Life from a golden armchair

Bezalel-trained Yohanan Lakicevic exhibits his dry yet charming renderings of Israeli retirement.

‘If there be no policeman, there need be no judge.’ – Midrash Tanhuma (photo credit: Courtesy)
‘If there be no policeman, there need be no judge.’ – Midrash Tanhuma
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Some have daytime jobs, others put in long hours at their desk, but it is hard to imagine many people who are as devoted to – one might even say obsessed with – their vocation as Yohanan Lakicevic.
While he awaited my arrival at a small hotel in Jerusalem last week, the 71-years-young Lakicevic launched into a charming sketch of some of the greenery surrounding the front yard.
“My sketch books and colors accompany me everywhere,” notes the artist in My Sketch Book, which he published in 2008.
The tome contains around 200 drawings made using a wide range of techniques and materials, based on all kinds of topics, from cartoon figures to realistic landscapes, sun-drenched watercolors and leafy views, created on Lakicevic’s travels in Britain.
“[My sketch books] are the point of departure for all my work,” he continues. “I may sit on a beach, [in] a coffee shop, or [on] a balcony with friends, and I will begin to sketch, both here and on my travels. A good idea always finds a place in my sketch book.”
Several of those successful notions have found their way into works now on display in the “Israel Retires” exhibition at the Israeli Cartoon Museum in Holon. The exhibits are based on Lakicevic’s 2006 publication of The Golden Cage, which was inspired by what the artist calls “the warm relationship I developed with the armchairs of my beloved grandfather.”
LAKICEVIC WAS born in Yugoslavia and made aliya in 1951, at the age of eight. He recalls pushing the armchairs together and making a bed out of them, as child in Yugoslavia, and when he came to Israel with his mother the chairs also made aliya. As he developed his drawing skills, the timeworn furniture items featured in all manner of sketch, and the drawings eventually spawned a conceptual series with an elderly couple seated opposite each other.
“The pictures would serve as a life diary of couples in their ‘Golden Age,’ who reside in a Golden Cage,’” explains the artist. Hence the name of the current show.
Besides a discerning eye and a nimble hand, Lakicevic is blessed with a dry, darkish sense of humor, which comes through loud and clear in The Golden Cage. In one drawing, a couple sit in their respective armchairs, reading their respective newspapers, the outside pages of which sport handsome portraits of a much younger couple – as if the husband and wife remain blissfully ignorant of the passage of time.
In another, the wife sits aloft half a dozen fluffy cushions placed on an armchair, as the husband resignedly admits defeat, and announces that his wife has proven she is, indeed, a princess. We are left to conclude that there is a pea strategically placed beneath the bottom-most cushion. It is a definitively risible work.
“I don’t know if I am a funny person but I aim to make drawings that either have an under-story, or some humorous twist to them,” states Lakicevic. That is a constant in The Golden Cage.
Lakicevic says he was practically born with a crayon or piece of chalk in his hand, although he didn’t always have the raw materials he needed to put his infant ideas into visual form. “I can’t remember when, exactly, I started to draw. I think it was around the age of three or four. I was always looking around for a piece of paper to draw on. We didn’t always have paper.”
This was in the immediate aftermath of World War II in Yugoslavia, when basics like paper and pencils were thin on the ground. “My grandfather made aliya before us, in 1949, and he sent me a box of six chalk colors,” recalls Lakicevic, “otherwise I wouldn’t have had any to draw with.”
He became a resourceful child, who was mindful of wasting valuable items that could be used for his artistic pursuits. “If I didn’t have paper I’d go to our bookshelves at home, and I’d tear out the blank sheet of paper before the foreword. To this day, I never throw away blank pieces of paper.”
As an infant in Yugoslavia, Lakicevic would draw on anything he came across, but his range of inspiration sources widened appreciably when he came to Israel. “There were comics – actually they called them ‘Classics’ [the Classics Illustrated series],” he recalls. “They were comic books which were pictorial adaptations of literary classics, like [Charles Dickens’s] A Tale of Two Cities and works by people like [The Three Musketeers author Alexandre] Dumas. That was fantastic.”
A WHOLE new world opened up before Lakicevic’s eager young eyes and hands. “I never attended an English language class, but I learned English from those books,” he says.
The youngster’s drawing aspirations received a significant boost when he started attending boarding school at Kibbutz Beit Hashita.
“I was 14 when I went there and the art teacher saw I had talent, and she said to me the most important sentence I had ever heard. She said: ‘You are invited to attend any of my classes, whenever you want.’ She asked me to illustrate the kibbutz newsletter. That was a good time for me.”
After the army, Lakicevic furthered his formal education as a member of the inaugural animation course at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, and subsequently made great strides with his career, in various fields. “I worked with all the newspapers in the country,” he notes. “I did caricatures and illustrations, but they were never straight illustrations, there was always a twist.”
That ability to infer a subtext stood Lakicevic in good stead when he became involved in envelope-pushing mid-1970s satirical TV show Nikui Rosh. He later provided the graphics and animation for long-running children’s show Shalosh, Arba, Hamesh Vahetzi, and reached a global audience as the driving force behind the highly successful animated fillers in Israel’s Eurovision Song Contest broadcast in 1979.
The Nikui Rosh program was smash hit, despite often launching no-holds-barred attacks on the Establishment.
Considering Israeli society was still largely conservative, the degree of freedom the show creators were allowed is surprising.
“The Yom Kippur War changed everything,” explains Lakicevic. “All the sacred cows were slaughtered in that war. I also went through pretty harrowing experiences in the war myself, as an airborne medic. I think that helped me to develop a dark sense of humor.”
That wry life philosophy is ever-present through the The Golden Cage exhibition.