This Day in Jewish History / Avigdor Arikha, Who Survived the Holocaust and Painted the Queen, Dies

Badly wounded in the Israeli War of Independence, he was left for dead, but pulled through and became one of the great painters from life.

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Avigdor Arikha.
Avigdor Arikha. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

On April 29, 2010, the celebrated French-Israeli painter Avigdor Arikha died, one day after his 81st birthday.

A Romanian-born Holocaust survivor, Arikha had lived for most of the last six decades of his life in Paris, but continued to keep a home in Jerusalem and maintained close ties with Israel.

Arikha had no interest in being a celebrity: He was a dead-serious, highly cerebral artist who lacked any patience for popular culture. Yet his work, which was figurative and naturalistic for most of his career, was largely accessible and easy on the eye.

In its obituary, The Economist called him “perhaps the best painter from life in the last decades of the 20th century.”

Arikha was born Avigdor Dlugacz on April 28, 1929, in Radauti, a town in Bukovina, Romania, but moved with his family to the nearby city of Czernowitz (today Chernivtsi, Ukraine) while still a young child. His father, Karl-Haim Dlugacz, was an accountant in the civil service; his mother was Perla Dlugacz. They also had an older daughter.

Avigdor attended a Hebrew-language primary school, and demonstrated early talent both in portrait-drawing and playing the violin.

Drawing corpses

In 1941, after Romania allied itself with Nazi Germany, the Dlugacz family, along with most of the region’s other Jews, were deported to the Romanian-administered camps in Transnistria. Karl-Haim was beaten to death in the Luchinetz ghetto in 1942, and Perla, Avigdor and his sister, Lya, were later transferred to the Mogilev labor camp, where he was employed for more than a year as an iron worker.

Still a young teenager, Avigdor risked his life by making drawings of the scenes he observed around himself at the camp – pictures of wagons carrying corpses and mass graves being filled, among other things. A renegade guard warned him that “you are playing with fire” – but also arranged to have the drawings seen by representatives of the International Red Cross who visited the camp.

Impressed by Arikha’s work, they undertook to have both him and his sister supplied with false identities and released from imprisonment. Seventeen of his drawings also survived the war.

In 1944, Avigdor and Lya traveled to Palestine, where they were taken in by Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha, outside Jerusalem. That’s when he adopted the family name “Arikha.” It would be another 14 years before the two were reunited with their mother, who also survived.

Educating Arikha

Between 1946 and 1949, Arikha studied art at what was then called the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, in Jerusalem. He also joined the Haganah pre-state defense organization, and was badly wounded in 1948, during the War of Independence. Believed to be dead, Arikha was taken to the kibbutz morgue. His sister, who refused to believe he was dead, insisted he be examined, and that resulted in emergency surgery.

After recovering, in 1949, Arikha received a scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, in Paris. That’s where he remained, marrying the American writer and poet Anne Atik in 1961, with whom he would have two daughters.

By the 1950s, Arikha was working exclusively in abstraction. Then came the day in 1965, when, viewing Caravaggio’s “The Raising of Lazarus,” at the Louvre, he understood that he had exhausted the genre. The next morning, he woke up feeling “a hunger in my eyes,” and from then on devoted himself to figurative work, initially only with drawings and prints, and only in black and white.

It was not until 1973 that Arikha returned to painting, and to color, from which point he described himself as a “post-abstract representational artist.” He worked only in natural light, and only from life, generally finishing even oil canvases in one sitting. “Economy of means is, in fact, the threshold of concentration,” he told The New York Times.

Late in his career, he took on portrait commissions of such personages as both Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mother, as well as a former British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home.

Arikha was no less distinguished for his work as a curator and an art historian than as painter. His long and profound friendship with Samuel Beckett served as the subject of a 2004 memoir by his wife, Atik.

Avigdor died of cancer at his home in Paris.

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