The death of Avigdor Arikha at the age of 81 leaves a tremendous hole in the artistic world. He had been a key figure in the local art scene since the 1950s, even though he did not live here during most of that time, and his presence seemed to constitute a bridge between art's past and modern painting.
And without falling into any cliches about the journey from the Holocaust to rebirth, he represented an encounter with the lowest points of humanity, in the childhood of which he was robbed, and a continuous search for truth throughout his adult life. This search for truth, this experience of watching and observing, was conducted with humility and profound understanding.
Arikha began drawing as a child in Romania, and until age 11 lived a sheltered life in a cultured home. During World War II, his family was sent to concentration camps, escaped and was caught again; Arikha sketched what he had seen in his notebook.
In 1944, he and his sister managed to reach Mandatory Palestine, and after some years at Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha, he began studying art at Bezalel. He was injured in the War of Independence, and in 1949 received a scholarship to study art in Paris, which he then made his home.
Though he lived in Israel for only a short period of time, Arikha spoke Hebrew well and defined himself as an Israeli artist. He maintained continuous ties with Israel, mounted many retrospective exhibitions and visited frequently.
But despite the great respect he enjoyed here, he felt to the very last that he was rejected in Israel because of his decision to settle in Paris.
Arikha's two most important relationships were with his wife, poet Anne Atik, whom he married in 1961, and his long friendship with Irish author Samuel Beckett. Arikha credited Beckett with influencing his decision to stay in Paris.
Anne, who regularly served as a model for Arikha, features in countless drawings, sketches and etchings that constitute a deeply moving body of work, a continuous wonder, time and again, over his beloved and over the secret of separation between the "I" and the other. His self-portraits, almost cruelly self-aware, also reflect Arikha's uncompromising attempt to capture and to wonder at the same time. Something of that can be felt in his famous portraits, from the Queen of England and the Queen Mother to actress Catherine Deneuve.
During the last decade, Arikha presented an extensive retrospective in the Israel and Tel Aviv museums, an exhibition of his etchings and drawings at the British Museum in London, and a much lauded retrospective exhibition at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now