A very Israeli artist

Passion on parade in Irit Kalechman’s large-scale works at Acre’s Okashi Art Museum.

Irit Kalechman’s large-scale works at Acre’s Okashi Art Museum (photo credit: IRIT KALECHMAN)
Irit Kalechman’s large-scale works at Acre’s Okashi Art Museum
(photo credit: IRIT KALECHMAN)
On the off-chance you were looking for one more reason to visit Acre and its fascinating Old City sometime this winter, here it is. The Okashi Art Museum is currently displaying 14 enormous paintings by Israeli artist Irit Kalechman, in the exhibition “Story of a People: A Love Story in Buoyant Colors.”
Even a casual glance at these paintings will immediately reveal the two operant words of the exhibition: “Israeli,” an intense national identity that throbs like an over-excited heartbeat throughout the gallery, and “colors,” which seem to spring out of every canvas and hit the viewer full in the face.
Kalechman introduces herself as “an Israeli artist.”
Asked to describe herself and relate a little bit about her life, she laughs and asks, “Do you mean personal gossip, or about my art?” But when she becomes serious, the first thing she says is, “I am a Sabra.”
And it is this declaration, perhaps more than anything else, that drives her as an artist and defines her work.
“I was born in Holon, to a father who was a journalist at The Jerusalem Post for many years,” she recalls. “His name was Ze’ev Schul. He was a wonderful person and also an artist. He taught me to see colors. When I was a child he took me on Saturdays to the mountains of Jerusalem and taught me to see the colors of the hills and to know that the hills are not brown, which I thought then, because everyone painted those mountains brown.
“He taught me to look at the real colors – blue and gray in the mornings. So he was a very important teacher for me. A very free spirit. He taught me to think in new ways, out of the box.”
Not surprisingly, the major lesson that Kalechman learned from her father was how art and colors could hold a central place in her life.
“I have loved to paint since I was a child. I was born in 1950, during the tzena, the austerity. We had nothing; there was nothing to buy in the shops. We all went around with the same clothes every day. I had an aunt who lived in Tel Aviv, that was the big city.
And she asked me, ‘What can I buy for you for your birthday?’ And I thought that I could ask for anything. I asked for colors, paints. She bought me 12 colored wooden pencils.
“I remember the smell of those pencils to this day. And she did that every year. This is something I was born with, a passion to paint.”
She has been acting out that passion for much of her life, creating and exhibiting her art in both group and solo exhibitions, in Israel and abroad, almost every year since 1982.
This was roughly one year after what was undoubtedly the major tragedy of her life.
“I was married when I was 19, to a pilot in the air force. He was killed when I was 30 years old in 1981. He went to miluim – reserve duty – every Friday, and one Friday his plane engine failed. He parachuted out of the plane and the parachute didn’t open. So he went into the sea and was never found.”
The pain of that loss is reflected in much of her artwork, including some paintings in her current exhibition.
“Story of a People” is based on narratives from the Bible, the basic book of the Jewish people and, as it were, the “charter document” of our existence and survival as a nation in Israel. Each painting is inspired by a story, passage or character. It is not, however, in any way a religious exposition.
“The subjects of my stories are not biblical,” she says. “I use stories from the Bible to make political, social and moral statements. I have a lot of ideas, because I am a woman. You know that women always have something to say.”
What Kalechman has to say in the 14 paintings of this exhibition involve her judgments about modern Israeli life, the political situation, the country’s security – or lack thereof, the status of women in Judaism, as well as reflections on her own life story.
In her painting Ahab and Jezebel, for example, we see a king and queen resplendent in fine, lavishly colored robes and wearing ornate crowns.
Kalechman explains, “I am protesting against the hedonism and corruption of people who have the power to rule. This was a horrible couple. Ahab was a weak person and bad king. Jezebel was strong, and the one who really ruled.”
Asked whether this biblical couple is meant to represent a contemporary couple ruling today, she just smiles, shrugs her shoulders and says nothing more.
Several paintings lament the materialism of contemporary Israeli life, such as In the Image of God, in which a naked Adam and Eve stand facing the viewer, with designer labels Lacoste and Levis emblazoned on their flesh; and Slaves, depicting an unhappy, exhausted group of people sitting around a Passover Seder table, laden with nothing but one golden fish.
This, says Kalechman, is her statement about our “modern slavery” to money and its relentless pursuit. Other paintings are of a more political bent, like Jacob’s Dream, in which Jacob is envisioned as a sleeping IDF soldier, with his dead comrades shown as angels holding a rope ladder to Heaven.
Another is Song of Ascents, in which a group of Israeli citizens stand on the steps of an underground staircase, waiting for the end of a Hamas missile attack. A third is Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, showing a modern-day “Eve” comforting a contemporary “Adam” after their forced departure from Gush Katif.
Asked if she considers herself right-wing politically, Kalechman says, “Of course, but don’t say I’m right-wing.
Say I am Zionist!” Other paintings depict her attitudes about women in Judaism, such as The Messiah, a protest, she says, against the exclusion of women, in which she has painted a female messiah riding a white donkey into Jerusalem.
Another, called A Group Photograph: The Twelve Tribes, shows each of the tribes represented by a rather angry- looking woman. The front-row representative of the tribe of Judah seems about to jump at us from out of the painting, with a look on her face that appears to be saying, “Yeah, I’m a woman! You got a problem with that?” Finally, there are the paintings that describe the artist’s personal sorrows, like Elijah Went up in a Whirlwind to Heaven, where we see her waving goodbye to her pilot husband, about to take off on a flight from which he will never return. And Jacob Kissed Rachel portrays a weeping couple, replete with references to the Beatles’ classic “Eleanor Rigby.”
Kalechman’s narratives are illustrated by accessible, easy-to-recognize characters, and illuminated by vibrant colors that light up the galleries of the Okashi Museum. Some of her work seems to evoke echoes of naïve art, but she rejects the connection.
“I am a figurative expressionist,” she says. “This is how you can see my art. Some people say that I paint like expressionist Gustav Klimt because I use gold. But it’s not the same. Klimt was the son of a goldsmith, and that’s mainly the reason he used gold. I use it because I’m a woman. I love gold.
That’s why I use it in my paintings.”
The Okashi Art Museum, with its stone walls, arches and cruciform domes, is itself a work of art. Built during the Ottoman period, it was originally a horse stable for visiting travelers and merchants to Acre, according to Rachel Zemer, curator of the museum.
“It later became the studio of artist Avshalom Okashi, and then posthumously a museum after his death in 1980.”
The museum holds four temporary exhibitions every year, along with its permanent collections.
So what is next for Irit Kalechman? “Now I want to challenge the readers of The Jerusalem Post,” she says. “If somebody has something good to offer me, I am ready to listen. I need very big spaces with very big walls, because I make very big paintings!”
“Story of a People” will run at the Okashi Art Museum until March 16, with a gallery talk scheduled for Friday, February 16 at 11 a.m. For opening times and further information: (04) 995-6710.