One Artist's Baggage

The artist Meir Pichhadze, who passed away from cancer last Thursday at the age of 54, was beloved by many - one of few artists whose style is immediately identifiable, even by those who are not sworn art lovers, in part because of his works' approachability. In the history of Israeli art, he will be remembered as one who made it truly multicultural.

At the beginning of the 1980s, when Pichhadze began to exhibit his work, New York had already replaced Paris as the mecca of Israeli art (following a 30-year delay). The land of his birth, Georgia, was not yet a popular destination for all-terrain vehicle tours or a developing center for contemporary art; rather the country and the immigrants who came from there were mainly the butt of racist jokes.

He never studied at the recognized academies here, nor did he come from the same socio-economic background as most mainstream artists. Yet against all odds, Pichhadze entered the hall of fame of Israeli art - offering well-wrought work and a world of images ranging from nature to a kind of sign language, referencing photographs from a seemingly 19th-century childhood or a film by Emir Kusturica.

Pichhadze was born in Kutaisi, Georgia, and grew up in a time when Communist slogans and images of Lenin and Stalin were still part of everyday life. In an interview with Haaretz in 2008, he explained how he hung pictures of these leaders in his kitchen because he felt good about hanging them by choice, but somewhere they'd be fogged by oily steam.

He described his home as loveless and joyless, devoid of any intellectual or cultural leanings. His father laid floor tiles for a living and was cruel to his children. He remembered his mother mostly as silent. In order to spend time with his elder sister Makavalla, who was actually loving toward him, he joined a painting class at the local Communist people's palace. Their teacher was Razu Ramishvili, a well-known Georgian sculptor.

He identified the talent in both brother and sister and took them under his wing. Makavalla painted ceaselessly, whereas young Meir abandoned painting, only returning to it when the family immigrated to Israel at the start of the 1970s, when he was almost 18. His childhood and immigration, two experiences that created for Pichhadze a bottomless pit impossible to fill, were later joined by his sister's suicide.

Macabre acquaintance

Pichhadze didn't go through any of the usual channels of absorption. A few days after arriving, he began to work polishing brass lettering on tombstones. It's difficult to think of a more macabre way to become acquainted with the Hebrew language. Makavalla soldered wires in an electronics factory; another sister remained in Georgia, immigrating only in the mid-1980s.

Pichhadze started painting again, but with no connection to the art establishment here. His sister showed in an exhibition of immigrant artists. Pichhadze also managed to organize a joint exhibition for his sister and himself at Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv. Despite being unknown artists, the exhibition was successful beyond all expectations, with many works sold.

Years later, he related in an interview that his paintings were "in brown and green, figures and landscapes. She was influenced by Picasso and painted blue figures with faces like Russian icons."

After a short, failed marriage, his sister stopped painting. Subsequently she tried to kill herself, was hospitalized and after being discharged committed suicide by hanging herself in their parents' home.

Meir Pichhadze married and moved to Tel Aviv. After several years during which he created paintings aimed at pleasing the widest possible audience, he decided to concentrate on painting that which he viewed as art. He studied at what is now the Kalisher School of Art for one year, and during the 1980s had solo exhibitions at the Dvir Gallery and at Kalisher. He was awarded stipends from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation twice, and also the Young Artist Prize and the Creativity Prize from the Ministry of Culture, on top of great commercial success.

His works, immediately embraced by the art establishment, joined the wave of momentum in Israeli art in the 1980s - which included the works of Gabi Klezmer, Assam Abu-Shakra, Asad Azi and Jacob Mishori. This was a new art scene, more interesting and contemporary than what preceded it (and one which has not yet received sufficient recognition).

Bleeding heart

Pichhadze's paintings were realistic, containing a language of signs and symbols unprecedented in Israeli art - like a bleeding heart. As a declared working method, he based drawings on photographs. His treatment of several kinds of reality placed him among the various voices of post-modern art, as spearheaded by American artists Julian Schnabel and David Salle, and connected him to the Italian trans-avant-gard work of Enzo Cucchi and Francesco Clemente. Pichhadze didn't often draw sketches and usually painted on a black background, historically identified with Baroque Spanish mannerist painting.

In the 1990s, he had solo shows nearly every year at leading galleries, among them Julie M. and Givon, and participated in many group shows. He also went to New York several times for extended periods, but returned in 1996 to donate a kidney to his daughter.

In the '90s he also began creating paintings that repeatedly returned to immigrants' suitcases and investigated questions of belonging. He was identified with Tel Aviv's acceptance of Georgian culture in the night-life and culinary arenas, along with his partner at the time, Nana Schreier, despite repeated comments in interviews about his negative impressions on visits to his home country.

Based on old family photographs, his paintings depicted a harsh and merciless world. With admirable strength, Pichhadze disassociated himself from an impoverished past and from an early age insisted on engaging in and earning his living from painting. Today it would be no exaggeration to say that his work can be, or at least should be, found in every comprehensive collection of Israeli art.

Meir Pichhadze was laid to rest Thursday in Kiryat Shaul. He is survived by a son and a daughter.