Kadishman bridged gap between art world and public

Menashe Kadishman
Menashe Kadishman

"Globes" pays tribute to Menashe Kadishman, Israel's preeminent artist of the past 50 years, who died this month.

Menashe Kadishman, the most iconic Israeli artist of the past 50 years, who passed away this month, left behind him an illustrious legacy, and a vast estate, full of works of art, which create a cumulative portrait, spanning all styles and eras. The great man and artist succeeded in bridging the gap between the art world and the general public, through his images, which have become classics of Israeli culture.

It is no coincidence that Kadishman's sheep became a symbol that is familiar to every Israeli child. Like Picasso's dove, or Warhol's Marilyn Monroe, Kadishman appropriated the sheep to his artistic world as a symbolic figure, a "secular icon," which, as far as he was concerned, could be hung in every home, like the Madonna in the Christian world.

"The sheep, to me, is connected metaphorically to soldiers who fell in wars. At the binding of Isaac, there was a ram to replace him. The fallen soldier has no ram to take his place. I once wrote of my work 'The fallen soldier will never say he loves you,'" Menashe Kadishman told "Globes" in an interview two years ago.

Critics said he was "cloning sheep," though he did so long before Dolly came on the scene. But as someone who grew up in the Pop Art era, Kadishman never saw a need to make excuses, or to apologize for being as prolific an artist as he was creative and talented. "I don't paint merchandise. I create and see things. I need to be moved every day all over again - both by the sheep, and by the tree outside my window. Every single day is a revelation."

Kadishman felt equally comfortable as a successful artist on the Israeli and global art scenes as he did in commercial galleries, and creating prints for wine-bottle labels and coffee cans. His connection to nature was authentic, as was his work as an artist. Nature and the Israeli landscape lent him his artistic vocabulary deeply rooted, and deeply Israeli. His familiarity with the great wide world provided various languages and images for him to experiment with, and he exceled in all of them.

This is how Kadishman's body of work emerged - shifting between geometric statues from the world of graphic minimalism; giant statues expressing simplified concept, explorations of gravity and balance in ways that appear impossible; paintings imbued with color, fertility and sensuality; figurative sculptures of trees, donkeys and landscapes; sketched doodles on every possible surface shelves of phone books; to the little canvas he painted on while lying in bed in recent years; and finally with the fierce and proud bronze statues in which the binding of Isaac motif became a universal, desperate cry.

The binding of Isaac preoccupied Kadishman since US artist George Segal invited him to model for his sculpture, along with his young son, Ben Kadishman, who grew up to also be an artist. Kadishman's giant statue, which stands in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and courthouse plaza, portrays the boy as a simplified round face, and the ram is a giant, casting a shadow, a threatening or protective figure - a savior. That same round face later became an iconic element of Kadishman's symbolic language: it may be seen, reproduced in hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of tiny faces, imprinted on bronze circles on the powerful statues on display at Yad Va'shem, and at the Jewish Museum in Berlin.

In earlier works, that same circle, infinitely larger, appears in his widely recognized sculpture "Uprise," which stands outside of Tel Aviv's Habima Theater. Few are aware that the statue has a Yellow twin in Montreal, Canada. Kadishman's sculptures are scattered all around the world, from Jerusalem to New York, in museums, and in the homes of important collectors. Many a weighty tome has been written about Kadishman and his work.

The look of a biblical prophet

Kadishman was born in Tel Aviv, and viewed himself as continuing the pioneering ways of his parents, when he set forth to "realize the hityashvut (settlement)," as it was called at the time, in the first years of the Nahal Brigade. He was a shepherd in Kibbutz Yizrael, and he began his artistic journey as a sculptor, starting with lessons from the Israeli masters, such as Rudi Lehmann, and later at Central Saint Martins and at Slade School of Fine Art in London, where he lived for twelve years and raised a family. In the same last interview, he said that he was drawn to art as an existential need: "I was born like this, I have no other option." But with this lack of options, he succeeded in developing a tremendous career, and in leaving an incredibly important historic imprint on Israeli art.

Kadishman wandered through the world as though in his own world. I first met him in New York, in the late 1980s. He wore the same baggy white shirts and sandals. His wild hair and beard lent him the appearance of a biblical prophet - eccentric and bohemian - which combined with his Avant Garde attitude, created the image of the provocative artist.

Had he stayed in New York, he probably would have succeeded in establishing himself alongside the global giants in the art world. Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Christo, his good friends, were of his generation. But he remained Israeli and felt that Israel was where he belonged, despite all the frustration and pain that came with life in Israel, and which were also expressed in his work.

He spoke of the connection between his art and the political situation, and of Israel's helplessness in its conflict with its neighbors: "We are suffocating over this tiny piece of land. We live like 20 people trapped in an elevator. I feel like people live in two worlds the world of politics, and the world of their own lives. And they never come together, and they never understand that you need to bring about political change in order to change life itself."

Charismatic Kadishman, large in size and in soul, never distinguished between life and art, with which he was passionately involved. In 1968, Kadishman represented Israel in the important sculpture exhibition Documenta, in Kassel, Germany. In 1978, Kadishman transformed the Israel pavilion at the Venice Biennale into a barnyard, and presented a live herd of sheep who grazed on the exhibition grounds grass the "Giardino di Biennale." In 1995, Kadishman won the Israel Prize for art (sculpture), and over the course of his career, he won many other illustrious prizes as well. His other, less famous art forms, were interpersonal connections, and a love of humankind. From his immediate family, his children and grandchildren, to every last needy person, to whom he extended his hand, gave money to, and supported. He surrounded himself with helpers and supporters to whom he paid salaries. He gave paintings generously, and forged friendships with complete strangers in minutes, by being open, and listening honestly. The door to his home, which was also a studio, and also a storeroom, was always open, and his paintings were there for all to see, blanketing every hallway and passageway.

Tel Aviv Museum of Art Contemporary Art Curator Ruti Direktor heard the news of Kadishman's death, like many others from the Israeli art world, in the midst of the opening days of the Venice Biennale, a few short hours after the opening event at the Israel pavilion. Direktor: "The time and place naturally espoused thoughts of Kadishman in the Israel pavilion in Venice, in 1978 a defining moment in his art, which was also an important moment in Israeli art history. As the artist representing Israel, Kadishman presented a herd of painted sheep, which intertwined his personal memories as a shepherd on the kibbutz with a contemporary art language that was right for the time. The sheep with the blue spots on their backs represented the connection between life and art, between nature and culture. Israeli art was perceived, practically for the first time, in this central, International art venue, the Venice Biennale, as relevant, and a part of the contemporary discourse.

"Another illustrious chapter in Kadishman's creation is his inversion of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac, and his placement of the anti-heroes at its center: Sarah, the ram, Isaac. The statue in the plaza outside the Tel Aviv Museum of Art shows this anti-heroic binding of Isaac, which also has biographical element. In 1973, the American sculptor George Segal was invited to erect a statue in Israel. He chose to create a representation of the binding of Isaac, and as models for the sculpture (plaster sculpture made with live models), he cast Kadishman in the role of Abraham, and his son, Ben, as Isaac. Just as he was the one who wielded the sacrificial knife in George Segal's statue, it appears that all of Kadishman's binding of Isaac sculptures from 1982 and on were an ongoing attempt not to glorify the heroic sacrifice, but rather to shift the focus to the victim.

"In retrospect, Kadishman's most famous sculpture, "Uprise," which is in Tel Aviv's Habima plaza, may be viewed in this light as well. The sculpture is improving with age - though just 3 heavy, metal circles from afar, they are precarious, on an eternal angle, and after nearly four decades, they laugh in the faces of worthy monuments."

An estate of thousands of works of art

Kadishman's estate includes thousands of works of art, including a warehouse full of valuable sculptures. This is in addition to the thousands of pieces owned by collectors, and by people who loved his sheep which may be the most common Israeli painting in Israeli homes. "Art has a place everywhere," Kadishman said in an interview with "Globes."

Big Kadishman paintings, 2 meters or more, sell for between $30,000 and $40,000. His large outdoor sculptures - such as the grove of trees in the Yitzhak Rabin Center park in Tel Aviv are valued at a million dollars. Smaller paintings cost thousands, and lithographs are available for NIS 1,000 or even less.

Now, after his death, the value of his works is expected to rise, though gradually, because there are so many. But I believe Kadishman will in twenty years be one of the most important, and most expensive, classic Israeli artists, alongside Reuven Rubin and Mordecai Ardon.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - www.globes-online.com - on May 22, 2015

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2015

Menashe Kadishman
Menashe Kadishman
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