The Last, Daring Brushstroke

Dana Gilerman
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Dana Gilerman

Two exhibitions that opened last week - Avraham Ofek's "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" at Beit Avi Hai in Jerusalem, and "Last Works" of Avigdor Stematsky at the Tel Aviv Museum - focus on the two artists' last works.

In the Stematsky exhibition, which was curated by Romy Golan, 75 abstract and colorful paintings, which convey a great deal of energy, are on display, all of which were created by the artist in the last decade of his life, when he was 80 years old.

The Ofek exhibition, which was curated by Gideon Efrat, shows 90 symbolic paintings that were inspired by the sacrifice of Isaac. This subject seeped into Ofek's work when he realized he had a terminal illness, and were created under the direct influence of the tragic events he encountered: his serious illness, the realization that his death was imminent and his daughter's suicide.

The somewhat elusive phrase, "last works," is one of the most loaded and significant in the course of the creative process. A perusal of the artists' last works reveals they share common characteristics: the return to images from the past, the attempt to create some kind of concluding visual vocabulary, a feeling of catharsis and summary, and sometimes even renewal and daring.

In the last series painted by Rafi Lavie, for example, there is a return to the figures of the early period of his works. "The figures of the angels become stronger and turn into the dominant ones," says the curator Sarit Shapira.

In her last oil paintings, Lea Nickel returns to dealing with the collage that appeared in her works in the 1950s and 1960s. Forms from her early works once again appear in the watercolors that she painted until her dying day ("until she could no longer hold the paint-brush and climbed into bed to die" explains Mira Avgar, her granddaughter), and in this way, a concluding collection of symbols is created.

In Ofek's series of paintings "Last Watch," which were exhibited about a year ago at the Israel Museum, the artist returns to old motifs from the 1950s such as fishing boats, cows, and the landscape of Jerusalem. "As compared with the direct scenery of the 1950s, the landscape now is panoramic, as if from a bird's eye view, with an upward look toward the stars, to the highest spot of all, to beyond the horizon," writes Amitai Mendelsohn, the curator.

In his last series, Stematsky also returns to the familiar abstract, but in the new work there is drive and renewal. "There is no escaping the romanticism of a person who is facing his own death, his swan song," says Gideon Efrat.

The peak described in these works can be the result of the maturity that comes with age and the need to say a final something cathartic before the end, but it can also be attributed to technical changes. Stematsky exchanges his oil paint for tempera water paints which he prepares himself, and uses very large-size paper.

"The way of life has changed, collectors have begun to buy works, money comes into the picture and an artist paints completely differently when he has different conditions," says the gallery owner Nelly Aman. "I heard people who visited an exhibition saying that Stematsky had never painted on such large sheets of paper. But you have to remember that there were no such large sheets of paper at the time in Israel, and even if there had been, he would not have had the money to pay for them. All the artists in this country in that period painted on both sides of the canvas, sometimes even three or four times. Stematsky and Avni would go out to paint in nature with a joint palette because they didn't have the money for paints."

It seems as if the day-to-day existence in a country that is always in a state of existential struggle plays a part in that very drive and renewal, which make an appearance with some of the local artists in the final chapter of their creative lives. There are impressions of the first Lebanon War in the works of Aviva Ori, for example. In the text that accompanies Stematsky's exhibition, Golan hints at the possibility that his last works can be seen in a political context.

"The works have no defined areas, no lines and no borders," Golan says, adding: "It is interesting what influence the 1980s had on a creative person; those were years of building in the territories and the start of the first intifada." Golan points to the last, unfinished, work that is shown in the exhibition and asks: "Isn't the shape reminiscent of the map of Israel?"

Nickel, Ofek, Lavie and Stematsky belong to a group of artists who knew that their time was running out, and this awareness merely served to improve their creativeness toward the end. But there are also quite a few artists whose final period of life can be defined as the low point of their careers.

"In most cases in the story of art, the artistic achievement is reached between the ages of 20 and 30," Efrat says. "The assumption is that what you have not done by the age of 30, you won't do at all."

For example, he adds, Yosef Zaritsky's last works were much less successful than those he did in the 1950s. That was true also of Yehezkel Streichman, and of Arie Aroch who in the 1970s when he was already ill, was no longer at his peak. The late works by Calman Shemi are considered far less good than his early works, and the late works by Michael Gross that were exhibited at the Israel Museum were described by some of the critics as being weak.

Some of the artists who were at the end of their lives were even accused of mannerism and commercialism.

"Perhaps the feeling of repetitiveness stems actually from the need to preserve the cohesiveness of the work at all costs, and not to fall apart toward the end," says the artist Gideon Gechtman. "The awareness of approaching death can arouse a response of hysteria and panic. The question is whether to give up the ghost and what happens if one does. Mature artists try to be in control of their work. They devote 50 years to achieving something, to crystalizing their style, and it is not reasonable that they would give this up in the last half year in which they have learned that they have a terminal illness. The opposite. They will continue to try and do what they tried to do all their lives, to reinforce all the previous positions, even to create a point out of this."

But what about last works that were not created with the clear realization that this was the end of the road?

"Many times one learns only after the fact that these were the final works," says the curator Galia Bar-Or. "And then they are no longer conceived of in a context of being coincidental, but rather as being wrapped in fateful significance that becomes the crowning glory of an end that had been predicted in advance in a chain of events."

She takes, as an example, the last works of Aviva Ori, whose death to this day is still speculated as either suicide or the cause of other mysterious circumstances. Her works became more and more colorful and filled with intensity toward her death.

"On the side of one of the last works, Ori wrote in tiny letters, 'the last questions,'" Bar-Or says. "These are six lines of images that she dealt with all her life and together with them there is a box that is a folding container and also a sarcophagus, a wide-open circle that is a head, as well as images from the last years - a body lying wrapped in a shroud, and a figure that is falling with its hands pointing down."

Did Ori forecast her imminent death?

"Every picture is made with the feeling that this is the last work," says artist Larry Abramson. "That is the last realization that feeds art - that in another minute, life will come to an end. Walter Benjamin talks about 'sequential history' and the potential of a one-time event. Artists live that. There is linear time, from one exhibition to another, and there is this messianic time of the end of time. Every painting carries the dual timing, and it exists also in those last paintings that were done without knowing that this is the end. The painting is, in fact, a desperate protest against death. It is the giving of proof that will remain after I am gone.

"What is amazing is that even when the artist already knows - he has already been to the doctor, this is no longer a mere thought about life - he continues to paint. Doesn't he have anything more urgent to do? No, he doesn't. Now is the most urgent time to make art because until now, you understand, you were wasting time. For example, the German Jewish painter Felix Nussbaum. He wasn't ill, but he knew his time was limited, that the Nazi death machine would catch up with him. He didn't run away but instead continued to paint, and his painting changes from a style that tries to ingratiate itself to painting that really talks with the times and with history, and bears witness. These are his last paintings. He could not have known that he would be betrayed in two months' time, but he did know that it would happen at any moment."

With Gechtman too - most of whose works are gathered in the second story of his home as a planned part of a mausoleum for after his death - the thought of death is part of the creative process.

"What does it matter if they say to you that you have another year or another 30 years to live?" he says. "In the end you know that it will be terminal, and the older you get, the closer that end is.

"I always work in the knowledge that I don't know what tomorrow will bring. Since my works are very clean, alienated, without the touch of a hand, almost industrialized, they cannot express the mental distress that gets expression in the paintings of Aviva Ori or Moshe Gershuni.

"With me, the emotional upheaval finds expression in the subjects with which my work deals and in my need to be prepared, to preserve order, to finish works and not to leave left-overs."

The importance attached to the work of their final years, which one can hear from the words of the artists, does not get expressed on the art market. True, a self-portrait by Andy Warhol that became "the last" after his unexpected death was sold at a record price at Sotheby's in London ($22 million). But Sigal Mordechai of Sotheby's Israel says that "every case must be judged according to its own merits;" that "the most desired works are those that were created in the midst of the artist's life", but that all the same, the excitement is over the early works.

"The dealers have created this myth, that the older things of the artist are worth more because of their rarity, and this is not really right," says Naomi Givon, the owner of a gallery. "They present it that way because there is less of a supply of early works, it is easier to find buyers for them, and to sell them at higher prices."

Not only on the market is there a feeling that youth is being sanctified, but also at the six exhibitions celebrating the 60th anniversary of the state.

"Every decade puts its young artists on a pedestal," says Abramson. "There is no follow-up to see how the work of an artist develops over the decades and the maturity which comes with age. These exhibitions don't give expression to the daily burden that continues throughout life.

"The interest in young and naive artists expresses the onlooker's desire to remain young forever, to overcome, and his lack of desire to come face to face with death. The culture does not want to see itself in the guise of the artists who were once young and are now old. That is the desperate format of a country that is growing old, that wants to buy youth for itself."

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