Sheepish at Sarona

Ask any art lover in these parts whom they identify with sheep, and the name Menashe Kadishman will generally come back at you in an instant.

Art by Menashe Kadishman (photo credit: Courtesy)
Art by Menashe Kadishman
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There have been numerous artists across the centuries whose work is instantly recognizable.
You couldn’t possibly mistake, for example, the origin of a work by the 20th century Belgian surrealist René Magritte, and there’s that ever- present beguiling central source of light in William Turner’s creations.
So ask any art lover in these parts whom they identify with sheep, and the name Menashe Kadishman will generally come back at you in an instant.
By all accounts, the internationally renowned Israeli painter and sculptor, who died last May at the age of 82, was a colorful character who set little stock by accepted social mores or even standards of “respectable” attire.
When he turned up at the President’s Residence on Independence Day in 1995 to receive the Israel Prize for his sculpted oeuvre, he met the de rigueur smart-suited phalanx of our nation’s dignitaries – including then-president Ezer Weizman, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar – in his best white, button-less smock-style shirt, sans jacket. (At least it was a clean shirt.) That single-mindedness, naturally, comes through in his art, too. Once he hit on the idea of making sheep a central motif of the majority of his work, that was that, as is apparent in the display of Kadishman paintings and iron sculptures currently on show courtesy of the Sarona Gallery in Tel Aviv.
The works are on display at the late-19th-century restored edifice next to the gallery’s headquarters, which was built by the Scheerle family.
In the 1930s, the building was partitioned and provided Johann Georg and Elisabeth Weller with a steady income from renting out the apartments fashioned from the house. In 1948, the Portzim Battalion of the Palmah holed up there. Afterward, it housed the commerce arm of the Commerce, Industry and Supply Ministry, and subsequently the training department of the IDF General Staff.
THE EXHIBITION’S Hebrew title Nichsei Tzon Barzel is a play on words. Literally, it translates along the lines of “Assets of Iron Sheep.” Metaphorically, it alludes to items of indisputable canonic value, but also references Kadishman’s favored member of the animal kingdom as well as the metal in which he generally sculpted. The official English title is “The Shepherd – Paintings and Sculptures,” but this clearly misses the spiritual thrust.
The artist was a definitive salt-of-the- earth character. As a young man, he worked as a shepherd on Kibbutz Ma’ayan Baruch in the Upper Galilee.
In the late 1950s, he moved to London, where he studied at the St. Martin’s School of Art and Slade School of Art.
He stayed in Britain until 1972, and in 1978 unveiled his first sheep-themed artistic proffering. This happened at one of the art world’s most glittering events, the Venice Biennale, and, typically, it set the cat among the conventional pigeons as he produced a flock of tangible, living, woolly creatures daubed with blue paint.
Kadishman once likened the recurrent animal theme in his work to a personal holy grail, and over the years produced hundreds of paintings and sculptures based on sheep.
“Part of Kadishman’s greatness lies in his ability to take something so quintessentially Israeli and turn it into art,” notes Sarona Gallery co-owner Itzik Aviram, adding that the artist did not just hit on a “sexy” motif and run with it.
“He was a shepherd. He lived that life, and spent his days with sheep. He knew all about the animal. It wasn’t just some image that he liked.”
It was also, notes Aviram, Kadishman’s way of bonding with this part of the world.
“You had other artists who did that, like Reuven Rubin, who painted olive trees,” he says. “Kadishman took something so basically Israeli and turned it into art.”
Kadishman’s choice of icon also turned out to be a stroke of marketing genius, even if unintentional.
“In the trade, we jokingly call it the ‘Coca Cola recipe for success,’” says Aviram’s partner, Alon Ben-Ezra. “Kadishman knew how to fuse art with commercial success. He’s the No. 1 artist, in terms of sales, in Israel.”
Ben-Ezra also believes that Kadishman’s death signaled the end of an era.
“He was a natural celebrity, not like the so-called celebrities these days,” says Ben-Ezra. “He was a figure of real stature, the kind of which you don’t see anymore. He was an uncomplicated person who didn’t try to impress, but did so naturally.”
The works Kadishman created, in the thousands, certainly left an indelible impression on people around the world.
His public creations enjoy pride of place in prominent locations across the United States, Germany and the United Kingdom.
Of course, his iconic pieces also dot Israel; they include the heavyweight metal Hitromemut (Uprise) sculpture in the expansive square outside the Habima Theater in Tel Aviv; The Sacrifice of Isaac outside the Tel Aviv Museum; and the beguiling Tension at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The couple of dozen works that make up the Nichsei Tzon Barzel lineup include several of the ubiquitous sheep, but in a range of guises. There are, for example, a number of pictures with white sheep heads, with a spread of polychromic dots hovering in the upper reaches of the frame, and there are sheep depicted out to pasture that are awash with luxuriant hues.
In addition to the elongated head and stock floppy ears, what grabs you most about the sheep motif is the eyes.
“They have all kinds of expressions,” notes Ben-Ezra. “And the way he places the white dot, for light, is just pure genius.”
Indeed, the sheep’s eyes convey a wide spectrum of emotions and expressions, from gentle languidness to fierce concentration, and even something approaching agitation or even anger. Naturally, as with any work of art, it is up to the observer to construe the artist’s intent, especially when the creator is no longer around to query.
Ben-Ezra notes that Kadishman, predominant figure notwithstanding, ventured into other areas, too.
“He was a genius in sculpture,” he notes, adding that the artist never pulled his punches, citing the Shalechet – Fallen Leaves installation at the Berlin Jewish Museum. That work comprises over 10,000 open-mouthed faces crudely fashioned from heavy disk-like metal plates. As was typical of him, Kadishman drew the public straight into the uncompromising emotional core of the work by having viewers trample on the metal visages.
At the Sarona exhibition, there may not be anything so evocatively blunt as Shalechet, but Kadishman’s works never leave the observer unmoved.
“The Shepherd – Paintings and Sculptures” closes February 7. For more information: (03) 656-1000 and