Arikha's Art of Rigor and Confrontation

Impressive Work Showcased in First Retrospective Since Death

Real Curves: Avigdor Arikha’s portraits were all done in one sitting. But realistic depiction of the subject wasn’t his purpose.
'cosima' (1992). © The Estate of Avigdor Arikha, courtesy Marlborough Gallery
Real Curves: Avigdor Arikha’s portraits were all done in one sitting. But realistic depiction of the subject wasn’t his purpose.

By Cheryl Kaplan

Published April 02, 2012, issue of April 06, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 2)

A pivotal work, though not in this show, is “Self-portrait Shouting One Morning, 1969,” and it’s the key to one of the most striking, though enigmatic portraits on display, “Self-portrait With Open Mouth, Head to the Left, 2001.” Arikha did at least six shouting or open-mouth paintings, drawings or prints. These works appear biographical, but they are not. In “Major/Minor,” several shouting scenes reveal family tension. Alba Arikha writes: “We often hear him shout in his sleep. Nazi flashbacks, as my mother explains.”

Arikha’s shouting self-portraits are deeply connected to the history of art, and in particular to a 1794 self-portrait by Jacques-Louis David. Though Arikha’s contemporary, Francis Bacon, painted screaming popes, Bacon’s scream is animated whereas Arikha’s scream connects perceptually to David’s painting of himself with a stroke while imprisoned in Paris during the French Revolution. Arikha wasn’t interested in David’s disfigurement per se, but in how he used the stroke to unsettle visual form: to merge a distorted side of a face with a normal side while presenting both in unison. Arikha’s shouting self-portraits are disquieting in their fusion of tragedy, comedy and power.

Alba Arikha’s prose is, like her father’s art, compressed, intrepid and acute. At times, “Major/Minor” feels like a feature film (the work’s been optioned), flitting from family visits in Israel to cool parties in Paris, where the young Alba magically transitions from conventional French girl to fantasy supermodel. She captures the pressures and anxieties of her father’s life and art, as well as her own and her family’s. This isn’t mere storytelling. In “Major/Minor” she compares her family to a friend’s: “They swim, they ride, they ski, they drive. My family does none of the above… we stick to what we know. And what we know is without a car.” The terseness of her lines sounds like debate or gunfire. It’s not metaphoric, it’s “live.”

This shared familial sense of the inexorable present infiltrated the work of both father and daughter. It’s not that biography had no role in Arikha’s life, but to use it to explain his visual structure is to miss how he perceived the world. Arikha had a philosopher’s vision as well as that of a director. Relying on biography or allegory would have distracted the viewer from the business of seeing. Arikha wasn’t merely creating pictures realistically; he was transcribing uncertainty as he saw it unfold.

When asked, Arikha talked about his life to his friends, critics and family, albeit hesitantly. “Major/Minor” testifies to his daughter’s tenacious pursuit of her father’s life. He grew up in Czernowitz, the principal city of Bukovina, a territory in the old Austrian Empire that later fell under Ukrainian and Romanian control — until he was deported to Romanian-run concentration camps with his parents and sister. He recalls how his father, an accountant, pushed his family down a ravine to temporary safety during a sub-zero forced march, before dying from a brutal beating.

Arikha’s first drawings from observation depicted death. These drawings, as is well documented, guaranteed his and his sister’s eventual rescue when they were shown to the Red Cross. Soon after settling in Kibbutz Ma’aleh HaHamisha, Arikha served in the Haganah (the Jewish Defense Force) from 1944 to 1948, when, during the War of Independence, the artist was badly wounded. His sister, a nurse, convinced the doctors to perform an emergency operation that saved Arikha’s life. He studied art in Jerusalem, at Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts (now known as Bezalel Academy of Arts And Design), and after the war he won a fellowship to Paris.

Arikah’s last work, “Portrait of Noga Pregnant, 2010,” is full of adoration and lament. Atik suggested the reason for the blue nightgown: “The Virgin Mary was always painted in blue.” Noga Arikha interrupted: “It was the Annunciation. While he was painting he had the same energy in his hand and eye he always had. He died three weeks later.” Of Alberto Giacometti, Arikha once said that he “burned his life for his work.” Atik told me: “Arikha always knew when there was danger. He said the essential thing is to come to the danger point, then get out of it… you needed a danger.”

For Arikha, these dangers were not symbolic. One time in the camps, when he was 12, he had just returned from a daring escapade to bind his drawings, when a guard seized the book, saying: “Child, you’re playing with fire!” The guard tore out drawings that documented atrocities. Did this prompt Arikha to eliminate the middle ground in his life or art? We cannot know. What we see in his work, especially his self-portraits and landscapes, is the deletion of allegory in favor of a volatile immediacy where the first and last stages of an image battle to stay alive in the extreme present.

Cheryl Kaplan is an artist, filmmaker and writer who has written for Art in America, Bomb, ARTnews and Flash Art.

“Avigdor Arikha, Works From the Estate” is on display at the Marlborough Gallery, in New York, until April 21.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.