Growing up in the shadow of greatness

‘Major/Minor,’ is Alba Arikha’s way of making sense of her tangled relationship with her famous father.

Alba Arikha 370 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Alba Arikha 370
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Rebellion is a normal feature of adolescence; the negotiation – via arguments, slammed doors and tearful remonstrations, usually – of the boundaries of one’s identity. But the struggle to find oneself takes on additional, pointed dimensions when the parent being rebelled against is one of the most noted artists of his age.
Come to think of it, growing pains can never be quotidian if one’s godfather is a Nobel laureate in literature, happy to read one’s first explorations in poetry and prose. Teenage life was at once privileged, but also an intimidating intellectual cocoon for Alba Arikha.
“You know what you grow up with,” she said, over tea in her northwest London home. Cozy, comfortably appointed, it bears the hallmarks of middle-class domesticity: a child’s bicycle in the hallway, a piano in the lounge, laden bookshelves, the catalogue from the new David Hockney exhibition on the coffee table. And on a wall, almost hidden from view, a drawing in the unmistakable hand of her father, the artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha.
“That’s what I grew up with, but I also knew that indeed there was another side… most of my friends were Parisians, girls with nice bourgeois families. I found that all extremely exotic, and that was what I was more interested in.” She laughs, conscious of the absurdity of it all.
Major/Minor, a short, elegant memoir published last year in the UK, is Arikha’s way of making sense of her tangled, tempestuous relationship with her famous father. Flitting between Jerusalem and Paris, the book recalls a distinct period in Arikha’s life – from the uncomfortable self-awareness of puberty until the age of 17 – when she left the family home in Paris to study in the US.
It catalogues a teenager’s frustration at never being understood; an emotional isolation amidst the intellectual milieu of her immediate family circle. Her mother is the poet Anne Atik; her father’s closest friend – her godfather – the playwright Samuel Beckett. But it is as much a book about her father as it is about herself: the story of a man who lived through the Holocaust, who was left for dead at the age of 19 after being shot during Israel’s War of Independence. At its core, Major/Minor is a consideration of how Avigdor Arikha came to be the man he was, and how his antecedents influenced his relationship with his older daughter.
Now in her 40s, Arikha presents herself as confident, self-aware and reflective. It wasn’t always thus, she suggests. As she entered her teenage years, she was very self-conscious. “I had a back brace [to correct scoliosis, an irregular curvature of the spine]. It wasn’t a good thing to have, I was taunted at school a lot because of it.”
In the book, she goes further: “At school I am taunted for my brace and my gawky looks, but also the fact that I never fight back. I let insults hit me randomly, like pebbles. The thought of defending myself petrifies me. Why, I cannot say.”
Home life was charged. Arikha’s childhood was very much shaped by the demands and the character of her father.
Home – with her mother and younger sister – was an atelier in Paris’s 13th arrondissement; her father worked at home, and she recalls always being conscious of the need for quiet, so as not to disturb him. But pressures came from elsewhere: Avigdor Arikha cultivated an intellectual circle of peers, and had very little time for the frippery (as he saw it) of contemporary culture.
He had high expectations of his daughters; expectations that Alba Arikha did not always meet. There were disagreements, and shouting. In the book, she recalls an argument about one of his favorite painters. “‘Why don’t you ever listen to me?’ he shouts. ‘I’m listening!’ I shout back. But I’m not. I’m more interested in how people live, as opposed to what they accomplished. I’m interested in what they couldn’t say and those feelings they didn’t share.”
ONE APPRECIATES that the constant friction between father and daughter had deeper roots than the banality of teenage rebellion. The two engaged with life differently; and under the same roof, their opposing worldviews rubbing against one another uncomfortably.
It would not be a stretch to suggest that art – artistic accomplishment – saved Avigdor Arikha’s life. Born in 1929 to a German-speaking Jewish family, Avigdor’s family moved to present-day Ukraine when he was a child; they were deported from there to concentration camps in Transnistria in 1941. After his father died in 1941, Avigdor, along with his mother and sister, was transferred to the Mogilev camp. Here, he started to draw, surreptitiously snatched imagery of life and death in the camps. Later, he made a paintbrush from his own hair. His sketches came to the attention of officials of the Red Cross.
Recognizing his talent, the Red Cross arranged for him to go to Palestine, along with his sister – the only ones in a cohort of 1,500 children who were not orphans.
Their mother remained in the camp until it was liberated, thereafter moving to Romania, but had no contact with her children for a further 14 years.
These experiences are interspersed among Arikha’s recollections of her own adolescence in Major/Minor. They give important insight into the personality of Avigdor Arikha, and the parent he became. “We were such an emotional family, and there were no boundaries, which was probably the source of the problem,” she recalled. “We vented any kind of emotion we had: anger, frustration, pain, happiness… there was no holding back.”
The issue of boundaries is an interesting one, especially since in other respects Arikha the father was a fastidious, disciplined man. “Because he was in the camps as an adolescent, he did not understand what adolescence was. He could not relate to it at all. He found it all very puzzling and muddling…” Alba recalled. “And at the same time, he had this… I think guilt.
He would threaten but never punish. It was very hot and cold.”
Intellectual distinction or not, Avigdor Arikha was as emotionally vulnerable at times as anyone else. “Despite all his bombastic statements, he was of course insecure, he had doubts like anyone else,” his daughter said. “Anytime he did anything he called in my mother to look at it. ‘What do you think? Oh, maybe it’s no good,’ was one of those recurring sentences that we used to hear a lot.”
In one passage, Arikha describes an encounter with her father when she was 10 years old. He summons her to his studio, and asks her to to help him sort out his drawings. The drawings she thinks are good, he will keep; the ones she doesn’t like, he will burn. “I felt a mixture of pride and fear,” she wrote. “My father had asked me for my opinion. But what if I was wrong? What if he burnt the wrong ones? What would happen then?” Avigdor Arikha died in April 2010. His obituary in The New York Times described him as an “internationally renowned painter whose work captured both the haunting beauty and the looming menace of everyday things.” Major/Minor is much the same. Its sparse, willfully elliptical style gradually coalescing into an intimate, candid – and at times very raw – portrait of the relationship between a father and a daughter.
Arikha wrote the book very quickly, she said, the emotions translating on the page with no premeditation.
“Writing this book was almost like an improvisation,” Arikha, who is also a pianist and singer in the jazz tradition, acknowledges.
Her father painted much the same way, often insistent on finishing a work at a single setting. “When I draw and paint, the essential thing is not to know what I do, or else I cannot come to what I see,” he once said. The book is much the same – a series of vignettes slowly shaped into an engrossing whole.
What would he have thought of the book? He knew that she was writing it, but it had not been published by the time he died.
Arikha is not sure that she would have been entirely at ease with him reading it. “Our dynamics are very exposed in this book. I think…” she trailed off for a moment. “He was aware, he knew that I wrote it, especially when I discussed all the war details with him.” But there is a hesitancy nonetheless.
“I don’t know, but I think it is best that it came out now, and not then…” Major/Minor is not a book about the Holocaust, at least not in a conventional sense.
But the shadow of uncertainty – and beyond that, of death – hovers constantly.
“I think it probably shaped [me] in ways that I can’t really pinpoint, being the child of a survivor…” Ultimately, the book is about her and about her distinguished father. “I was interested in what memory does to time… in the rump of memory, so to speak. What comes out of it and what it leaves behind. What stays, and how one interprets it. And that was part of the writing of it, really.”