Never sheepish: Remembering Menasheh Kadishman

Menasheh Kadishman had a thing about sheep, and goats.

Menashe Kadishman (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Menashe Kadishman
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Menasheh Kadishman had a thing about sheep, and goats. Like everything else he managed in his 82 years on terra firma, the celebrated painter, sculptor and graphic artist, who died on Friday, got to grips with his iconic woolly subjects firsthand.
Kadishman was always the most downto- earth of artists, and of people. He was a no-frills character whose idea of sartorial elegance was frequently simply a matter of donning an outsized white shirt and boxer shorts. If the weather was a bit on the cool side he would add a raincoat which had seen better days. Imagine TV detective Columbo with a paint brush, or a sculptor’s chisel in his hand, add a bushy beard and you’ll get the picture.
In an interview he gave around 10 years ago, when asked what message he wanted to convey through his art, the then 73-year-old Kadishman’s no-nonsense reply was that his art was about love which, he confessed, was “a very difficult thing to do.”
It may have been a challenge, but Kadishman seemed to unfurl works of art seemingly at will. In a documentary made around the same time as the aforementioned interview, the artist returns to the abode of his youth just before the building was demolished.
He talks about his parents and sister, and demonstrates the love he felt for them, and brings his late lamented loved ones to life by drawing them, in seemingly naïve – almost childlike – form, on the walls of the very apartment in which the family lived and loved. It is a compelling and heartwarming excerpt from the great artist’s personal life, and an example of how the man viewed life and went about his creative business.
It was typical of the man’s street-level ethos that, when invited to take part at the feted Venice Biennale, in 1978, he not only exhibited some powerful sculpted work, he incorporated actual living sheep in his proffering at the world-famous arts gathering. Art critic and curator Amnon Barzel described the work as reflecting “a release of powerful energy which also burst beyond the limitations of defined styles and currents, beyond theoretical predictions, out of a freedom previously unknown in the domains of minimalism and conceptualism.”
The latter were just two of the genres that crossed Kadishman’s evolutionary path during his 12-year sojourn in London, which spanned the 1960s. He fed off a wide range of influences and styles, but everything he took on board always came over as original, and was suffused with the colors, smells and textures of the man himself.
Kadishman was an Israeli who was brought up in a Zionist, pioneering household and who, world acclaim and awards notwithstanding – the latter included the Israel Prize, the Sandberg Prize and the top prize for sculptors exhibiting at the 1967 Paris Biennale – he constantly harked back to the basics. Characteristically, the sheep motif which is so prevalent in his art was inspired by his time as a shepherd when he lived at Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch in the Galilee Panhandle, and in the Jezreel Valley.
Kadishman’s “flock” of sheep and goats were to spread right across the globe, with enormous metal sculptures proudly displayed in the US, Japan, Britain and Germany, as well as in numerous prominent public spots around Israel. In Israel, his Sacrifice of Isaac has been parked in front of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art for close to 30 years. He also explored plenty of non-animal subjects including, for example, his monumental Uprising, a three-metal- disc creation which has pride of place in the esplanade in front of Habima Theater, which fed off from the artist’s quest to try to defy the pull of gravity.
Kadishman was also a deep thinker, and a highly sensitive character, and social issues, violence – in all forms – and the basic tenets of life were always uppermost in his explosively creative mind. He also tended to convey his own, often left-field, take on life in unconventional ways. Sacrifice of Isaac, for example, was his way of portraying cruelty. By leaving out the chief biblical protagonist, Abraham, he conveyed his understanding of human fallibility, and a non-ethical approach to life.
There is a distinct tongue-in-cheek element in Kadishman’s work, although he also addressed very serious and emotionally charged topics. His Falling Leaves work, for example, which comprises thousands of small metal screaming faces was one of several Holocaust-related works, was exhibited at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.
International acclaim notwithstanding, Kadishman always stayed in touch with “the common man,” and was a benevolent person. Shortly after her father’s death his daughter, actress Maya Kadishman, related how her dad regularly bought challot for the needy and how, as his condition worsened, he asked her make sure last week’s batch was delivered.
Several years back, Kadishman noted that art doesn’t change life, but his work has given people all over the world a new perspective on life and the things around them.