Avigdor Arikha, who died in Paris on April 29 aged 81, was one of the most interesting and accomplished of an internationally renowned group of figurative artists who dominated the latter decades of the 20th century, among them Lucian Freud, R. B. Kitaj and David Hockney.
Although Arikha was a polymath and intellectual, his working method was deeply visual and placed the greatest value on the intense and unblinking scrutiny of the object in front of him. In common with his artistic predecessors, Bonnard and Vuillard, his subject matter was mainly domestic and seemingly circumscribed by the world immediately around him — self-portraits, portraits of friends and family, nudes, still-lifes of everyday objects, the library and studio in the Paris apartment he shared with his wife, the poet Anne Atik, as well as views from its windows.
In his occasional excursions into the challenging realm of the official portrait, Arikha single-handedly revivified a moribund genre through his acute observation of character and his ability to place a figure on a canvas to striking effect — his portrait of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, a seemingly unpromising subject, is one of the great formal portraits of the 20th century. In his best work, whether formal or domestic, he managed to convey the strongest sense of the lived life of people and the immanence of objects and landscapes.
Arikha was born into a middle-class, German-speaking Jewish family in Romania on its border with Ukraine. He suffered the terrible displacements of the German occupation and survived a Nazi death camp because a visiting Red Cross official spotted some drawings that the teenager had made of camp life. This lucky recognition of his talent led to the opportunity to emigrate to Palestine in 1944. It was perhaps this very direct experience of the fragility of civilisation that gave Arikha his passionate commitment to art, books and music, as well as the debates and friendships that accompany their enjoyment. Throughout his life, he was a generous host to those admitted to his circle, and a demanding, authoritative and fascinating conversationalist on a daunting range of topics.
Arikha was wounded defending his kibbutz in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Although he was a lifelong, if not uncritical, supporter of Israel and kept an apartment in Jerusalem, from the early 1950s he was based in Paris, a city whose cultural life supplied him with the artistic and intellectual stimulation that he needed. His circle of friends there included Alix de Rothschild, Samuel Beckett, Alberto and Diego Giacometti, Henri Cartier-Bresson, André Fermigier, the art critic of Le Monde, and the Louvre curators Pierre Rosenberg and Michel Laclotte.
By the early 1960s, Arikha had begun to achieve international recognition as an abstract painter, but in 1965 he suffered a crisis of artistic faith derived from his essentially humanist worldview. For a time, he was unable to work at all, but gradually resumed through drawing from life. Via an exceptionally inventive period of printmaking, he was able to start painting again in 1973.
To the end of his life Arikha set himself two daunting challenges in his work — only to draw or paint by natural daylight and to finish each work, even the most ambitious painting, in a single sitting. The first of these self-imposed rules was designed to ensure truthfulness in form and tonality. The second, intended to ensure that his intense scrutiny of his subject should not be diluted through reworking the initial marking of the paper or canvas, brought with it a tightrope walker’s risk of failure. Arikha’s genius and seriousness of purpose meant that he rarely fell.
In addition to his artistic output, Arihka was a distinguished commentator on the art of the Old Masters and of high modernism. He was better read in the literature of the history of art than many academics and wrote regularly for journals in Paris, New York, London and Jerusalem. His selected writings on art, published in 1991 as Peinture et Regard, remain a well of refreshment when the books of specialists pall. He was also much in demand internationally as a lecturer and his inimitably passionate style was captured in a number of television films, of which one made for the BBC in 1992 about Velázquez, one of his heroes, reminds us vividly why art matters and why it has to be understood simultaneously with the eye, the mind and the heart.
All Images © The artist / Courtesy of Marlborough Fine Art, London