Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Avigdor Arikha’s Art of Pain

The skilled Israeli painter, a Holocaust survivor who died in 2010, has a major gallery show in New York. Plus: an interview with his daughter.

Jonathan Wilson
April 10, 2012

To launch a slideshow of images from the current exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York, “Avigdor Arikha: Works from the Estate,” click the link at left.


On March 10, 1965, a month before his 36th birthday, the Israeli artist Avigdor Arikha experienced a moment of profound transformation after viewing an exhibition of Caravaggio’s paintings, “Le Caravage et la peinture italienne du XVIIe siècle,” at the Louvre. When he emerged, he was through with abstraction, where his burgeoning reputation, especially in Israel, had to that point rested, and committed himself to painting and drawing exclusively from life.

From that day on, Arikha worked only in black and white, until 1973, when he began painting in color again. He felt that, as he observed in an interview a decade later, “to paint an apple is as great now, as the challenge to paint a square in 1906. Only how do you paint an apple after Cézanne?”

He didn’t only go on to paint and draw apples of course, but coats, hats, bookshelves, all manner of fruit and vegetables, paint tubes, landscapes in Jerusalem, New York, and France, as well as figures including his wife, the poet Anne Atik, his daughters Noga and Alba, Samuel Beckett, the Queen Mother, and, always strikingly and never in repose, himself.

Avigdor Arikha died in 2010 at the age of 81. The current exhibition at Marlborough Gallery in New York, “Avigdor Arikha: Works From the Estate,” presents 56 oil paintings, pastels, watercolors, drawings, and lithographs, some of which have never been seen in public before.

It’s tempting to view Arikha’s work as that of a gorgeous throwback, as Michael Kimmelman parsed it a few years ago, the production of an artist who reminds us “what craft means and how pleasurable it is to see.” But there’s something at once darker and more forceful going on in his work: The empty armchair and the black corner of a portfolio resist narrative, but the objects signify nonetheless. Here’s the way in which I think they do: In Rilke’s ninth Duino elegy, the poet writes, “Perhaps we are here in order to say: house, bridge, fountain, gate, pitcher, fruit tree, window … but to say them … more intensely than the Things themselves ever dreamed of existing.” There is precisely this heightened intensity in Arikha’s baskets of fruit, pots of flowers, files and boxes, suitcases, and coats on pegs.

From where does the intensity of Arikha’s images derive? Samuel Beckett wrote of Arikha, “I have not ceased to admire … his acuity of vision, sureness of execution, and incomparable grasp of the past and of the problems that beset continuance. It is perhaps in this double awareness, at once transcended and implicit in his work, that he is in a sense heroically alone.”

Arikha himself once said, “The artist, like the mystic, has to stand outside history. That’s the true way for him to enter it.” This may have been his credo as a painter, but it resonates because he is one of those whom history came and grabbed by the throat in the 20th century. Born near Radautz in Bukovina, Romania, in 1929, he was 11 when his family moved to Czernowitz in Ukraine, and 12 when the occupying Nazis deported him with his parents and sister to the concentration camps of Western Ukraine. Arikha’s father was beaten to death in Lucinetz in 1942. The young boy sketched the deportations.

Arikha himself spent more than a year in forced labor in an iron foundry in Mogilev. In December 1943, his drawings were shown to commissioners from the International Red Cross, who were impressed or moved enough to include his and his sister’s names on a list of children whose release was to be secured in a pending financial deal with the camp authorities. The list was only supposed to include children who had lost both their parents. Arikha’s mother was still alive; he and his sister were given false identities, and three months later they were removed from the camp. Arikha and his sister then immigrated to Palestine. In 1948, he was severely wounded during the Israeli War of Independence and briefly left for dead. Two years later he began his life in Paris.

Aside from the extraordinary drawings that he executed in the camps as a child—a soup line, a pile of skeletal corpses on a cart—he never confronted his own past directly. Instead, like his friend Beckett, he explored the space between action and inertia, wholeness and disintegration, via objects that simultaneously suggest these contrasting properties: Malone’s exercise book, brimless hat, and pencil are not far removed from Arikha’s portfolio, fur hat, and scarf and pencil sharpener. It is no surprise that Arikha was commissioned to design the set and costumes for Endgame at the Samuel Beckett Theater in New York in 1984.

Then there is Arikha’s own face, which is History’s, too. His self-portraits frequently show a man who appears to be in agony, often half-naked, wild hair, brow furrowed. The contrast with his empathetic, tender (but not at all sweet) sketches and portraits of his wife and daughters couldn’t be greater.

Arikha worked in a kind of controlled frenzy, rarely spending more than a few hours and never more than a day on any one piece, and, with rare exceptions, at one sitting. Anne’s Coat (1973), the first painting Arikha accomplished on his return to color and shown now in New York for the first time, is one of the revisited works. He was a cerebral man with an encyclopedic knowledge of art history, history, science, and much else, and his Ginsberg-like process—“first thought best thought”—seems an unlikely companion to his ferocious intellect, but his febrile imagination was geared to immersion in the passing moment. The fruit in his still-lifes, as one critic has remarked, often looks as if it is teetering on the edge of the table on which it sits: arrest without rest.

I have a favorite Arikha; it is a 1977 drawing, Apple Tree. I’d been lucky enough to meet the artist at the home of my friend, the poet T. Carmi, during the summer that it was executed in Jerusalem. Somehow that fruit tree—three apples on its thin boughs, a rush of overgrown foliage surrounding it, and the glimpse of a stone garden wall beyond—has the power to evoke for me the admixture of peace and volatility that I knew then, when I lived in Jerusalem.

In the current show, there are trees in Port Royal, in an unnamed garden. Along with the marvelous objects and portraits, they disturb and delight equally. This is less true of Arikha’s nudes, nine of which are on display in New York, and which, I have to admit, baffle me: They seem to be situated at a precise midpoint, in a neutral zone, between Modigliani’s ravishing, seductive beauties and Lucian Freud’s ravaged fleshy disasters. Nothing else is neutral in the current show. Rose, suitcase, or coat: Arikha engaged the world that he observed unflinchingly, with concentrated passion.


An Interview With Noga Arikha and Marcello Simonetta

The historian of ideas Noga Arikha, Avigdor Arikha’s younger daughter, and her husband, the historian Marcello Simonetta, are a dauntingly erudite and cultivated couple. True scholars, whose writing is wonderfully unimpeded by academic jargon, they each appeal in their work to a broad audience. Arikha is the author of Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humors and Simonetta of The Montefeltro Conspiracy: A Renaissance Mystery Decoded. Most recently they collaborated to produce the first biography in English of Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon and the Rebel: A Story of Brotherhood, Passion, and Power. Both Arikha and Simonetta possess endearingly open personalities and are engagingly candid.

The interview was conducted in a short burst at the opening of “Avigdor Arikha: Works From the Estate” at Marlborough Gallery in New York, then more extensively via email. A year ago, Arikha and Simonetta moved from New York to Paris, where they currently live with their baby son, Vigo. This is the first interview that either Arikha or Simonetta has given about her late father. I first met Noga in Jerusalem, although perhaps “met” is not the right word as she was a little girl in the company of her parents, with whom I was having a drink at the home of my friend, the poet T. Carmi. Noga once told me that “everyone seems to remember me as a little girl.” This must be at least partly because of the extraordinary drawings “Noga” and “Noga at Age Eight” that her father made of her in April 1976 and May 1977, the latter of which he later annotated, “Noga standing in her night gown, fidgeting, unlike her older sister.”

Noga, can you talk about the experience of sitting for your father over the years—from the lovely drawing of you age 7 with wild hair and big glasses to the very last work?

NA: Always intense. Music, silenced voices, concentration. He worked in one go, but there would necessarily be pauses for the model; so, he would draw the traces of my feet on the floor to note the pose. I liked that, as a child. Sometimes I prompted him, suggested I sit or stand; sometimes it was yes, sometimes no. I remember only one instance of conflict, when I had to stand in the corner for what became the beautiful ink of me standing in my striped nightgown, aged 7 or 8; I remember stomping my feet and my father getting angry. But usually it was a special, joyous thing to sit or stand for my father. As I grew up I used the time for myself as well—to read, think, simply learn from being still.

It could get painful, of course. At times I would inquire whether he was finished, he would show me what he had done. It could be discouraging to see only an eye and the top of the nose. He drew and painted on the edge, of time and capability, setting himself up within the imposed bounds of diurnal unity, floating on the crest of music, very often Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier” played by Glenn Gould. He made all sorts of wild grimaces as he went along, and his eyes burned their way from me to the paper and back, syncopated with the hand’s fieriness.

I didn’t pose very often in the last years, simply because I lived so far away. But the last painting felt very much like all the others, the same extraordinary energy in eyes and hand, the same intensity, the same music. He finished it in five hours. He was so frail he couldn’t stand on his feet, and I had to set up the canvas and paints. He didn’t see very well, either, and for some reason gave me blue rather than green eyes, which I tried to have him correct. But it is a beautiful painting. He died three weeks later.

Marcello, Avigdor famously held very strong, clear, unwavering views on art, music, literature, history. Can you recount the nature of your discussions with him in these areas? Did you feel tested?

MS: The first time I met him was in December 2003. I knew of his reputation, but he was not so “unwavering” when he accepted that his interlocutor was someone he “could talk to.” There was room for learning from the other, more than disagreeing. I spent most of my Parisian time at my in-laws’, and specifically in the library. I would grab random books on art, history, philosophy, or religion and start reading them. Sometimes that would spark conversations about the subject, the author, the book itself (how and when he had bought it, or if it was a gift). He told me that one of the first books he ever read was an illustrated history of the world (a gift from his father) and that it had a great influence on him because he traveled to those moments of history and could visualize them (though he did not use this the latter term).

He loved history painters, especially the French, though he would not have dreamed of doing a history painting himself. After all, he had produced a series of “history drawings” when he was in the camps; history was before his eyes, and horrifyingly so—after then, he never documented “events,” only shapes and figures. His portraits are stripped-down-to-the-bone narratives, a bit like Beckett plays and characters. But he studied not only Poussin and Ingres—about whom we had many exchanges (he felt particularly close to Poussin for his formalistic obsession, for his contempt of the court, and when he recounted the gradual loss of the painter’s firm hand he had tears in his eye). He studied all the major and even minor artists who populated the Louvre. He was competitively erudite and knowledgeable and taught a lot of things about their own collections to the curators at the Louvre.

There is a famous story of Avigdor guessing the presence of a nose covered by the frame at the edge of the great Paolo Uccello panel. All matters related to art engaged him; a favorite hobby-horse was to complain about the electric light in certain museums. Often I managed to steer him from rants, rich as they were in interesting details, and talk about subjects that were closer to my interests, like Goya, Chateaubriand, Delecluze (the biographer of David who was also friend of Stendhal), and so on.

How did the worlds of the studio and the home overlap in your and Arikha’s life?

NA: Well, the studio was—is—at the heart of the flat. So, when he worked, everyone hushed. My sister Alba describes this beautifully in her memoir Major/Minor. Tip-toe, no friends around please, no noise. Then, when my father had finished, we entered and evaluated. If we disliked something, we said “baah,” otherwise, “oh ouais!” Always a state of exception: This was no ordinary household. It is all vividly rendered in my sister’s book.

Avigdor had a long friendship with Samuel Beckett. Noga played chess with him (do you remember that?). Simple objects, a coat, a hat, a stick, were very important for both artist and writer. What was your father’s relationship to the objects that surrounded him? How do you see them transformed in his work?

NA: Yes, I remember! And the occasion on which he drew us playing. Sam was a chess fiend, would even play by post. He gave me a wonderful book on the history of chess, translated from the Polish, and another one on overture techniques, which needless to say I have never used.

My father drew or painted what was around him. Things had to “call” him. The necessity to depict them had to arise, out of the blue. My mother often bought beautiful fruit and vegetables at the market for the sake of the work, putting them in his way and awaiting the sound of the “call,” which could not be planned. My father was a formalist, and composition was the key: It was never calculated, but it had to fall into place. I remember him measuring the proportions of his pictures with his golden number ruler, just for fun—and it turned out every single relation between objects and space was in that proportion. He himself was impressed! Objects were the stuff of daily life, but they became as important within the work as grand history subjects within the 19th-century history painting that he enjoyed studying. Heroism wasn’t about the subject but about letting the ordinary object become an immortal, two-dimensional representation that spoke of everything beyond itself, while not pointing at anything symbolic or metaphorical or narrative.

For him and for Sam, one might say that the world could be at once reduced and expanded to ordinary objects, life might consist, in the end, merely of what one can grasp, of what lies within one’s reach. My father owed a lot to Mondrian, and in a sense the represented objects were abstractions—when he had been abstract he worked from within himself, then eventually grew sick of that inner world and began to look without. But he never lost the sense that abstraction is inherent in objective representation; and he sought, I think, the minimal stage of what can be represented, the minimal limit, just as Sam sought to find the very minimal stage of verbal representation.

When I was 4 years old I went with my father to a little alleyway near the flat, to help him choose stones for the aquatints he did for Sam’s “Au loin un oiseau.” I’ll never forget that.

Did either of you talk about your own work with Avigdor? If so, how did those conversations go?

NS: Always. I always sent him my essays and so on. I needed his opinion; or rather, I needed his approval. He would hardly ever be critical—since I sought praise that was fine, but more criticism would have been good, too. But we did discuss everything, and often disagreed.

MS: He read my books and was enthusiastic about them, not only The Montefeltro Conspiracy, but also the catalog for the show Federico de Montefeltro and His Library that I curated at the Morgan Museum and Library. In fact he helped me with a crucial technical question related to the portrait of the Duke of Urbino. He even read my doctoral dissertation on Secret Renaissance written in Italian! Early on he told me that I had, like him, the “sense of history,” which is the ability to inhabit the past. I discussed with him my research on Lucien Bonaparte and the painter Lethière—whose double portrait of Lucien and Alexandrine is the cover of our book, which not by chance is dedicated both to Avigdor and to our son, Vigo.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Jonathan Wilson, the director of the Center for the Humanities at Tufts University, is the author of, among other books, the Nextbook Press biography of Marc Chagall.

Jonathan Wilson is the author of eight books including the novel A Palestine Affair and a biography, Marc Chagall. He recently completed a novel, Hotel Cinema, about the unsolved murder of Chaim Arlosoroff.