Uri Gil: A pilot, a record-breaker, a painter
Uri Gil likes to go all out: As a fighter pilot, he’s the one who made the Guinness Book of World Records. And as a painter, he’s following in Rembrandt’s footsteps.
Uri Gil likes to be alone. This was what eventually drew him into a career as a fighter pilot, who sits on his own above the clouds, like Antoine de Saint Exupery. For Gil, this gave rise not to stories but to paintings. He enjoys the solitude of the artist, which requires months and years of many hours of daily effort to finally create one of his monumental works. Hyper-realistic paintings that, although smooth as a mirror, appear to contain untold depths.
It took Uri Gil three and a half years to paint the picture at the center of the exhibition entitled “Five Minutes to Seven,” currently at the Janco Dada Museum in Ein Hod. It is a massive work, measuring 380cm x 260cm, but its size is not the reason it took him so long to complete. Gil paints in a mixed technique that uses tempera and oils, requires lengthy preparation of the canvas, and needs multiple thin layers of paint until the final result is achieved. “To the best of my knowledge, I am the first person to do such large-scale works using this technique,” says Gil.
But the painting isn’t the only thing that takes time. Also on display here are the drawings made by Gil in the process of creating the paintings. Portraits of the subjects of the picture, all drawn in sanguine pencil (from the Italian word sangue − “blood”), a deep rust color that was typically used in the Renaissance. Each one of these drawings, which have a strikingly Rembrandt-type look, can stand on its own, and many people have voiced an interest in purchasing such preparatory drawings used by Gil in his earlier works.
Residents of the Ein Hod artists’ village where Gil lives may be able to identify portraits of some of their neighbors, as well as of Gil himself and his youngest son, Lior. Gil and Genia, his wife of 32 years, have been living in Ein Hod for just over 20 years. They were only accepted as members in the village on their second try. A special committee composed of villagers, “the jury,” decides on admission. “The first jury turned down my application, and later I was told that someone on the jury said I wasn’t suitable because my works can’t be shown in galleries, but only in museums,” he says. Another giant picture of his is on display at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
In the new painting on display at the Janco museum, light seems to emerge from some elusive source on the left. In it one sees a table covered with a yellow satin cloth and a light green cloth over that, and in the center, an issue of Haaretz dated 2007. Arrayed around the newspaper are a partly-sliced loaf of bread, a container of cottage cheese, glasses filled with drink, and a yellow plastic bag with fresh vegetables spilling from it. In the foreground, on the checkered floor, stand two cans of paint. On the left side of the table sits a partly dressed woman, her face directed at some far-off point. A man in a colorful robe, holding a brush, leans toward a seated man in a bright red tunic, his left hand pointing forward and his facial features and long hair reminiscent of Jesus. The man sitting beside him, with a thick beard and headscarf that looks like something a pirate or motorcyclist might wear, is turned toward this figure, who becomes the center of the picture. At some distance from them sits a bespectacled man in blue work clothing, engrossed in a book. Kneeling at his feet, with his back turned to the reader and left hand outstretched toward some unknown point, is a man dressed in brown.
The staged scene is Gil’s interpretation both of Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” and Gaugin’s “The Meal,” and a keen observer may also find the checkered floor to be an allusion to the floor of Vermeer’s studio.
But the Jesus in the picture is Uri Gil’s son. The man reading the book is Dan Hamitzer, a resident of the Ein Hod artists’ village. The man kneeling at his feet is the painter himself, and the rest of the figures in the painting are all from Ein Hod.
“I have no messages,” says Gil. “I paint a possible situation. ‘Five Minutes to Seven’ is five minutes before everything begins, before they eat breakfast. My son is pointing at some unknown point. In the picture I am also pointing at something that’s invisible. No one is looking at us except for the girl, who is staring at us quite openly. In Greek, ‘truth’ also means that which is not hidden. This is why I had her be partially nude. I told the others to come in long clothing. She, who represents truth, is painted on the side. The newspaper also has a purpose, as does everything. It shows the date when I started the work.”
This is how Gil chose the figures that appear in the painting: “First of all I selected people for whom I feel something, and people from whom I feel a lot of truth. All the people here are very straightforward. They aren’t fake, but what really characterizes them is that they have no scores to settle with the others.”
What is your son doing in the painting?
“Everybody thinks he’s Jesus. They say ‘It’s the Last Supper,’ but it’s not. Lior is a very honest person, a pure soul, and with his long tresses and in red he reminds people of Jesus, and that’s the illusion. But he connects the work to the period I decided to adopt − the Baroque. And because two people are looking at him, he becomes an important figure.
“I’m on the side, but without my presence, the picture wouldn’t work. It’s my sleeve that really balances the painting; I weaken the brightness as much as I can to the point where it can still be considered bright. This imparts a lot of spirituality to the painting, because spirituality is mainly in the colors. And by the way, speaking of colors, nothing compares to green. Green is divine. It’s in green that you find the greatest emotional range. My paintings are very green.”
In Gil’s works, there is very little spontaneity. The composition is carefully thought out in terms of the contrasts between straight lines and diagonals, as well as in terms of the center of gravity, which he refers to as “the emotional point.” Although he describes his work in intellectual or philosophical terms, the works themselves are quite emotionally stirring. A curator from the Tel Aviv Museum of Art once told Gil that she spent an hour sitting before one of his paintings that was on display there, and couldn’t stop crying.
That painting, called “T. 253” − (Tayeset, or Squadron, 253), named for the squadron that Gil commanded, makes the fliers participants in a calculated variation on Rembrandt’s famous painting “The Night Watch,” lending a Renaissance quality to the pilots in their flight suits. “If you look closely at the painting, you’ll notice that the pilots there are very solitary people,” says Gil. “Each one is standing alone, none is looking at any of his comrades.”
All the figures in the painting, apart from one, are standing. The lone seated figure is placed in the back, his gaze directed at the center of the picture. This is Gil himself. A deeper look at the faces of the pilots, most of them quite handsome, reveals that not only are they not looking at one another, but most of their expressions show anguish and emotional tension, perhaps because upon the chair in the foreground sits an empty helmet whose shape resembles a skull.
“It functions like the skull in Renaissance paintings, which is there to signify memento mori − ‘Remember death,’” Gil explains.
Gil created this work after he decided to retire from the IDF, with the rank of brigadier general, in order to devote himself to painting. “It’s a summary of a significant and key period in my life,” says Gil, who also holds the Guinness World Record for the fighter pilot who has flown the longest in combat − 41 years. “You might say that I decided to leave the regular army because I wanted to have enough time to create such large paintings.”
Gil, 69, was born in Kibbutz Givat Haim, the third of four sons (the two older ones are his stepbrothers). “It was the second marriage for both of my parents,” he says. “Unlike all those people who are consumed with self-flagellation over having grown up in the communal children’s quarters on the kibbutz, I’m actually very much in favor of it. Personally, I feel it saved me. There was no way I could have grown up with my parents. I don’t think that, emotionally, I could have borne the way things were between them, and I wasn’t all that attached to them as it was. I remember an image from when I was 6-years-old, when my mother came to tuck me in in the children’s house and she tried to kiss me and I turned away from her. I didn’t want it. On the kibbutz the bond between parents and children was different, and it did me good.”
As a boy, he showed an aptitude for creative pursuits, and for a time thought he would become a composer, “for one thing because you could go off to the club to listen to records.”
But he also wrote and drew. Hanging in his studio is an amazingly beautiful portrait he painted when he was just 8. “In fourth grade,” he says, “I spent two recesses painting a boy and girl from my class, and these pictures remained hung up on the wall the whole year. I was just 10, but on the spot I figured out how to use techniques that the greats had invented − like holding a ruler in front of your face to calculate the distance between the nose and the lips, or between the two eyes. By the way, most artists get that wrong.” He only started painting seriously, though, at age 30, after he became a pilot.
And he never wanted to be a pilot. “I wanted to be in the elite paratrooper unit,” he says, “but I was forced to go to the tests for the pilot course, which are like a game, so I played along and I was accepted against my will. I didn’t have any intention of staying on in regular service either, but I did, because we were taught to bear the burden. The course was easy; Ezer Weizman was the air force commander. I flew fighter jets. It’s not that I had any great master plan, but I stayed in regular service because another war was always approaching. First it was the Six-Day War and then the War of Attrition, which was very tough. And then there was the Yom Kippur War, and so I somehow kept being dragged along until I became a squadron commander, and I didn’t retire from regular duty until 1985 because I wanted to paint, but I still kept flying for another 18 years, until I was 60 years and 20 days old. And so, without meaning to, I also set the Guinness World Record for being the longest-flying fighter pilot.”
Ein Hod is known for its active social life, full of shared parties and celebrations. There is also no lack of intrigue, inevitable in a real-estate gem populated by artists with highly developed egos and competitive impulses. But Gil is apparently one of those people who like to feel alone precisely when surrounded by a lively social atmosphere, be it on an air force base or in an artists’ village.
“I hardly ever socialize in the village. I don’t feel like I belong here, even after 20 years,” he admits. “My life is with Genia and myself. Sometimes in the morning we take a walk near the house, in the mountains. Isn’t that enough? I’m not part of the politics here. I’m an outsider, and that’s fine with me.” Nonetheless, as Margalit Gutman, the Ein Hod resident responsible for the village’s international ties, notes, “Uri, who always keeps his distance, is the one who depicts the village members in his pictures.”
A wooden path leads up to the gate, on the other side of which is a path made of “genuine 900-year-old Byzantine stones” that Gil paved up to the house, which is surrounded by a blooming garden tended by Genia. The house’s huge windows give one the sense that the entire structure is bursting into the forested mountain across the way, and toward the sea, visible from another window. Gil’s studio is on the lower floor, the bedrooms are on the upper floor. “And I miss Genia from one room to another in the house,” he says.
Genia, his second wife, is a former businesswoman who now works as a life coach. “I wised up too late from a too-early marriage,” he says about his first marriage, which produced his three children. He met Genia at Tel Aviv University, in the philosophy and history department. “I had my eye on her for a whole year and she wasn’t even aware. She’s a saint, my wife. I left the home where I was living with my ex and our children in Ramat Hasharon, I left her everything, and I just lived off painting. It sounds hard to believe but it’s a fact, people bought paintings from me. I was lucky, too − I also had a patron who bought four works from me a year, even though the level of my work then was far from what it is today. Genia and I lived in rented apartments and then moved here.
“Whenever important visitors come to the village from abroad, they bring them to me. But personally, I’d say that what I really enjoy is the warmth that comes from the shadows of anonymity.”
“I like to keep to myself here. I’m not part of any clique, I’m not involved. I don’t hang out. Most of the time I’m in my studio. On the other hand, I want my paintings to reach as many people as possible, and if no one sees the work, that’s not going to happen. So I decided to show them at the Tel Aviv Museum and now at the Janco Dada Museum, and for that I had to bid farewell to anonymity at some point.”
His divorce and remarriage occurred not long after he began painting seriously. “I came to realize that this was what I was most suited for. I started out experimenting with all kinds of techniques until I finally arrived at what I do now. It’s a technique that was invented by the Flemish painter Jan van Eyck in the 15th century, and since it requires a lot of work, only very small paintings were made with it. The Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs was the one who really revived this technique, and I studied with someone who was his student. Fuchs gives a course once a year in Reichenau, 60 kilometers from Vienna. When he came to Israel, he told me I didn’t need to come to the course because my technique was fine.”
Not long ago curator Doron Luria brought to Gil’s studio a great Rembrandt expert, the head of a committee established in Holland to determine which artists were truly carrying on Rembrandt’s heritage. “He was walking around here, looking at the nudes and the portraits and the whole time he was saying, ‘My goodness, my goodness, my goodness.’ Doron told me that after they left here, the fellow said it was amazing. It was very exciting.”
But technique isn’t everything, of course. “There are two types of aesthetics that we understand: the beautiful and the sublime,” says Gil. “I’m not out to tell the world anything. I have no message. I paint possible situations. An artist once told me that a painter needs three things: head, heart and hand. Painting requires a lot of thinking, a basic ability − i.e., the hand − but what he calls heart I call the ability to touch. A painting has to touch people, it has to move them. And when people come to me and they’re moved or crying, that’s what the experience is all about for me.”
Immediately upon entering the studio, you come upon three paintings that take your breath away. One is a Renaissance-style painting of a girl, Gil’s daughter, her velvety red corduroys giving her a patrician air; and two paintings of Genia. In one she is in a shoulder-strap dress, gazing forward with a look that goes right through the observer, and in the second, smaller picture, she is looking right at you over her shoulder. In the second room is the giant piece Gil is currently working on. Against a white backdrop is an ochre drawing of his two daughters standing at the head of a column that also includes Hamitzer’s daughter and other people as well.
Each of the subjects in every work sits for his or her portrait. “I start with the whole canvas covered in brown, and I see the drawing underneath the paint,” explains Gil. “Now I take my tempera paint, which is only white – ‘white egg tempera.’ And after I prepare it I mix it only with water, and then I make lines over the whole surface of the canvas until I obtain the levels of white that I want. Then I cover the whole thing in ochre and then cover it again in white. The brown is there to create the volumes. The ochre is the easiest color to get to the rest of the colors from. In ‘Tayeset’ − the initial drawing and tempera stage took me a year, in which I often worked until three in the morning, because you can only work in tempera by lamplight. After the ochre is covered in white, I paint in color, but I still use white tempera to maintain the light spaces, and thus the painting progresses, and in the end I paint only with oils.
“When you’re dealing with paint, you’re dealing with three pairs of contrasts − light and dark, warm and cold, impenetrable and transparent. My backgrounds are always transparent. In the painting of my wife there are at least 35 layers on the background, and all of them are transparent.”
Why are so many layers necessary?
“Because in the end I get the color I want. Blue, let’s say. If you start with blue you can’t ever be rid of it, but if the blue is first of all brown and then purple and then green, then in the end I get exactly the blue I want. I once painted a woman in a red skirt and it took me 25 layers to get the red I wanted.”
Where do you get the patience for all this work?
“I do things all out, that’s the kind of person I am. I don’t lose my cool. I don’t lose patience or control. I was in the air force for 41 years; no one ever heard me raise my voice. But I’ve also been accused of being overly motivated in war. Before every war I said: I want to come out good in this war. And I felt good at war. There’s no other occupation I know that contains as many aspects of life as flying does. There is beauty, there’s brutality, there’s spirituality, there’s friendship. I’m basically a humanist. But this is a realm where I felt comfortable. In danger situations, I always get into a state of supreme calm. It enables you to achieve results. Skill is knowing what you studied. But talent is something else. For example, to me, a good pilot is a pilot who can do something he never studied. It’s the same in every field.”
Did you have such an achievement as a pilot?
“Yes, the last time I downed an enemy plane it was at 8.2 G-force, which had never been done before.”
And in painting?
“Well, almost everything I do in painting is something I didn’t learn before. And because I have to devote myself to something totally, I knew that I couldn’t do that with painting unless I gave up flying. The first group painting I ever did was after I stopped flying.”
And you didn’t think of going to work for El Al?
“People told me: Go to El Al, you’ll be able to paint. And I said: El Al is two days a week, plus one day on call − when will I have time to paint? El Al is an excuse for somebody who doesn’t want to paint.”