A Feminist With a Brush

Israel Prize-winning artist Lea Nikel was renowned for her remarkable courage and total devotion to painting in a predominantly male world.

Artist Lea Nikel died of cancer in her home at Moshav Kidron on Saturday, three months before her 87th birthday. Nikel painted until her final days, and continued to refresh and renew her work until the very end. In the throes of cancer, painting apparently became even more vital to her, and she exhibited her work as much as possible while she was ill.

Nikel, who won the 1995 Israel Prize for painting, participated in group shows in the center of the country and the periphery, and mounted solo shows in galleries identified with young, contemporary artists, like Sommer and Heder in Tel Aviv.

"At first, gallery staff suggested that she show lesser known pieces from the body of work that she produced throughout her career," Hadar gallery curator Melina Gitzin-Adiram wrote. "But Nikel, with her burning creative spirit, was determined to present new pieces that she painted just for the exhibit. Displaying Nikel in a gallery that promotes young artists is a must, because new paintings by this pioneer of abstract art are among the most relevant and current work being produced even in the world of contemporary art."

Always surprised her audience

Nikel always surprised her audience, and did not always do as she was told. Today, women often travel abroad to study and develop their skills, but when Nikel traveled to Paris in the early 1950s to study painting, leaving her young daughter, Ziva, with her sister, it was unacceptable to those around her. The move underscored two traits that characterized Nikel throughout her life: her remarkable courage in a world dominated by men and her total devotion to painting. "Her only real commitment was to her work," says Naomi Givon of the Givon Gallery, where Nikel exhibited her work. "She was sort of a Virginia Woolf. She was a fighter. She believed in her painting. She traveled to Paris because she knew she would find her plastic language there - and that is exactly what happened," she says.

"As a painter in Paris, she was forced to confront very difficult situations. She basically lacked the means to live. She would attach herself to street artists and collect money in a hat for them, and they would give her a certain portion of the take. She was a truly liberal woman and a groundbreaker. She advanced feminism to a great extent. One might say that she was one of the first feminists."

Nikel first studied painting with painter Haim Gliksberg, and later continued to study in what members of the New Horizons group of painters called the "Streichmatzky" studio of painters Yehezkel Streichman and Avigdor Steimatzky.

"They recognized her talent and may even have encouraged her to be a painter and to travel to Paris," Givon says. "In those days, everyone went to Paris, but women did not. Nikel developed alongside Aviva Uri, but Uri felt a sense of belonging and closeness to the local scene, and Nikel was a lone wolf - very individualistic, in her paintings and her life. There were almost no women in the world of painting at the time, and certainly not producing work that simmered to the boiling point like hers, to an extent that it would overcome everything else, and her commitment to her daughter, her family and her people."

Givon says her leaving everything, including her daughter, for Paris was "not received well. It was also not that well-known. Art pushed her to a point that was beyond family and state. She was completely imprisoned in her painting. Until the end. She bound herself up in her painting, and it was bound up in her. She was a unique painter in Israeli painting that developed her own language and followed it to the end."

Laborer in workman's clothing

This totality in painting characterized her entire life. "She was a woman of extremes, of corners," says Noa Tarshish, the Mane-Katz Museum curator. Tarshish became close to Nikel during their collaboration in the 2004 "Lea Nikel, The Parisian Years 1950-1961" exhibit at the museum. "Her totality in painting was echoed in her totality in friendship, in anger, and in disengagement," Tarshish says. "Just as she drew people in, loved to be with them, and took pleasure in their company, she could not forgive someone who hurt her or someone who she thought treated her less than gently."

This totality did not make her life simple. In a conversation between Nikel and Tarshish, published in the exhibit catalog for "The Parisian Years," Nikel said: "On one occasion, I said that I wished to be a monk in an orange robe in order to lose the artistic ego inside me. I would like to do nothing and be a happy person."

This endless devotion to painting was also evident in her work schedule. During her 11 years in Paris, she learned to leave for work each morning "like a laborer who goes to a factory every day dressed in work clothes." She woke up for work each morning, and climbed the stairs in her home to a second-floor studio with a large picture window overlooking the garden. She related to painting as hard, demanding work that requires discipline and regular codes of behavior.

"It was the canvas that stimulated her," Tarshish says. "She would hang a large, white canvas on the wall, stretched on a wooden frame, and that was how she started to work."

Unlike many artists, Nikel did not wait for a muse because, "things happen while you're working. A theme comes up, a character is created, the space is transformed. I want and need to surprise myself with the color, the spot, the line, the idea," she said in the catalog conversation.

"The process that produced the painting fascinated her," Tarshish says. "She once tried to explain to me how she sees things, `When you travel in the car, you see landscapes. When I travel in the car, I see electric poles that are lines in space.'"

A pioneer of eroticism

The Mane-Katz exhibit emphasized the significance of her sojourn in Paris - not only as a biographical event, but also as a seminal period in which she found her artistic way. "She was one of the shining lights of second-generation Israeli abstract art," says art historian and curator Gideon Efrat. "During the second half of the 1940s, while she was studying in the Streichman and Steimatzky studio, she already had embarked on a `Picassoesque,' exceptionally colored, very special path. But in Paris, she absorbed the influence of the abstract expressionists - what was then called `tachism,' in Paris, from the word `tache,' or spot - pure simplicity without any object. This liberated a breakthrough of maculation, surges of color, and colorful sprays. In other words, it freed creative associations unedited by cognition," he says.

"She led a trend, which members of the New Horizons, who dabbled in the lyrical abstract, did not dare to approach. She followed her urges to the end, and in the early 1960s, began to paint real cocktails of color. These pieces looked like fruit salad - succulent, colorful, smacking of spring and sensual. There was eroticism in this work, direct eros, of a type that we had not yet seen in Israeli painting," Efrat continues. "Many young artists who began to show their work in the mid-60s and 70s were influenced by this same freedom of canvas. She carried color and abstraction in Israel to a point that the founding fathers did not dare to reach."

Efrat explains how Nikel dared to adhere to the abstract style during periods when it was considered anachronistic. "One has to remember the time and style in which she worked. She renewed in the context of her language, and her language directed her to paint first. Her approach was never intellectual. When art became more intellectual, she, at most, introduced an element of collage in the early 70s. She did not renew the language of her art beyond abstract painting," he says.

"If she was in touch with bestial, natural elements in the world of art, during a period when the concept of `nature' was no longer valid, there is no question that, in this respect, she was anachronistic. And if authenticity sounds anachronistic to us, in the 21st century, Lea Nikel from Moshav Kidron remains a creature from another planet. She remained loyal to herself. Great artists usually contribute most in their own time and their own place. In her time and in her place, she had courage, uniqueness and otherness."