Art: What’s in a face?

Leonid Balaklav's exhibit, on display until October, showcases several of the artist's portraits of people he's encountered over the years.

Art by Leonid Balaklav (photo credit: TEL AVIV MUSEUM OF ART)
Art by Leonid Balaklav
(photo credit: TEL AVIV MUSEUM OF ART)
There is something charmingly “retro” about Leonid Balaklav. The 59-year-old Soviet-born painter currently has an arresting exhibition running at the Tel Aviv Museum which goes by the telling name of “Leonid Balaklav: An Obsessive Portraitist.”
As you might have guessed, visages abound right across the one-man show, which fills several halls at the museum. “Obsessive” sounds like a bit of a heavy epithet to attach to anyone, although it must be said that Balaklav does, indeed, have a thing for faces.
The artist shows me a pocketbook full of sketches he deftly reels off while observing fellow bus passengers, or people whom he happens to observe in cafes or anywhere else. The tradition of Russian portraiture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is front and center in Balaklav’s work, which only serves to make his pictures more endearing and compelling.
There are quite a few self-portraits in the show, but also charming works featuring various members of his family, certain VIPs and acquaintances whom he has encountered over the years. Former government minister Yossi Sarid sat for Balaklav, as did then-94-year-old former mayor of Jerusalem Teddy Kollek and former MK Moshe Feiglin.
Spend a few minutes in front of one of Balaklav’s portraits and you get the sense that you have known the subject for a while. I suggest to the artist that to convey such a deep sense of intimacy and familiarity, he must spend quite some time with his model before setting paintbrush to canvas.
“Not necessarily,” comes the unexpected response. “You can be on the bus and someone gets on who has the eyes of a baby, even though he may be a senior citizen.”
This is not just theory.
“I met someone like that,” Balaklav continues. “I did a portrait of him.”
Indeed he did. The said elderly gent is the subject of “Portrait of Arieh,” from 2005. It is yet another touching item in the exhibition in which the featured figure’s personality, emotions and – indeed – life story seem to seep through the oils.
Balaklav’s empathy for his sitters comes through in spades from the emotive visual end result and sometimes also impacts on the peripherals of the creative process.
“I took his [Arieh’s] telephone number,” the painter continues. “He was a very lonely person, originally from England, with Russian parents. He spent his time at libraries. He had no money and I paid him to sit for me.”
As the sessions evolved, bits of Arieh’s intriguing life story began to filter through.
“It turned out he had a lot of money in the bank, but he had Alzheimer’s and didn’t remember. I related to him like a member of my family.”
The painter-subject empathy line was clearly open and free flowing for that particular project.
“I felt something when I saw his eyes,” says Balaklav, who last year was awarded the Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative-Realist Art.
Balaklav has put his eagle eyes and open heart to good use for close to four decades, since before his debut showing, in Kiev, in 1978. His well-developed acuity was put to excellent and, happily, enduring use several years back.
“I painted my wife first, before I married her,” he points out. “I wanted to see if I could paint her and how it came out, and if everything was okay, I’d marry her,” he laughs. “That was a challenge for me.”
It is the kind of challenge Balaklav has been happily addressing practically all his life.
“I started drawing when I was small, when I was in school in Moldavia,” he recalls. “Instead of going to classes, I’d go to the library and look at reproductions of Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt. Then I’d go out to the park and I’d do drawings of the elderly people sitting there on benches, in the style of Rembrandt. I learned art from him. Rembrandt was my teacher.”
Balaklav quickly worked up an artistic head of steam and began applying his natural gifts, to profitable effect, at school, too.
“My classmates and others would line up for me to draw them during recess,” he says with a chuckle. “It made me quite popular.”
It also landed him in hot water.
“The headmistress was the wife of a general, and she was an anti-Semite,” says Balaklav. “She was very moralistic. She was wary about the kids kissing in the school washroom and that kind of thing. I drew a big picture of her on the school wall in an embrace with the mathematics teacher.”
Although the mischievous student didn’t sign his sacrilegious mural, it was quite clear who the culprit was. Balaklav’s parents were duly summoned, and the talented youngster didn’t last much longer at the school.
At the age of 14 he found himself on his way to an art school in Kiev.
“My father didn’t have much time for me. But my mother said I needed to go to a good school and to be somewhere where I could learn and there were great artists,” Balaklav recalls
Lady Luck soon intervened on the teenager’s behalf when he visited an exhibition at one of Kiev’s top galleries and met a leading caricaturist and rustled up a drawing of him. The senior artist was so impressed that he introduced Balaklav to the gallery director, Vera, who just happened to be the wife of the Ukrainian deputy minister of culture at the time, Igor Verba.
“She took me to her house for lunch, and I met her husband – later I discovered they were both Jewish – and when they saw my drawings they decided to send me to the best art school in Ukraine. It was a miracle. ‘Vera’ means ‘faith’ in Russian. You need to have faith.”
Polished artistic technique and a wealth of natural gifts, not to mention a discerning eye and the ability to capture the very soul of your subject, can also help to move the creative continuum along in the right direction.
“Leonid Balaklav: An Obsessive Portraitist” runs until October 10, 2015.
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