Text size

Avigdor Arikha has died at 81 after leading a life of creativity and recognition. He bequeathed a body of work that is the world of images of many people in Israel and around the globe. His self-portrait shows him shadowing his eyes, blinded by the light, as one refusing to surrender, who believes in the power of the gaze. His wife Anne's red umbrella stands in a corner of the room, indicating that this is a home, so you can let down your guard. His paintings of fallen leaves over the past decade hinted at mortality.

After he returned to figurative painting in the mid-1960s, his work strove to address the truth, but not with realistic adherence. Arikha's etchings, drawings and paintings pulsate and breathe as if they have not frozen or embalmed movement, but suspended it. Like a violin sound post that produces a musical scale from the front of the instrument to the back, such is the movement, pulse and sometimes vibration that in Arikha's painting convey yearning, meaning and the portrayal of form.

Arikha did not live in Israel for more than five consecutive years, but he was an Israeli artist. He created his early works in a Nazi concentration camp when he was about 13. He portrayed the horrors he had undergone, and Yad Vashem acquired his notebook from the period in the 1960s. He arrived in Palestine in 1944, and like many Holocaust survivors, served in the War of Independence, during which he was badly wounded. In 1949, he received a scholarship to Paris, which became his home.

Though he did not repress his personal experiences, his drawings from the Holocaust were exhibited at the entrance to the major retrospective of his art in the late 1990s in the Israel Museum and the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. But Arikha did not become a Holocaust painter. The way he viewed the world stemmed from a rich European cultural milieu and his contemplation and intellectual work on art history, culminating in the exhibitions of Nicolas Poussin and Jean Ingres that he curated. His close friendship with Samuel Beckett was extremely influential to his emotional and intellectual being.

Arikha was born into modernism and decided to leave it. This stance is perhaps the reason for his unusual status. In the last quarter of the 20th century, he was respected but also removed from the Israeli mainstream. That mainstream sought to be "contemporary." Arikha proposed an alternative in which observation and doubt cohabitate, and the past becomes part of the continuum. Quite a few Israelis think that Israel needs to embrace his approach, in life as in art.