Avigdor Arikha Laid to Rest / The Light Turns Gray

Family and friends gathered Monday to honor artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha, who died last Thursday.

PARIS − Artist and art historian Avigdor Arikha, who died last Thursday, was buried in the Montparnasse Cemetery in Paris on Monday. Gusts of wind combined with stinging rain accompanied his funeral, but the sky was clear as though ordered especially for the man whose work was based on natural light.

Avigdor Arikha's funeral
Lisa Peretz

Some 100 people gathered at the cemetery − relatives friends and colleagues, prominent figures from the French art world, including Musee d’Orsay curator and former Picasso Museum director Jean Clair, Musee National d’Art Moderne director Alfred Pacquement, Marlborough Gallery director Gilbert Lloyd, and many others.

They huddled into their long dark coats, their faces reflecting grief and yearning. They told each other about Arikha, each as he or she knew him − the artist reborn in the 1960s when he abandoned abstract art for figurative work, the fastidious exhibition curator and art historian, the good father and life partner.

At the entrance to the cemetery stood a grey-silver ambulance. Beside it stood a woman, one of the cemetery’s managers, asking the visitors to march behind the ambulance. Hushed tones in various languages could be heard − Hebrew, English and French.

The ambulance drove slowly along the long asphalt road lined on either side with granite headstones. Montparnasse Cemetery is the eternal resting place of many of France’s intellectual, artistic and literary elite. It also bears monuments to police and firefighters killed in the line of duty in the city of Paris. The numerous famous people buried there have made the site an immensely popular tourist attraction.

Arikha requested specifically to be buried here, to be near his close friend author and playwright Samuel Beckett.

The ambulance stopped and a wooden coffin emerged engraved with a gold Star of David. Two men lay the coffin on iron poles, wrapped it with a blue velvet drape and lay a wreath of white lilies on it. Arikha’s family members − daughters Noga and Alba, their partners and children, and his wife of almost 50 years, poet Anne Atik, who modeled for most of his paintings, sat before the coffin. Before Atik sat down she passed every person in attendance and gave him a warm hug, thanking him for coming. She spoke to each one in his own language, the languages she shared with Arikha.

She carries herself with the same grace and restraint reflected in the countless paintings she modeled for her husband. Her eyes, like in the paintings, are dark, large and round. Now there is a new look in them − grief at parting from her other − physical and spiritual − half. Every time Arikha’s name was mentioned in the eulogies, Atik’s eyes closed, as though to ward off the spreading pain.

One by one the attendants rose to lament Arikha in front of the microphone. First a Reform rabbi in a black cape and skull cap, then the various colleagues. They spoke of a unique artist, a brilliant intellectual, a great loss to the art world, a renaissance man − all titles associated with Arikha already in his lifetime. Now they appeared in his eulogies, including the obituary in the New York Times.

Arikha’s coffin slowly descends down into the earth. On one side of the grave stands poet, novelist and translator Emmanuel Moses reading Kaddish. On the other side stands the cemetery official holding a bouquet of pink wild roses. Each of the mourners takes one flower from her and throws it down to the coffin. When it is all covered with roses and the last mourner leaves the plot, the sky becomes suddenly overcast with dark clouds. When the light turns to gray it is the sign that Avigdor Arikha is gone for good.