An exhibition of Avigdor Arikha's drawings for a story by S. Y. Agnon shows how the artist's greatness was there from the start
"Kelev Hutzot" ("A Stray Dog") by Shmuel Yosef Agnon, with illustrations by Avigdor Arikha, published by Tarshish Books in 1960, is one of the most beautiful Hebrew books ever issued in Israel. The first volume of Agnon's collected stories (Schocken Press, Berlin, 1934 ) was a masterpiece of design, in which every detail of material and form provides a unique lesson in the creation of a modern Hebrew book of high quality that can face the design challenges of the world around it.
Israeli publishers, including Schocken Press, have hardly ever lived up to the standard presented by that edition. And the later editions of Agnon's writings - those published while he was still alive and particularly those that came out after his death - continued the downward trend. The latest, softcover version presents a most amateurish and pathetic design that drags the writings down with every possible conceptual error and superficial stereotype.
Moshe Spitzer's Tarshish Books, founded in Jerusalem in 1939, is the famous exception to this rule, and not by chance: Spitzer was a gifted designer and the director of Schocken Press in Germany, and one of those behind the first Agnon edition. Spitzer is also responsible for several Hebrew fonts used in contemporary printing and also wrote some of the most interesting Hebrew texts on this subject. The books he published remain treasures of design, familiar to all booklovers in these parts.
"A Stray Dog" (a story from Agnon's "Only Yesterday") is one of a series of books illustrated by Arikha and released by various publishers. The loveliest of all were published by Tarshish (Arikha's splendid drawings for Bialik's "Safiah," which are just as impressive as the drawings for "A Stray Dog," were given a very disappointing printing by the Bialik Publishing House; it was not that sharp to begin with and has quickly faded over the years. The Tarshish printing remains just as sharp and alive as ever ).
"A Stray Dog" is a notable achievement by any measure: In addition to the formal quality of the book, it achieves a rare symbiosis between Agnon's writing and Arikha's drawings. Not everyone was aware of it at the time, when Arikha was in his mid-twenties, that here was a unique master artist who would become one of the world's great painters of his generation.
Agnon's writing is resistant to illustration. Even when thoroughly realistic, the words contain so many levels of perception and such a multitude of points of view that no visual medium could possibly match it. All the more so when his writing abandons the realistic mode and takes flight into the realms of imagination and horror. Attempts to attach illustrations to Agnon stories have mostly led to a "Jewish" style that is farther, perhaps, from the Agnon world, than any other. The Jewishness of the Agnon stories is so deep and complex that the "Jewish" images added to them, limited and superficial to begin with, appeared crude and sentimental and, above all, superfluous.
Arikha's drawings draw all their power from the line. Even someone with no real knowledge of the art of drawing will discern in Arikha's "Tmol Shilshom" works the vast difference between an ordinary line that someone scribbled or sketched, and the tense, charged, living line in these drawings. Arikha was a truly great master of line, and a master of drawing who belongs in the same ranks as Raphael and Picasso. Arikha's marvelous drawing ability is the real power contained in his art; this is where the great drama occurs of the living touch between him and his instrument of choice (pencil, pen, coal, brush ), which for him is the main conduit to "the world."
Arikha's life as an artist is arrayed as a triptych, from his start in Jerusalem as he grew to adulthood and grappled with the idea of the "abstract" art of modernist painting. The second chapter is the "abstract" chapter, and the third - which began in the mid-1960s - when he turned his back on the abstract and on modernism as a whole, and returned to drawing "from nature." A serious interpretation of this progression would require a very long essay, but here too one must note that Arikha's artistic drama takes place against the history of Western painting as a whole, and not necessarily of Israeli painting. It is not only a matter of the narrow outlook of Israeli painting in the latter half of the 20th century, with its tyranny of one type of modernism, and the intellectual domination of all of Israeli art criticism by a small minority who could not understand - nor, it goes without saying, accept - such a rejection of modernism and such scathing criticism of its mindset, but of the deep affinity that Arikha harbored for the figures he encountered in the museums of Paris - Uccello, Poussin, Velazquez.
This powerful bond with the great artists of the past was not a postmodernist message, but an undermining of the very idea of progress: the advancement of the notion of the timelessness of culture and art. Line, the very essence of the art of drawing, is the profound point of connection between the abstract aspect of a painting and the concrete, which requires an image; it is the power that leads to the abstract and also what obliged Arikha to abandon it. In one of my conversations with Arikha, here in Jerusalem, he talked about the moral obligation toward that which is visible. Reality is not something that can be ignored, he said.
The line in the drawings of "A Stray Dog" is taut with the power that lies between the concrete and the abstract. In those years, Arikha was in a process of discovering the power of the abstract as it pertained to him; to him, abstract forms and lines were akin to drawings of energy - invisible gusts of wind within the drawn space. This tension is wherein lies the oh-so-rare point of connection between Agnon's style of writing and Arikha's art at that young stage, when it was fueled by a passion for the abstract.
Arikha developed a lot in his art, and still the young Arikha's drawings are no less developed than the drawings of the older Arikha, who left the realms of the abstract to return to nature. This kind of development belongs to the world of art alone, and not the world of technology. The early stage is not limited, it is the first budding of what will later blossom from it. The sense that the line depicting Balak the dog, or the crowds of Mea She'arim, is powerfully strong fiber infused with tremendous excitement that barely delineates and holds back a roiling inner world - is the connection between it and the story of this dog, which appears before you in the simplest fashion as a stray dog, and at the same time is a riddle of destruction that will tantalize readers for as long as they continue to read books.
"Kelev Hutzot" - an exhibition of drawings by Avigdor Arikha for Agnon's story "A Stray Dog" opened yesterday at the Shai Agnon House, Jerusalem, curated by Mordechai Omer.
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