The caveman cometh

At 60, and with no formal artistic training, businessman Ehud Ben-Shach is finally exhibiting some of the paintings he has been stockpiling for 30-odd years.

Painting by Ehud Ben-Shach 521 (photo credit: Courtesy Ehud Ben-Shach)
Painting by Ehud Ben-Shach 521
(photo credit: Courtesy Ehud Ben-Shach)
There is something very basic about the paintings in Ehud Ben-Shach’s debut exhibition, “Attention Disorder.” Other epithets spring to mind when considering BenShach’s offerings, such as “childlike” and “naïve.” The artist has no problems with any of the above. “There is something childlike, innocent and pagan in my work, and a wish to leave the chaos outside,” he observes. “That’s what [prizewinning author] Haggai Linik wrote in the exhibition catalogue.”
Ben-Shach’s artistic unveiling, which was curated by Killy Koren, has been a long time coming. Mind you, he has been in the public eye and in the media, for some time, in various roles. The feisty 60-year-old is a successful businessman and serves, inter alia, as head of the Petrolgas Group, and is involved in a variety of real-estate investments across the globe.
When he is not busy keeping his canny nose to the international business grindstone, Ben-Shach has turned his hand and velvety vocal cords to the radio, presenting the Private Radio show on 88FM, and an acclaimed series on Army Radio called “Tzivei Hamusica” (The Colors of Music), in which he talks to artists such as Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design senior lecturer Prof. Avi Eisenstein, and internationally renowned artist Pinhas Cohen Gan.
“I have always dabbled in all kinds of things, rather than get bored in a single field,” notes Ben-Shach. “I am, apparently, a multifaceted person. Music is a great love of mine, as is radio.”
Besides enlightening his radio listeners about a wide range of musical fields, BenShach served as chairman of the Rimon School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in Ramat Hasharon for 13 years.
And then there is his painting which, true to his independent spirit, he developed without undertaking any formal training. “At the end of the day, the things you feel deep down in your gut, and which bring you the most joy, are the personal things,” he observes. “I like doing business, but it does not enrich me [spiritually] like other things.”
In fact, the catalyst for Ben-Shach’s artistic exploits came about as the result of a casual remark. “It actually started as a bet with my wife. We received a painting as a wedding gift and I thought it wasn’t very good, but she said that I don’t understand art. And she dared me to produce something better. So I started painting in secret. That was 30-odd years ago.”
Ben-Shach’s clandestine creative activity produced a work of art that he presented to his wife under false pretenses.
“I told her I’d been given it, and I signed it with a different name and it hung on a wall in our house for six months before I told my wife I’d done it.”
The oil painting forms part of the “Attention Disorder” exhibition.
“It is called Hitarvut,” explains BenShach, which in Hebrew can mean “intervention” or “wager.” The title refers to the latter incident between Ben-Shach and his wife, although for some reason, the catalogue has it as Intervention.
That was that, for quite a while. “I didn’t do any more painting for 10 years,” continues Ben-Shach. “It is a matter of state of mind, and I got involved in all sorts of other stuff.”
LACK OF official education notwithstanding, in 1990 he picked up his brushes again and returned to the artistic fold. “I have never studied art. I never attended a single workshop. I have a friend who is a great artist and, once in a while, he’s the only person who’ll give me a fiveminute critique of my work. He’ll tell me about a few things like texture, mixing colors and mixing sand with acrylic. But I really learned everything on my own. I am a Robinson Crusoe on a desert island. It is wonderful fun even though, naturally, the creative process is slower for me.”
Even so, says Ben-Shach, he prefers to work solo. “It is so great to discover things on your own, and I am now at an age, and at a stage of life, when I only want to learn through my own experience.”
He was told by a man of great authority that working without a professional safety net could lead to disaster. “Pinhas Cohen Gan told me that if I didn’t learn to paint or at least draw, I would lose my mind, or I would exhaust by capabilities and find myself at a dead end.”
While he still follows his own unfettered muse, Ben-Shach says he is now more receptive to gaining from others’ experience and learning. “Today, I am more open to studying or doing exercises, but I don’t really feel that I need it.”
One look at the eclectic array of largely abstract works that comprise “Attention Disorder” indicates that Ben-Shach puts his money where his brush is. There is something compellingly naïve about the collection. Bird in a Cage, for example, feels as if it could almost have been painted by a child, but you also get the sense of a deeper subtext. And there is the simplistically titled Yellow and Red, which comprises the said two colors and appears to have been daubed without too much foresight. But there is something distinctly enticing about the painting, and a seeming dynamic that draws the observer in.
Autodidact he may be, but Ben-Shach is more than happy to draw inspiration from the greats. “I am a Francophile and I have a business in Paris, a city I love, so I go to museums and immediately get the urge to rush back to my studio to paint,” he says.
While the Louvre, Jeu de Paume and the Pompidou Center, to name but a few famous Parisian institutions of art, get Ben-Shach’s creative juices going, he was particularly inspired by creations from a very different place and time. “I went to the prehistoric cave in the Dordogne region in the south of France to see the amazing cave drawings there,” he recalls.
“That really blew my mind. You have all these fantastic drawings of animals, made over 15,000 years ago, a kilometer inside the cave where there was almost no light at all. The drawings are so sophisticated.”
The cavemen’s subjects included deftly portrayed bison, and the Warehouse 2 exhibition includes around a half-dozen of Ben-Shach’s takes on the gargantuan behemoth.
MUSIC IS never far away from Ben-Shach’s thoughts and creative work, and he notes that he is not the first to see an umbilicalcord connection between music and painting. “I listen to a lot of music. [20thcentury artist Henri] Matisse made a book with a series of works called Jazz. Music is undoubtedly part of art. Many great artists, including Leonardo da Vinci, said that music is the highest form of art, more than literature and painting.”
Ben-Shach says that music also informs the way he physically renders his works.
“I listen to music all day and night, especially in my studio when I am on my own. I suddenly realized that the movement of my hand, and the force and pressure I exert, are influenced by music.”
And it is not only a physiological knockon effect. “The subjects I choose and the colors I employ also feed off the music I listen to. [Groundbreaking 20th-century Jewish artist Arnold] Schoenberg was a composer and a painter, and Matisse was a musician.”
Ben-Shach’s improvisation artistic ethos would seem to instinctively lend itself to the jazzier side of the musical tracks. “It is fascinating that most of the artists I interviewed [on Tzivei Hamusica] said they liked jazz and classical music,” he notes. “They are two areas that really suit painting. Jazz is improvisation and freedom and openness, and classical music is the flip side – mathematical, structured and orderly. There are artists who have something very orderly and systemic about their work, and there are others who taking a jazzier approach.
It is interesting that the work that was most frequently cited in my radio series was Bach’s ‘Goldberg Variations.’ There is something mathematically precise about his work, and also something meditative.”
Ben-Shach’s action-packed CV to date also includes a painful episode from the Yom Kippur War, when he was wounded.
Although he says he does not dwell on that these days, it is a subject that comes through loud and clear in his artistic output. The new exhibition, for example, includes an oil-on-plywood painting titled Only for the Dead. In the middle of frenetic red and black splashes, BenShach wrote, “The war is only really over for the dead.”
In his contribution to the “Attention Disorder” catalogue, Linik touches on how Ben-Shach’s military past impacts his life and informs his creative endeavor.
“When a man’s past conceals a war, his future is haunted by his past and he often remains by himself, because a war is ungraspable, and one cannot disconnect himself from it,” writes Linik. “The penetrating horror and horizon of hope become one, and the only way to separate them is by means of differentiation. In Ben-Shach’s case, the differentiation refers to pictorial dimensions. The dimensions of length and breadth enter the painting, while the third dimension, the dimension of depth connected with time, remains outside the canvas.
“This action reveals naiveté, and indeed Ben Shach’s paintings are somewhat pagan, as he worships innocence, integrity and childhood. His works serve as a telescope, enabling viewers to look through it with instant, pure emotion, captured by color and line.
“Ben-Shach’s telescope works in reverse, as it enhances the viewer’s inner world.”
At the end of the day, Ben-Shach was prompted to reveal his talent to the public, both at his wife’s insistence that he do something with the stockpile of works he had built up over the years, and by that fortuitous foray to the south of France. “Those cavemen artists had no intention at all to exhibit their drawings.
There are all sorts of theories about why they made the drawings – that they could lord it over the animals if they drew them.
But it was probably just pure artistic urge, and that really inspired me to get back to the studio and paint.”
Besides their common fascination with bison, like Ben-Shach, the cavemen also didn’t attend a recognized institution of learning before they started creating works of art. “I really identified with them and I was very moved by what I saw in the cave,” says Ben-Shach. “They didn’t think about what some critic might write about the drawings, or what the public might say – they just got on with it.”
Ben-Shach clearly approaches his own creative enterprise with a similar mind-set.“Attention Disorder” will be on display at the Warehouse 2 venue in Jaffa Port between November 7 and December 7.