Following a notable showing of his work at the Salon du Dessin in Paris earlier this year, Marlborough Fine Art is pleased to present an exhibition of Avigdor Arikha’s oil paintings and works on paper in several media, dating from the start of his return to figuration in the mid 1960s to the last years of his life. As a child in the darkest years of persecution in a concentration camp during the Second World War, Arikha had shown a gift for drawing and recording unspeakable scenes but, after studies in Jerusalem and later Paris, he began his professional career as an abstract painter in the zeitgeist of the 1950s. It was his friendship with Giacometti that was decisive in changing his direction and style in 1965. Of that return to figuration Arikha wrote, “I discovered the joy of submitting to everything …. I had to learn how… to hold, by the line or brush stroke, what I see, through feeling.”
For seven years he drew and painted only in black, with pencil, crayon or ink, before reintroducing colour into his work. For his figure subjects his principal models have been himself – in many, sometimes courageously unflattering, self-portraits – his wife, occasionally his two daughters, and his closest friend, the poet Samuel Beckett. The exhibition features a rare and wonderfully concise silverpoint study, Samuel Beckett with his Hand over his Mouth (1971). Being also a perceptive writer on historical as well as modern art, in the portrayal of the female nude he has been constantly challenged to capture both form and emotion anew. Among his portraits there have been distinguished sitters such as Pablo Casals, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Sylvester, and the Queen Mother but also anonymous figures – chance sightings which caught his eye and imagination on the spot, which he set down with spontaneity and rapidity. Included in the exhibition is the large scale charcoal drawing Catherine Deneuve (1990) which remained in the artist’s own collection.
Although exceedingly well-read, an art historian and an authority on Poussin and Ingres, the cultivation of the innocent eye remained central to his own art. He once explained, “Economy of means is, in fact, the threshold of concentration…. When I draw and paint, the essential thing is not to know what I do, or else I cannot come to what I see.” Arikha was often captivated by the simplest of things – the corner of a room, a silver spoon on a cloth, the juxtaposition of an umbrella and a bag – with a startling naturalism, so direct as to border on abstraction or surrealism. This is demonstrated to great effect in a group of beautiful still life paintings; Morning Toast (1996), Socks, (1998) and Tomatoes in a Glass Bowl and Chopping Board (1998).
His ability to retain a fresh eye has meant that, apart from the figures and portraits, there is no single characteristic subject in his oeuvre, but each work offers the surprise of a new discovery, often so rapidly sketched as to be off-centre or seen from an unusual angle, revealing new poetry in a scene which might initially appear familiar.
Recognised internationally and collected and shown regularly in the US, Britain and Spain, amongst others, Arikha was particularly respected in France both as an artist and a scholar. He was made a Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 2005 and a retrospective of his prints took place at the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris in 2008. He also enjoyed a special relationship with the Louvre, where he held an unprecedented degree of influence for a practising artist, curating an exhibition on Poussin at the Museum. He also curated an exhibition of Ingres’s drawings at the Frick Collection in New York.
Arikha was represented by Marlborough Fine Art from 1972 until his death in 2010. The gallery continues to represent his Estate.