Joseph Zaritsky
Joseph Zaritsky’s Haifa from the Technion (1924)
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"Every centimeter must be a painting," the painter Joseph Zaritsky told Yeshayahu Yariv, the founder of the Gordon Gallery. It took Yariv over 30 years to understand what he meant. The new exhibition that opened last week at the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv, accompanied by a catalog titled "Every Part is a Whole," is a first attempt to grasp a systematic element in Zaritsky's paintings, and was born out of an interesting exercise Yariv has been engaged in for several years: He studies a Zaritsky painting while most of it is covered and only one segment is revealed. The idea behind it is to check whether every part is a whole in and of itself.

After some years during which he says he did not grasp what Zaritsky, who has been dead for over 25 years, meant when he said "every centimeter must be a painting," it went from being unclear to a mantra that repeatedly proved itself. According to Yariv, when he tried this exercise with works by other artists, he was surprised to discover that he could not find in them isolated parts that were a whole.

"I don't understand these artists: Every time they go to draw a different scene and they always come out with the same drawing," Zaritsky once told Yariv.

"He was the opposite of that," claims Yariv. Most of Zaritsky's aquarelles were painted in front of a specific scene over and over again. Whether it was Kibbutz Na'an, Yehiam or other places where he was a guest lecturer, or during two-three week outings to Zichron Yaakov, Safed or Haifa or at his home, where he worked every day for years (first in Jerusalem and later in Tel Aviv ), Zaritsky liked to return to the same point.

Despite the seeming repetitiveness, it is hard to say that his paintings look the same. "His ability to achieve these things in paintings is a tremendous talent," argues Yariv, who has represented Zaritsky since 1976, when he first showed his works and even printed a catalog for him. "This is a person who knows instinctively what painting is, and not in a rational way."

Yariv feels that the artist Avigdor Arikha, who died in late April this year in his chosen residence in Paris, had a similar talent, but he still makes one distinction between their works. "Both of them had innate talent, but even with Arikha's works I can't carry out this exercise."

In the opening passage of the catalog, Yariv wrote: "Indeed, the tables have been turned: Instead of a catalog accompanying an exhibition, the exhibition accompanies the catalog." All the works in the exhibition were chosen to present and represent the parameter formulated by Zaritsky. Most of the works belong to Yariv himself or to the gallery, and a handful are loans from other collections. There are no paintings from museums that do not lend artworks to exhibitions, a policy that irks Yariv and rightly so, since he has loaned works by various artists to different museums countless times.

The gallery's street level surprises visitors with a didactic display that includes enlarged reproductions of details from the painting that Yariv chose, alongside a small reproduction of the painting in its entirety. The disappointment over the reproductions disappear when you approach the central space and proceed from there to the rest of the exhibition on the lower level: yellowish, pale lighting in the space simply because watercolors (some of them 80 years old ) cannot be exposed to strong light, and this imbues the various watercolors with an intimate and romantic aura. The lack of uniformity in size, frame, age and subjects, and in the nature of the paintings completes the picture that Yariv put together so well.

One of the reasons it is possible to isolate portions of Zaritsky's paintings is his ability to create figuration in the midst of complete opposites using abstraction. In reference to this, Yariv includes in the catalog some remarks by Arikha, who wrote of Zaritsky that "this is abstraction drawn from nature. His entire life, Zaritsky observed, painted and abstracted."

Yariv leafs through the pages of the catalog and comments on the paintings: "Clearly he painted this from nature, but he did not copy nature," he says. "His color placement is completely abstract and precisely because of that I can do this thing."

Zaritsky did not dictate a hierarchy when brought the brush to paper or canvas. He did not paint the scene with a preference or fondness for certain details in the landscape. It is a democratic landscape and all its parts are equal in the eyes of the artist. (He also did not draw seascapes: "It's grandiose," he once claimed. ) This is even more noticeable in series he painted through the window, when the screening serves the distance present in the painting.

Painting the truth

"I would say of him that he is a man with strong and authoritative presence and humor that sometimes segued into sarcasm. When Zaritsky talked about painting, everyone listened. He was a sort of quiet sage," says Yariv.

Zaritsky was born in 1891 in Ukraine, where he also studied at an art academy. The story behind his first encounter with art and painting is not particularly exciting and seems as if taken from a fairy tale: While staying with cousins in Kiev (in order to enroll in the university ) he roamed the streets and followed a group of elegant people into a museum, without knowing what a museum is. "I went in with them to a building and suddenly I see rectangles hanging on a wall, and in the first rectangle, trees and a woman walking along a path. The people passed by me and I remained stuck next to this rectangle. I didn't know that it was a painting."

The following day he went to the art academy, asked where it is possible to studying painting and enrolled.

In 1923, after serving as a soldier and later as an officer in the Russian army, Zaritsky came to Israel and settled in Jerusalem. He was one of the founders and formulators of the New Horizons movement, that was formed shortly after the establishment of the state and was active in an organized manner until 1963. The group's objective was to instill universalist, modernist art that is not connecting via an umbilical cord to a place, and also to relay the message of abstraction as part of the artistic school referred to here as "lyrical abstract." Among the members of the movement were Yehezkel Streichman, Avigdor Steimatzky and others.

Line, texture, color and composition were the four basic elements that appeared in different ways in all their works. Regarding each of these elements, it is possible to write an entire book about their expressions in Zaritsky's works.

One of these elements is the stain, which the late artist and art critic Meir Agassi (in whose memory the catalog is dedicated ) referred to as his primary "painting syllable." On this, Agassi wrote, as it appears in the catalog, "painting with a brush was in Zaritsky's view painting the truth. Not the line but the stain. 'The brush is an extension of the hand,' he would say. And indeed, the brush transmits a chill. This chill is reflected in the stroke of the brush, which Zaritsky described as a 'touch.'"

Agassi added that the "transparency, lightness and especially definition of the shapes as stains in Zaritsky's oil paintings originated in his watercolors."

The aquarelles featured in the exhibition also illustrate the great importance Zaritsky attributed to the line and sketching as a work's anchor. His sure line appears either as a general outline for a landscape, a frame for placing color precisely or as an erstwhile "rival" of the color, with which the line maintains complex dialectic relationships. One time the color overflows and another time the sketch fights for its presence. And sometimes it seems that the sketch completes a work that the brushwork did not complete, even though it was there first.

Yariv recalls that in a letter once sent by Zaritsky's wife, Sonia, to the painter Haim Kiva, she wrote: "Zaritsky says you should know that at the heart of all art here has to be sketching, and without sketching there is no painting." He agrees and notes that "you see the sketches and the sharp lines in his work. He did not think 'what shall I do?' It's something that is in the instincts and not in the rationale."

Even the aquarelles, which the catalog describes with the term Agassi used, "not heroic," in Zaritsky's work merit equal importance. While many painters used aquarelles for sketches of oil paintings, Zaritsky placed them at the center stage for many years, until he stopped and returned to it a few years later. On the painting, "Haifa from the Technion" from 1924 (on loan to the exhibition from the Joseph Hachmi collection ) Agassi wrote: "The 'Technion' aquarelle will not serve as a sketch for an oil painting on canvas, but will signify, like many other aquarelles, nothing more than another episodic impression, another milestone of a place in the 'journey' - a journal entry-like comment, part of a continuum of connecting comments."

"I didn't discover him immediately," Yariv relates, "but painters held him in high esteem. All of them, Aroch, Steimatzky, Streichman, Danziger, Karavan, Lifschitz, Lavi. It took be a bit of time, I must admit. Mostly, I didn't understand at the time about oil paintings, their importance."

However, he adds, "Zaritsky had a strong presence and top status among painters. He was charismatic without making any effort to be so. It stemmed from his unquestioned standing," he chuckles. "There are things that come later. I understood Michelangelo right away. I was in Florence for three years and twice a week I would go see his sculptures, and to this day it really moves me very much."

This emotion does not leave him either when he speaks of Zaritsky. "Look," he says enthusiastically, "you can spot a Zaritsky aquarelle immediately. I don't know of anything comparable that's been done in the world. I can't help but talk about Zaritsky with emotion. This exhibition, and mainly the catalog, is unusual as far as I'm concerned, because they focus on a certain aspect of Zaritsky. I have done several exhibitions for him already and they also have in the museum, but I think this exhibition reveals some parameter that is very important, not just with regard to Zaritsky, but also as a critique of other painters - using Zaritsky's method, I can see whether it is or is not a painting."