Drawing from Jerusalem

Revisiting Appelfeld's 'A Table for One' from the artist's perspective sheds new light.

applefeld 298. 88 (photo credit: )
applefeld 298. 88
(photo credit: )
It was a blunder. A complete lack of sensitivity. To fail to "read" the paintings of the son with the same care and appreciation as I read the words of the father. "They weren't [intended as] an integrated text and illustrations," explained Meir Appelfeld, commenting on the book A Table for One: Under the Light for Jerusalem (Toby Press, 2005) in which his paintings of Jerusalem accompany a text by his father, celebrated Israeli author Aharon Appelfeld. The intimacy of the text conjures the cafes and people of the 1950s and '60s; it is a deeply personal account of the evolution of a writer. "It is rather misleading to call them paintings of Jerusalem" I wrote crassly in my otherwise enthusiastic review of the work of father and son (In Jerusalem, August 12). "Not one of them conjures Jerusalem for me," I added. So when I met Meir Appelfeld last week at an exhibition of his still-life paintings, I wanted to know in what way his paintings in the book were an accompaniment to his father's text. His patient, thoughtful replies gave me the insights I needed to look at his art with a new understanding. Since then, I have begun to hear the voice of an artist through the work on his canvas. I have begun to hear the conversation between writer and artist. Towards the end of the book, Appelfeld senior writes: All my books are essentially an inner conversation. This book was born out of a conversation with my son Meir... His paintings speak my language. If I knew how to paint, I would paint like him. Meir Appelfeld explains the simple connection between the work of father and son: they were each portraying their own experience of the city. The paintings and charcoal sketches that I had dismissed as "suburban" were the hallowed ground of this artist's Jerusalem. "We have cliches of what Jerusalem looks like. But I've lived here most of my life; the city has many faces sometimes you feel the desert and sometimes you see a green and European city. When I walk in Jerusalem I have a fondness for places that are not picturesque; it is the light that is the subject of the painting," he says. Aharon Appelfeld: I am more drawn to modern Jerusalem than to the historical city. I feel a sense of belonging to modern Jerusalem. Even though each neighborhood speaks to me in a different language, they nevertheless are languages I recognize. All the paintings in the book are of Appelfeld's Baka and Katamon and he infuses them with an intimacy borne of deep familiarity. I began to wonder what cliche of Jerusalem I had expected him to paint. Now I could understand the rooftops, the walls, the radiance that was his personal view of Jerusalem. But there is a much deeper link connecting Appelfeld's work with that of his father; a connection that he feels is almost diminished by attempts to verbalize and externalize it. To help me move into this almost mystical understanding of the creative process Appelfeld draws on his experience as an accomplished violinist and musician. "I think there is a musical element in my father's writing and in my art. It is something very complex... but one of the most important things in playing a piece of music is to have a legato [a smooth connection] from the beginning to the end a harmony of the whole." Aharon Appelfeld: I'm not someone writing a chronicle, nor am I a historian. I try to be a novelist...The historian makes a distinction between one place and another, between past and present. I do not distinguish between them. His son explains, "Every art is an imitation of reality; the artist chooses the details from what he observes sometimes he chooses, sometimes he invents." And sometimes something has to be sacrificed on the way to achieve the essential harmony. The painting is not a photograph as the novel is not a history. Now 40 years old, he recalls the period when he made a commitment to be an artist. Until his military service, Appelfeld assumed he would be a violinist, After the army, he reassessed his life. "It wasn't an informed decision," he says, but one that relied as much on intuition as the necessity of actually having to making a decision. He had shown early talent when he drew as a child and through his teenage years but his style was "uncultivated." He recalls that his mother was always very gifted at drawing and working with her hands; she also played the piano. He spent almost 10 years studying art in London. "If I hadn't gone to England I wouldn't have become a painter," he states simply. Four years at the small Byam Shaw School of Art; three years at the Royal Academy of Art; countless hours at the National Gallery copying the masters. In London he could "live and breathe in an environment full of art." He returned to Israel nine years ago with his then one-year-old daughter, his wife having died following the baby's birth. His daughter and his art now forming the twin foci of his life. It was here in Jerusalem that he wanted to bring her up, returning to the comfort of the familiarity of city and family. His younger brother and sister also live in Israel. We spoke surrounded by his latest exhibition at Artspace, a delightful small gallery in the German Colony home of poet Linda Zisquit (www.artspacegallery.co.il). All his paintings hanging here are still life. The subject matter initially seems mundane: pots and pans, bottles and pears. But they are all painted through the prism of an artist's perception; objects emanate an extraordinary translucent, almost ethereal light. Appelfeld talks of trying to reveal the "light which emanates from the object"; an elusive light that seems to be evoked within the artist as he tries to understand and work with the objects. He describes the process of painting these objects in terms resonant with a religious experience. He works for hours in the silence of his studio. "The fact that an artist stands in front of objects in contemplation... recognizing that there is much to marvel at... yet there is still a great mystery... It is similar to the contemplation of people at prayer." Appelfeld says that he believes in God. Aharon Appelfeld describes his writing as "reflections" that "have been a kind of confession about specific places and people; in other words a religious attitude to life . When I say a religious attitude, I mean the belief that inside every person, landscape, and still life, there is hidden and noble beauty." Sensitively, Meir Appelfeld describes his relationship with the objects he has selected for a still life. "They are like people with some you find that there is a chemistry; somehow you react to their form and they become players in the small theater you have placed on the table in front of you. Sometimes, like meeting people, you think it is going to be a wonderful relationship and then it doesn't work . Only while in the act of painting do you know whether an object will become your partner." The still life has become an intimate expression of a relationship between artist, form and light... it no longer appears merely as a collection of everyday objects on a table. Still life, insists Appelfeld, "is in some way, the most monumental genre [in art] the feeling you have when you sit in front of a still-life painting is that you can almost caress it with your eyes... almost see it from all angles." And although he also paints landscapes and human figures, he regards still life as revealing a unique penetrating intimacy. I am, nevertheless looking forward to viewing his paintings of human figures when they go on exhibition in November at Gallery 33 in Tel Aviv (www.gallery33.co.il ). I notice that his paintings are unsigned. He explains that he only signs them "reluctantly," and then on the back, so as to avoid the "interference of the ego." Writes Appelfeld senior: I believe art is about creation and not about the ego, or making an impression... But it is all about calling forth feelings that connect with other people.