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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Avigdor Arikha

Don't go looking for this painting in any catalogue raisonne
listing Arikhas' life's work. It's an image I composed emphasizing
the artist's two major strengths--self-portraits and interiors.
In recent weeks I've stumbled upon a number of painters whom one might assume specialized only in self-portraits. Some of them would rival Rembrandt and van Gogh in that regard. In selecting an artist to write on, I routinely look for self-portraits in that they offer sensitive insights into the artist's personality and self-image. And, one has to assume, some of them have to do with the image the artist wants to project to the public. There's nothing wrong with that. In fact, most of mine would tend to fall into that category. I'm not exactly the most sensitive or insightful guy in the world when it comes to painting my "inner self." On the flip-side, there are some artists for whom I can hardly come up with a blurry photograph taken early in their careers. It seems to be either feast of famine. However, in the case of the Israeli painter, Avigdor Arikha (I'm doing good to spell his name, much less pronounce it) I came upon an astounding number of many I've decided to concentrate primarily on them, especially in light of the fact most of his other work is rather bland, to say the least. I have no idea how many self-images the man did over the course of his eighty-one-year lifespan, but I've mounted 21 just below (25 if you count the one above and the drawings of himself further down). I don't think I've ever displayed that many before.

Honing one's portrait skills through self-portraiture.
As you might guess, Arikha was a portrait artist, and among his dozens of self-portraits, he managed to work in a few paintings of others, his wife, Anne (below, upper-left), and an etching of his friend, the Irish writer, Samuel Beckett (below, lower-right). Avigdor Arikha was born in 1929 to German-Jewish parents in what is now the northeastern town of Rădăuţi, Romania, However he grew up in Czernowitz in Bukovina, Romania (now southern Ukraine). In 1941, Avigdor's family was deported to the Romanian-run concentration camps of Transnistria, where his father died. The twelve-year-old boy artist survived in part thanks to the drawings he made of deportation scenes, which found their way into the hands of delegates from the International Red Cross.

Except for that of his wife, Anne, most of Arikha's portraits are
rendered with relatively subtle and sparing use of color.
Independence War,
1948, Avigdor Arikha
Avigdor Arikha and his sister eventually made their way to Palestine in 1944, where they lived in a kibbutz until 1948. Arikha was severely wounded in 1948 while fighting in Israel's War of Independence. During that time, starting in 1946, Arikha attended the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem. Then in 1949 he was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he was trained in fresco painting. In the late 1950s, Arikha evolved into abstraction and established himself as an abstract painter, (below, right), but around 1957 he came to see abstraction as a dead end. Arikha married the American poet and writer Anne Atik in 1961. They had two daughters. In 1965 Arikha stopped painting altogether and began devoting himself to drawing from life, completing all his works in a single sitting. Until 1973, Arikha confined himself exclusively to drawing and print-making (below).

Arikha's work from the period before 1973 when he produced only
drawings and etchings.

Experience, 1957,
Avigdor Arikha
Eventually Arikha felt the urge to resume painting, touted by some as the best painter from life in the final years of the 20th century. He continued to paint directly from the subject in natural light only, using no preliminary drawings. Whether painting, drawing, or working in pastel, print, ink, Arikha always completed each piece in a single session. He drew and painted exclusively from life, never from memory or photographs, aiming to depict the spontaneous truth of what lay before his eyes, at any given moment. Arikha was noted for his portraits, nudes, still lifes, and land-scapes, rendered realistically but in their radical spatial composition, clearly bearing the lessons of abstraction, and in particular the influence of Mondrian. Arikha's deep under-standing of so many art techniques and mastery of draughtsmanship enabled him to work up to the very end of his life.

Apart from portraits of himself and others, Arikha's greatest strength was in his still-life paintings, always of common, everyday objects.
Arikha painted commissioned portraits, of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and the Queen Mother in 1983, as well as other portraits including one of the French motion picture actress, Catherine Deneuve, for the French government. Working as an art historian, Arikha produced catalogues for Louvre exhibitions on Poussin and Ingres while also writing for the Frick Collection in New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Arikha died in Paris of cancer the day after his 81st birthday in 2010.

Two of my favorite interiors by Arikha.

Autumn, 1990, Avigdor Arikha.
Taken as a whole, Arikha's
landscapes are almost entirely
bland and boring. This one I
kind of like.


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