Portrait of an artist

A two-part exhibition pays homage to Avigdor Arikha, who died this year

avigdor arikha311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
avigdor arikha311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the next two months at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, a two-part exhibition is being presented as an homage to artist Avigdor Arikha, who died this year at the age of 81. The first part, which was planned with the artist before his death, includes illustrations of S.Y.
Agnon’s “A Stray Dog,” combining the work of both artists. The illustrations represent Arikha’s artwork during the 1950s.
The second part of the exhibition includes 19 selfportraits painted between 1948 and 2001. The earlier work depicts the artist as a soldier or a pianist and are very different from the later ones, which deal mainly with the artist’s introspections about his studio, his home and his work.
Although Arikha spent most of his adult life in Paris, he was considered an Israeli painter. He became famous first as an avant-garde abstract painter before turning to figurative painting. He said that it was partly a result of having seen an exhibition of Caravaggio at the Louvre.
“People who think there is anything new in the arts are idiots. In my early 30s, I was quite successful as an abstractionist. But I started painting my own set of forms over and over again. Finally, it repulsed me,” he told The Washington Post in 1979.
Arikha was born into a German Jewish family in Radauti, northern Romania. His father perished in the march to a Ukrainian concentration camp in 1941, and it was not until after the war that his mother discovered that Arikha and his sister were alive in Palestine.
In the 1940s he attended the Bezalel art school in Jerusalem and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he learned traditional techniques such as fresco painting. In 1954 Arikha settled in Paris, his home for the rest of his life, partly at the instigation of his friend the dramatist Samuel Beckett.
Their relationship led Beckett to produce a book about Arikha who, in turn, illustrated many of the writer’s texts.
After abandoning abstract art, Arikha developed his mastery of print media, while achieving a remarkable directness in his drawings, always working from life and finishing the image in a single sitting. By 1973 he felt able to paint with the same spontaneity, never using preparatory studies and yet creating pictures that are precise and lucid, thanks in part to his practice of always using daylight.
Arikha’s combination of classicism and modernity proved highly popular, and he had great success in various genres, such as nudes, landscapes and still-life. But it was his portraiture that made the greatest impact. With subjects ranging from the Queen Mother to Catherine Deneuve, Arikha enjoyed a wealth of public commissions in the last three decades of his life.
In 2005 he was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur.
Arikha’s work appears in numerous institutions, including the British Museum, to which he bequeathed 100 prints and drawings. His most important shows were large one-man displays at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, which placed equal emphasis on his paintings and graphic art; and, most recently, a retrospective at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.
Although he turned his back on the avant-garde at a relatively early age, Arikha remained an enigmatic and even disturbing figure, whose work has a nervous, edgy quality, described by critic Robert Hughes as “an air of scrupulous anxiety.”
Homage to Avigdor Arikha, curated by Prof. Mordechai Omer, at the Charles and Evelyn Kramer Galleries, Tel Aviv Museum of Art, September 4 – December 4.