri. The book is also scheduled to be published in a more affordable, mass-produced, unautographed facsimile version.
Arikha was always treated with a mixture of admiration and disdain by the Israeli art scene; his art was admired but on the other hand he did not subscribe to the dictates of the local modernist movement. Additionally, like many other Israeli artists, his decision to make his home outside Israel was frowned upon as a sort of betrayal.
But he maintained close ties with several key figures in Israel and in 1998 the Israel Museum mounted a large retrospective exhibition of his paintings, simultaneously with a retrospective of his drawings and prints at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Arikha was also an art historian and published books on Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and on the art of painting (Peinture et regard, 1991, On depiction, 1995). He also acted as curator for several exhibitions, including exhibitions of Nicolas Poussin and Ingres at the Louvre in Paris. Also among his writings were catalogue articles for exhibitions at the Frick Collection in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and the Israel Museum.
His subjects span all genres of figurative painting – still lifes, landscapes and portraits all fascinated him equally. His still lifes, usually of simple household items or clothes, are often painted from an unusual point of view. He also produced a large number of self-portraits.
He was also commissioned to paint portraits of Queen Elizabeth II, the
Queen Mother, former UK prime minister Alec Douglas-Home and – at the
behest of the French government – of actress Catherine Deneuve and
former French prime minister Pierre Mauroy.
His paintings, always painted thinly with a quick, almost agitated
brushwork, maintain the spontaneity at the root of his work process. He
especially excelled in capturing the specific quality and intensity of
light that illuminated his subjects.
Arikha’s paintings are not political, and rarely controversial. He was
a classicist in that he was “a painter’s painter,” making an artistic
statement that cannot be articulated outside the realm of the language
of painting itself.
His art, in its apparent simplicity, embodies that highest ideal of
painting – celebrating life by framing mundane corners of existence in
the singular painter’s gaze and forcing the observer to appreciate that
magnificence may exist in things we often hardly seem to notice.