Encountering Georges Weil

The only Jewish, Sabbath observant netsuke carver in history, artist Georges Weil has sculpted the likes of Ben-Gurion and Churchill.

By BY CARL HOFFMAN
February 19, 2010 18:20
Netsuke.

netsuke 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

To a middle-aged American writer raised on movies, television and Broadway theater, artist Georges Weil comes across as endearingly English and almost iconically suave, with the urbane mannerisms of film actor David Niven and the polished voice of stage actor Cyril Richard. He is also erudite, speaking with what seems to have the ring of academic expertise in the history of fine art.

“My education?” he asks rhetorically. “Grammar school,” he declares, with a puff of his cigarette. “I left school at the age of 16 because I had to. We did not have a wealthy household. I went to a Jewish school, and Judaism remains very important to me, on many levels. But my formal education stopped at the age of 16. Everything after that is self-taught.”

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Born in Vienna in 1938, Weil arrived in England with his family one year later, on the very eve of World War II, on the last plane from Antwerp. He grew up in England, mostly in London.

Weil briefly attended London’s St. Martins School of Art in 1956. “But I got kicked out, which was, I think, the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says. “Art schools – not all, but most – tend to train their students to be put in a kind of box.”

Weil believes that his departure from art school allowed him the freedom to pursue his own interests and develop his own unique styles.

Among Weil’s works during this early period were bronze portrait sculptures of David Ben-Gurion and Winston Churchill. He was to return to this medium again briefly in the 1970s, creating bronze studies of Churchill, Charles de Gaulle and, last but not least, singer/actor Sammy Davis Jr., with whom Weil enjoyed “a friendly relationship of many, many years.”

But Weil’s artistic pursuits largely had to wait until he could come up with enough money to support them.

“I went into the jewelry industry – was actually pushed into the industry unwillingly – because at that time I wanted to go to art school instead,” he says.

The artistic impulse within him began to force its way out, however, as Weil began to design jewelry, using diamonds and precious stones in much the same way as a painter uses colors. He started a company at the age of 17 which, 25 years later, was an acknowledged leader in modern jewelry design.

“What was enjoyable about that period was the glamorous side of the industry, the acquisition of great friends and famous names as collectors,” he recalls. Among the collectors of Weil’s jewelry creations were Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Sellers, England’s Queen Elizabeth, and Hollywood’s queen, Elizabeth Taylor.

Weil also began to create sculpture made of gold, silver and precious gems, jewelry as objets d’art, which earned him glowing press reviews that compared his work to that of Cellini and Fabergé. One reviewer from the Illustrated London News went so far as to declare, “Fabergé  objets, exquisite as they are, and superb as their workmanship is, are really no more than expensive toys – Weil’s pieces are works of art.”

Many of Weil’s sculptures in precious metals, like the gold hanukkia that adorns a corner in his home, depict distinctly Jewish themes.

Weil sold his jewelry studio in 1979 to devote more time to art. He immigrated to Israel with his family in 1989, leaving behind a famous name and works exhibited in no less a venue than the British Museum. “We were lucky Jews, because we came by choice,” he says. “Things were very, very good in England. There was no reason to move at all. It was something I wanted to do for a long time… Zionism.”

Since making aliya, Weil has focused on sculpture and painting. Among his major projects was the creation in 1994 of a five-meter bronze sculpture of a man blowing a shofar, installed at the entrance to Herzliya Pituah, near the beach where survivors of the Holocaust landed “illegally” toward the end of the British Mandate, 1945-1948. A similar sculpture, made the following year, was installed at Gilelleje, Denmark, where Danish Jews were spirited safely away in boats to Sweden during the country’s Nazi occupation.
   
A VISIT to Weil’s studio provides a glimpse of the diverse array of art styles, themes and preoccupations that have shaped his painting and sculpture over the past five decades. More or less “simple” oil on canvas paintings, like one of Ben-Gurion from 1956, evolve before the viewer’s eyes into more complex paintings, sculpture, and then blends of sculpture and painting as three-dimensional sculptures appear on painted canvases.

Surveying the enormous collection of work, one can deduce several themes that appear to have preoccupied the artist at different periods. Judaism is a major motif, with several paintings depicting the Holocaust, and many others representing the tallit, or prayer shawl. Horses are portrayed in colorful – sometimes blue – profile in several paintings.

Asked, “Why horses,” Weil replies, “I like horses.” 

Several frankly erotic studies of the female nude can be seen which, along with most of Weil’s sculptures and paintings of people, are headless. Asked why these people are headless, Weil replies, “I really have no idea.”

Asked about the title of a particular work, Weil replies, “It has no title. When it needs to have a title, it will have a title. At the moment, it doesn’t need one.”

At this point, the viewer has learned to shut up, stop asking questions, and look, really look, at the art work.

“I’m not one of those artists who will give you great philosophical explanations. I don’t have them. The audience must have them,” Weil says.

The sculptures are made mostly of cardboard, along with everyday things like coffee cans and the bottoms of plastic Coca-Cola bottles, all integrated beyond recognition into the finished work. Many of the paintings are in fact combinations of painting and sculpture, with the latter standing out in sharp relief from the painted canvas – usually black and white – to which it is attached. One work in particular catches the eye, that of a man and woman – headless, as usual – standing beneath a ruined Greek temple with broken columns that is somehow suspended in midair.

With the exception of one piece of sculpture – depicting an almost extraterrestrial-looking man in a gas mask – commemorating Israel’s experience of the Gulf War, the art works seem to come from places in Weil’s mind, and not as responses to current events.

“I live in my head,” Weil says. “I don’t produce politically motivated stuff. I’m not a propagandist. I’m in search of an image, all the time.”                               

In addition to Weil’s focus on painting and sculpture, there are also the netsuke – tiny, often intricately carved Japanese sculptures of people or animals, around the size of a matchbox.

Weil explains, “The Japanese are a genius people, but they never succeeded in inventing a pocket. They walked around in kimonos and, like everybody else, had to carry things around. They put most things in the sleeves of the kimono. The little things, like coins or tobacco, they put in a cloth bag called an inro, secured by a sting to the kimono belt or obi, which was attached at the other end to the netsuke.” 

Invented in the 17th century to serve as a counterweight to the cloth bag, netsuke over time became objets d’art, carved into a variety of minute sculptures, made from materials like wood, bone and ivory.

“I collect antique Japanese netsuke. Being a sculptor, I said to myself at a certain point if they could make them, maybe I can make them. There were no netsuke carving tools here in Israel, so I had to make my own as I went along,” he says. “Today, netsuke comprise a major body of my work. In my opinion, the netsuke is one of the world’s highest art forms.”     

Weil is the only foreigner invited to join the Art Carver Society of Japan. The induction ceremony nearly broke his legs, he recalls, from having to sit on the floor with his legs tucked under him for the duration of the evening-long event. 

“I literally could not get up. My knees were locked,” Weil recalls, with laughter.

Describing himself as “the only Jewish, Sabbath observant netsuke carver in history,” Weil has already had several publicized exhibitions of his creations in London and Japan, as well as one at the Haifa Museum in 2002 that was scheduled for six weeks and extended to eight months.

Weil collects Japanese as well as African art, which he considers to be “the mother and father of modern art.” “There would be no art nouveau without Japan,” he says. “No art nouveau means no 20th-century art as we know it. No Picasso without Africa. No Les Demoiselles d’Avignon without Africa. No Constantin Brancusi without Africa. And no Van Gogh without Japan and, for that matter, no Impressionism without Japan.”

Although Weil used to exhibit his work widely and frequently in the past, the netsuke show in Haifa was one of his few exhibitions in recent years.

“Since coming to Israel, I’ve been very, very quiet,” he says.

Weil is, at best, less than enthusiastic about the general art scene in Israel. “There is good work being done, but in my view an ‘Israeli school’ has not yet emerged. I think we are behind other, more advanced art countries like the US, France, Germany, England, where you have major world figures, both in the past and now. In my view, Israel has not yet produced a world figure in art. It is very, very hard for a good or potentially great artist to flourish here in Israel.” 

When asked why he thinks this is so, Weil comes up with a surprising answer.

“Art everywhere in the world has got to do with a couple of important ingredients. Number one: PR. Number two: Great gallery owners. For example, we can look at the beginnings of the American Abstract Expressionist school – de Kooning, Pollock and so on. The gallery owners who took these unknown works – the like of which had not been produced anywhere else in the world, they had balls. These great figures would not be great without these great gallery owners,” he says.


“There are, in my view, no great gallery owners yet in Israel,” Weil says. “No one yet who will take a risk, who will take a gamble on work they perceive to be special, who will exhibit it and promote it. Apart from his work, Jackson Pollock was made by one article in Life magazine. And Life did the article because they were bombarded by a gallery owner. Here in Israel, the artist has to employ a PR person. The gallery owner isn’t involved. The artist is lumbered with the PR costs. It’s unfortunately a different scene here. And I don’t think that Israel can become a great art center until people realize that we need great artists and great gallery owners.”

Despite this assessment, Weil is cautiously optimistic. “These things will come,” he says. “We’re only 60 years old.”

Georges Weil can be contacted by email, gweil@netvision.net.il


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