Tel Aviv

Avigdor Arikha, Self-Portrait in the Studio, 2001, oil on canvas, 18 x 15".

Avigdor Arikha, Self-Portrait in the Studio, 2001, oil on canvas, 18 x 15".

Avigdor Arikha

Tel Aviv Museum of Art

Avigdor Arikha, Self-Portrait in the Studio, 2001, oil on canvas, 18 x 15".

Avigdor Arikha passed away on April 29, 2010, at the age of eighty-one. Born in Romania, he survived the Holocaust and was brought to Palestine by the Red Cross in 1944. After three years of study at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts in Jerusalem and a near-fatal stint in the War of Independence of 1948, he won a scholarship to the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Though he spent most of his artistic life in France, he is lauded as a titan of twentieth-century Israeli art.

This two-part exhibition, “Homage to Avigdor Arikha: Self-Portraits/ Illustrations to ‘A Stray Dog’ By S. Y. Agnon,” recalled Arikha’s formal beginnings as an illustrator and his lifelong preoccupation with self-portraiture. The first section, organized with the artist before his death, foregrounds his collaboration with one of the leading figures in modern Hebrew literature. Between 1953 and 1958, Arikha produced woodcut prints and pen-on-paper and ink-on-paper illustrations to accompany Agnon’s story “The Stray Dog,” an excerpt from his 1945 novel, Only Yesterday; the resulting book was published in 1960.While meant to function as visual supports for Agnon’s textual allegory in which a stray dog stands for the Jew in exile, the works also reveal the artist’s gradual renunciation of figuration in favor of abstraction. Over a five-year period, Arikha’s representation of the unlucky dog Balak shifted from a style of absolute graphic clarity to one of faint linear suggestiveness, a procedure that would be curiously reversed in his pictorial treatment of himself, as evidenced in the nineteen self-portraits that made up the second part of the exhibition.

In tandem with these latter works, which were made between 1948 and 2001, the woodcuts prompted viewers to identify the figure of the artist with the condition of perpetual exile—separated both from the possibilities of objective self-representation through art and, tangentially, from a homeland. In a catalogue essay, curator Mordechai Omer relies heavily on Arikha’s enduring friendship with Samuel Beckett, whom he met in 1956, to make sense of the artist’s lifelong impulse for self-investigation. This approach casts Arikha’s portraits as literal exemplars of the existential anxieties conveyed in the Irish expatriate’s writings, such as the chronic failure of the individual to be truly present to him or herself and the thwarted desire to unite the visible with the invisible. In the intimacy of Arikha’s ghostly presence, however, it was easy to forget literary connections, whether to Agnon or Beckett. Not that their universes didn’t intersect or inform one another, but just as Giacometti’s aesthetic concerns cannot be fully explained by Sartre’s philosophical deliberations, Arikha’s fascination with the act of painting (as opposed to any other medium or practice) shows it to be an autonomous path to understanding the world.

In many works, Arikha crops out virtually all the tools of his trade, including easel, canvas, and brush, to depict himself in an attenuated moment of thought. Nude Torso, 1990; Self-Portrait, 1991; Self Portrait Sitting, 1992; and Self Portrait in the Studio, 2001, for example, reveal a struggle with how to represent the elusive cognitive process of painting, which appears no less crucial than the possession of technical skill. Arikha thus connects his labors to an artistic lineage that includes Poussin, Rembrandt, and Courbet, all artists for whom the pleasures and pains of painting hinged on making visible the irresolvable tensions between the cosa mentale and its material articulation.

Nuit Banai