Many years ago, when I had a couple of photographs showing in a group art exhibition, an artist pal told me there was nothing worse than seeing people walk past my pictures without so much as a glance. “You’ll die inside if that happens,” he advised. He was right.
That sentiment was evoked, a few weeks ago, when I visited The Office gallery in Tel Aviv, to see a retrospective showing of works by Georges Foldes. If the name doesn’t ring a bell you’re probably in good company. Foldes was born in 1926 in Budafok, just south of Budapest, Hungary. He made aliyah in 1971, settling in Jerusalem, and died there in 1993, at the age of 67.
The Office exhibition was deftly curated by Rachel Sukman. The fact that she, a highly active curator and member of the Israeli arts community, was unaware of Foldes’s work until around 11 years ago says much about the artist’s lack of public profile. It was Foldes’s widow, Arlette Foldes-Zeissholtz, who sparked Sukman’s interest in the painter and, indeed made her aware of her late husband’s endeavor.
After viewing the spread of works at the gallery, there was a deep sense of missed opportunity, and injustice. Foldes was undeniably an artist of great emotional depth and possessed the skill and ability to convey that in a powerful and immediate manner.
Foldes was an Orthodox Jew, in terms of his formal observance, but he was also a liberal man who conducted himself on a day-to-day basis in a manner that would, certainly today, be considered left field, if not politically left wing.
In addition to his art studies in his native Hungary, after surviving three years hard labor, and losing his parents and younger brother in the Holocaust, Foldes eventually settled in Paris where he studied architecture and also attended a school of rabbinical study. While the latter came with accommodation and at least one square meal a day – something that had previously, generally been beyond Foldes’ financial means for some time – it also cut into the young man’s sleeping time.
Cramming umpteen activities into his day became a recurrent theme for Foldes, throughout his life. “He had a day job, and was a good husband and father, and also found time for his art and for Jewish studies,” says Foldes- Zeissholtz. “I don’t know how he did it all.”
After setting up home in Jerusalem, Foldes got a job with the municipality as an architect, working mainly on the Arab side of the recently reunified city.
“He worked with all the Arab villages and neighborhoods near here,” Foldes-Zeissholtz continues. “He spoke quite a few languages, including Arabic. He had a good friend called Hassan. When he visited the Arab villages, he’d always drop into someone’s house for a coffee.”
Foldes was also averse to the idea of living in a part of Jerusalem that had previously been owned by Arabs, and he rejected the idea of moving into Bayit Vegan. The aforementioned Arab friend was painted by Foldes, in a 1984 pencil and watercolor work.
The most striking feature of the Tel Aviv exhibition was the high proportion of self-portraits. And you didn’t need a PhD in psychotherapy to feel the abject sadness that festered in Foldes’ soul, and stares back at the observer.
While Foldes-Zeissholtz explains the prevalence of the painter’s likeness on grounds of simple practicality, she also notes her late husband’s intrinsic need to unload some of his long term angst. After all, when you paint your own image you spend quite some time looking at yourself, which necessarily involves digging into your own psyche and mining emotional seams. In Foldes’s case, that must have been a painful experience, but probably also helped him work through some of his Holocaust-related baggage.
“He didn’t have a model to paint very often, so he painted himself quite a lot,” says Foldes- Zeissholtz.
The curator puts that aspect of Foldes’s oeuvre in stark historical perspective. “He did something like 200 self-portraits,” Sukman notes. “By comparison, Rembrandt did around 80.”
While Foldes got on with his life, and eventually succeeded on all fronts – professional, artistic and personal – on an emotional level his development was always overshadowed by his Holocaust experiences. The only member of his immediate family to survive was his older sister, Ernay. She lived on in communist-ruled Hungary but was tragically killed by her emotionally unbalanced husband just before she was due to get on a train and travel to meet her brother in Paris. “That was a terrible shock for Georges,” says Foldes-Zeissholtz. “That really shattered him.”
As we move on in years we tend to reflect on times gone by, and the horrific formative events in Foldes’ early life increasingly emerged over time.
“Towards the end of his life he addressed the Holocaust, more and more,” remarks Foldes-Zeissholtz. “But he vehemently objected to being called a Holocaust painter.”
Looking through some of his sketchbooks Foldes-Zeissholtz showed me in her Jerusalem apartment, you can see why he rejected that attempt at pigeonholing. The pages were full of commonplace scenes – a shop front, a man standing on a street corner, a woman on a park bench. Foldes got through thousands of hastily captured portrayals, and they exude a simple charm.