Yona Fischer: Conversations with Arie Aroch
Kav Magazine #6, 1966


Hanging on the surrounding walls are paintings by Arie Aroch, painted at different periods. Among them is a painting that has just been brought up from the atelier, and in it the number 2 is drawn several times. Aroch was inspired to draw this number by a page out of the famous Sarajevo Haggadah. A facsimile copy of the Haggadah is to be found in the atelier: the wide margins that encircle the picture in the center of the page have been covered, by an anonymous and not very experienced hand, with many number twos.

Arie Aroch: I remember that in A Guest for the Night, in the chapter where Agnon describes a visit to Daniel's child, he tells this story:
" …His father said to the child, “Ask the gentleman to tell you a nice story.”
The child said to me, “If you can tell stories, so tell me what Grandpa is doing just now.”
Said Erela, “That isn’t in the category of stories.”
“Well, what is it?” said the child.
“When you learn the theory of literature, you will know what is a story and what isn’t a story,” said Erela.
“And if someone doesn’t learn the theory of literature, doesn’t he know what a story is?” said the child.
“Certainly he doesn’t know,” replied Erela.
“So why don’t you know how to tell stories?” said the child. “You’ve learned the theory of literature, haven’t you?”
Said Erela, “But I know what is a story and what isn’t a story.”
“And what Grandpa is doing isn’t a story?” said the child.
“No,” said Erela, “that isn’t a story.”
“And what is it?”
“That is in the category of information,” said Erela, “so long as it is important, but if it isn’t important, it’s nothing at all.”
“Well,” said the child, “let the gentleman tell me the story of nothing at all.”
Erela turned her spectacles on the child and said in surprise, “What do you mean ‘nothing’? If there is nothing, there isn’t anything to tell.”
Said the child, “Grandpa is doing some thing, so there is something to tell. Tell me what my grandfather is doing just now, sir.”
I passed my hand over my forehead and said, “At this moment your grandfather is sitting in a courtyard, in front of the little house — no, in front of the large house, with his head bowed in thought, and he is saying, ‘Wonder of wonders, it is not yet Passover and already it is warm in the open, just as in the days of spring.’”

Arie Aroch says: you probably know those doodlers, who, knowingly or unknowingly, draw letters, numbers, words and names, anytime they have a free moment. They are many and varied, as are the sources of their love for drawing letters. Some do this absentmindedly, while for some, drawing the letters becomes the substance of their lives and even a mission. The enthusiastic doodlers scribble them on every surface that comes their way: on fences, on walls, on cigarette boxes, and on any piece of paper that lies in front of them. You have seen the graceful number twos that someone strange drew, who knows when, on the margins of one of the beautiful miniatures of the Sarajevo Hagaddah.

Do you regard these number twos as a "story", in addition to the one in the miniature?

For a moment, let's stay in the literary realm: Sometimes I catch myself feeling that some writers, perhaps even the best and the brightest, were initially attracted to writing because they loved to write, or, for our purposes, to draw letters. Again, take Agnon. I've always felt that this man is a slave to his worship of letters, just letters, for their own sake. And if the letters join into words, the words into sentences and the sentences into wonderful stories, and also into books that made history, all this is of course important and interesting, but affects me less than that initial love of letters. I'm talking about Agnon: for a long time I thought he even admitted as much, on one of those many pages that he covered with letters. I searched in his writings and did not find any confirmation for my assumption. But I found something similar: It was in words he said when he received some literary award. On these occasions, the award-winner is expected to reveal something about his way in life and literature, his influences, struggles and so forth. But what did Agnon speak about? About letters. He simply described the history of our literature, beginning with the Torah scribes and up to the young writers of our generation, as a long chain of doodlers. When he spoke about himself he said: "I too was ordained to be a writer. I am of the people of Israel, one more in a lineage of Jews who, having to die in the name of God, did so. I accepted the order upon myself and do what I must. I have been given such and such number of letters to write with and I write with them."

I too am not interested in the sentence, but in the letters. So were Chagall and Picasso, and it is most marked in Klee's work than in any other painter's. I do not run away from the story. But, those who claim it's not the story that is important, only inscribing the letters, are but implying a falsehood. The story is very important to them, to the authors as well as the painters. Between the love of drawing the letter and the story itself, there you will find all that is good and beautiful in this world.

I'll get back to painting: There is no uglier handwriting than the handwriting of someone who is very meticulous about it. When a man is careful of his handwriting his handwriting is ugly. The doodler who loves to draw letters and numbers and the story is alive in him without him thinking about it – whether he's a genius or crazy– beautiful are his letters and his numbers. That's the secret of the man who repeatedly wrote the number two on that page of the Sarajevo Hagaddah. I saw a facsimile of this Hagaddah not long ago. The man who drew the letters was charged with something unusual. In today's terms, he would be like a man who drew number 2 around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The dozens, perhaps hundreds of numbers he drew -  among them also the number 5, twice, and the number 1, I don't remember how many times –  add up to a human creation with a stirring musical beat, and, if you like, also full of expression and content. My love for these painted numbers is so great, I feel that if until now no one has read them as they were written – I at least received them as a letter that was intended for me.

- Perhaps we can take as an example the oil pastel paintings on printed paper that you displayed a few months ago in "Masada" gallery. In these paintings, the story, to put it simplistically, is created by a certain - and changing - interaction between the revealed and concealed, between the printed text or reproduction and the painting on them. This work process was not created in a day. Perhaps we can go back to the stages that preceded your way of painting today?

-For years I wasn't satisfied with the results of my work as a "painter of paintings". That went on for five years, maybe more. In this period I tried to make the things I learned (from teachers or through looking at paintings) express the things I wanted to express, before I painted them. I think this was a period of doubt and indecision that was has been erased from my memory. As long as I tried to express the thing I wanted to, before turning to the painting - in today's words: tell the story I wanted to tell - and tried to use the methods I learned, I could not do it.

When I totally despaired of the possibility to tell the story using what I considered to be the appropriate means, and began painting for the "pleasure of painting letters", just for the pleasure of painting – then I saw for the first time, as on a movie screen, stories on the canvas. In other words: When I decided that " I will do the story" as I learned to paint, I did not succeed. I succeeded once I totally gave up, and stopped chasing the "higher cause".

In the paintings I painted in the 40's – and I have been painting since the 20's – obviously I enjoyed the professional aspect of the work, the imagination I created with things I knew and loved. There are paintings from those days that I think are not bad. But they did not give me satisfaction. I did not feel the way I feel when I look at the board on which I just now painted Herbert Samuel, down at the atelier. Therefore, I can tell you that it was desperation that brought me – it was at about 1950 –to the conclusion that I will not succeed in creating the story. So I released myself from that "mission". I ceased being Beethoven who decided to compose a symphony, and was like a man sitting by the piano, trying his fingers on it.

-Let's get back to my paintings in recent years. What I said reminds us of a story about the French painter Soulages: They say his style revealed itself to him suddenly, on a day of drunkenness. The intoxication brought him freedom and he attacked the canvas and covered it with thick brushstrokes of black. This story, the act of "revelation", is one thing. But there is another thing, more important - the nature of the likeness that exists between one painting and another – after the "miracle of revelation" – and in the distinction we may make, between a work of art that develops with a certain perception and style, and a work of art that settles for a repetition of the external marks of the style.

Of course there are many people who know beforehand what they intend to do. So, just as there is a link between two stories (such as in Agnon's stories in "Ore'ah Noteh Lalun"/"A Guest for the Night") there is an external link between two paintings, between paintings that you've painted to the ones that you will paint.  Anyway, you suppose there is a link. You are tempted by the easy life. You want to use, in the painting that you're about to paint, outer signs you borrowed from a painting that you already painted. I wouldn't say that you that you always fail. Rarely, you do succeed, but it turns out later on – after the second painting – that the weakest spot in the second picture is the one you borrowed from its predecessor.

To illustrate the problem I will tell you another story: I worked for more than six months on six paintings. Four of them were at an advanced stage. For I while, I lived with the fact that three of them were on the verge of completion.  The feeling that the paintings were different – externally,  did not bother me. When they were truly finished, and I say this with no joy, they became the paintings of one painter.

-Perhaps we'll try to find out today whether there is a real connection between the forms we discover again and again in your paintings – paintings from different periods. To clarify, we are speaking about "Portrait of My Father", painted in 1955, and "Tzakpar 1" and other "Tzakpars", which were painted in 1962-1966. ("Tzakpar" also appears on the cover of the magazine). In the early painting, the portrait of the father is in an oval frame, as in old family pictures, and in other paintings a similar oval frame surrounds an "abstract" figure.

-At some point I began to cultivate an idea that has lately returned to occupy me: The freedom that abstract art brought to the world seemed very pleasant to me. On the other hand, the chaos and the complete breach of boundaries that took over painting were discouraging. American abstract painting (Willem de Kooning etc.) was intimidating to me. I wanted to create objects for myself, which would be clear and yet detached from the Figurative, from reality, as any form you would find in Abstract painting. I had never sketched. And I began to sketch non-stop. I was looking for a form that would be defined, an "object", that is, something which is the opposite of chaotic. I filled sketch books, trying to examine the form for me, for myself.

The other day I told you that the problem was solved after I had lost hope. That is not accurate: Not always did I find the "happy ending". But there were despairs that did bring about solutions. For example, those sketches I did were not good: they were not a duplicate from nature and not a form with a standing outside of nature. But I'll give you another example: Just as I wanted to draw numbers, I wanted to play with the color of gold. Icon gold, fresco gold. The art of pasting gold leaves attracted me. Technically I learned it for a book from the 17th century. But I did not know what use to make of the gold.

I remember that in my hometown of Kharkov there used to hang, perpendicular to the wall, a cobbler's street sign. The cobbler was no longer there, neither was the sign. There was a boot and some gold remained on it. Before I began to paste the gold, I made sketches on cardboard – in vain. On the gold background I wanted to describe the boot. I remembered the sign as a "work of art", but when I tried to paint it from memory, I failed. I began to change the form – using a pencil - I removed and added from here to there, until I had a form that satisfied me as the form of a boot. A few days later, when I looked at the form again, I realized no one would believe me this is indeed a boot. On the other hand, the shape that evolved from the boot, was, to me, a concrete figure (as opposed to an abstract one), with its own right of existence, a right which I wanted to embody in the abstract thing, the object, as I defined it earlier. And what is a "Tzakpar"? When I worked was working? on the painting, my son Jonathan came to me – he was an important "critic" when he was a child – and I couldn't tell him what it was, or perhaps I was trying to be a wise guy. I told him this is a "Tzakpar". I did feel that this word is not in the dictionary. He asked me: What is a "Tzakpar" and I answered him: This is a "Tzakpar". I guess the answer satisfied him. Perhaps he let go, in any case, he stopped asking. It was enough for me.

I drew the "Tzakpar" in five forms. By the way, the Russian sign perhaps said "shoe repair" in or above it. In fact, the "Tzakpars" were in my atelier and Dan Ben Amotz came - it was in Sweden in 1962 – and said to me: "Do you know what that reminds me of? Street signs in Russia."  I wanted to kiss him. That is the story of the "Tzakpar".

After I created the "Tzakpar", the nagging idea to create a figure in the sense mentioned before let go of me. Lately the idea returned, but I could not create a new "object". I tried to create a new figure for the cover of "Kav", but I had to return to the "Tzakpar". And in answer to your question: The connection between the the oval form in "Tzakpar"  and in "Portrait of my Father" from 1955 is for others to find.

But you should have asked a different question: I do not care for oval forms necessarily, or any other form. You should have asked why do I draw frames in my paintings?

I discovered for myself (I wasn't thinking about critics, exhibitions etc.) a simple thing that is in fact the basis of painting: Every patch of color you place on the canvas, maintains a relationship with something on its left, right, above it or below. When I examined myself in painting, I noticed that when I get close to the edge of the painting the quality of the patch weakens.  On the edge of the canvas there is weakness, even in uniform, airy surfaces. So I thought of the simplest solution, the frame. I thought I would take a frame, I would match a frame – classic, modern, gilded, smooth, sculpted, or whatever – but I saw it will not be my salvation. The solution I was looking for, to keep the tension of proximity – the dialogue between the patch and its neighbor on the right, a different dialogue with the neighbor on the left, and its neighbors underneath and above, an indifferent, active, tense, friendly proximity like that of neighboring houses – I found the solution in manipulating the edges of the painting. I realized I can help a patch to be in good proximity with the border, with the frame, when I work the edges – not when I paint the frames. I wanted pictures without frames. But then I saw that fitting a frame to the painted edges wouldn't be difficult: The painted border is what solved the problem.

-And the same goes for the letters…

-I'll return to Agnon: I allowed myself to write letters for their own sake. If they added up to words, very well. We don't need to look at "the love of painting letters" literally. A letter is a fixed sign. Therefore, in painting too there are fixed, familiar forms. The oval form? In my opinion it belongs to the conventional, ready made forms. It’s a form I liked and so used several times during two periods of my work. The oval shape is a processing of the borders as well as a familiar form.

-And before that, the familiar form…

-I'll tell you something I believe is important: something about good painting in this country. I had the good fortune to live here at a time when some painters painted here,  without an audience, galleries or critics. I learned from Zaritski more than any other man. No other artist in the country helped the painters here understand things without which one shouldn't paint. But in the fervor of his battle against academic painting he threw into the artistic space the slogan: "don't paint paintings!" He meant to say: "Don't make paintings". I think there is a basic difference between making paintings and painting them. It is possible to paint paintings well. To make a painting – means someone will see the painting, that someone can judge it. Zaritski spoke about "ѐtudes": The ѐtude was the other possibility – as opposed to "painting a picture", the exercise as opposed to writing sonnets. He affected all of us that way. But the tremendous value concealed a danger. The slogan harmed some of the painters. It harmed me anyway, in a certain period. Since I was a child I wanted to "paint pictures". And those concepts – images, objects – that I specifically spoke about were definitely pictures. When I wanted, for instance, to paint a certain moment in my aunt's home, I could not do it. But I carried the image with me for years, I am sure that I finally drew that particular moment. And look: Today, in spite of the different crises that befell the image, it received renewed validity in young painting– in "Pop- art".

-When you spoke about a form that would be as concrete as the one in reality, you defined the oval shape as a conventional, familiar and therefore legitimate form in your opinion.

-This form that I shall call "abstract-concrete" can be made up of two equal elements – one graphic and one literary. The form has no connection with a man's nose or a car wheel. But the form of the nose and the form of the wheel may appear as part of the general graphic solution. I have no doubt that if the graphic shape as a whole influences, then those shapes also affect, on their own. They are the components of The Shape. Part of the overall picture is a nose and part of it is a wheel. In the general context they do not exist for themselves, but still we recognize them as a nose and a wheel. Similarly, the street sign: As far as I'm concerned, it is absolutely abstract. In my exhibition of oil pastels on printed paper, I did not read the printed texts. And when someone said to me that I "chose beautiful texts", it bothered me. I do not refer to the word, the one in the dictionary, to the word that has another meaning, to the word that was chosen for its meaning.

Let's talk again about something else, more interesting: About motives. There are three urges, three important, inspiring, legitimate motives to the art of painting. The first is the love of the profession; creating the figures, placing the color. To use blue, green, pink. To paint letters, forms. The second motive is communication. I believe in that, in the need to turn to someone, like those people who put a message in a bottle and send it afloat on the water.  This is, indeed, an external example, but there is a profound and important meaning in it, because it's an outcome of what is best in mankind. Manifestos serve as testimony to that. They are not written in vain. They're not regulations, but the opposite of that. The manifesto does not regulate its writers' behavior: It is the simple, vulgar form, but the result of justified urges within man. The third motive, and, I believe, the most important of the three, is that every person – artist and man – has an inherent drive that has been attributed to God. Every person wants to be God a little bit, to create something out of nothing, something that did not exist before him; it's there in every creation; in science, politics, economy, and in art all the more so.

I return to what I said about the difference between one period and another. It's a fact that the revolution of our century was more decisive than the ones that preceded it. Before it, passion was bound by conventions. Conventions served the good painter as tools; trite conventions served the bad painter. The artist was prohibited from competing with God.  But, he could change the order of the elements created by God: Van Gough placed the figure in the landscape in a different way than his predecessors; the Venetians – Carpaccio - distributed the little figures in the street differently than the Fiorentines. The rules of the game were agreed, the possibilities numerous, like in a game of chess. Our century liberated passion. You actually do not want to change the components but to do something else. This transition was accomplished through intentional deformations: The boy next to the horse by El Greco, Cezanne's bathing women. And it took  two directions: the Expressionists' – emotional deformation, lawless; and the Cubists' – intellectual deformation ("Les Demoiselles d'Avignon"). It was a small step, compared to the giant step that was made from distorting the form to designing a new form.

And here I arrive at something that preoccupies me: How do you create the form? What is the meaning of this contest with God, the creation of shapes that did not exist, while the artist is bound and tied up? For the artist carries with him a load of forms, similar to a dictionary of words. Furthermore, the love of painting, of creating forms, usually relies on a number of forms intimately connected to the artist. The man who painted the number two on the Sarajevo Hagaddah could have painted nine more such figures. I don't know why he painted a two. But clearly people like to create forms to which they feel attached. One writes 2 and another signs his name. The forms a man creates at age 50 are no different than the ones he created in his childhood. When man tries to compete with God, he's not free from the forms he sees. However, you can get an impression of a table and chair and draw them. The table is a table and the chair a chair, and they have them same right to exist in reality as in the painting. But the man who's attracted to painting figures and wants to create them no matter what – for the sake of communication – can begin with a form that is half a chair, a form that continues into a table and ends halfway through the table. The shapes are so familiar, that you'll recognize them. If you take the chair and the table in their simplest form, you can place them together in such a way that is clearly a new form. That form will have the validity of an abstract figure, but its origin is still from what unites man's soul with nature. The conclusion is probably that one shouldn't compete with God, but the will to do so helps the artist create worlds of his own; and in bringing these worlds to our knowledge, there lies a great contribution.  That's the secret of my "kitchen" and I have no wish to conceal it.


-In fact, says Arie Aroch, I have nothing more to add to what I've said till now.

-Perhaps you'll allow me one last example: In front of us is one of the photographs covered with oil pastels. Can you tell me what the difference is between the color photo of the Fujiyama and the painting?

-In this photo of the Fujiyama we can see the cable of a cable-car. The mountain appears on the background of the sky; at the foot of the mountain and the cable – a stretch of land. In fact, there was also a red train car in the photo. The photographer was interested in the mountain with the sky as a background, and beside it the cable against the same background. The mountain, if I try to analyze his motives, serves to accentuate the height of the cable. That, to use a phrase from architecture, is a "functional" photo. For me, the cable, as a line that has been placed next to a form, and the relation between the cable and the mountain, express much more when you forget the "functionality". To that purpose I turned the direction of the photo and I allow this relation between the mountain and the cable the status of two forms with equal rights. As I told you before, if I succeed in placing a chair next to a table and put the form into a frame that will isolate them from their "functionality", I will create a form that will have no connection to "the subject".

-Here we liberate the graphic aspect from its dependence on a "subject", in order to create, through the new figure, a new "story"?

-When a painter analyzes the shapes around him, when he strips them of their content and creates new shapes, with internal life and tension, when he looks for them, he possibly doesn't know what these shapes will be. I carried with me, through the years, situations that I probably remembered and that I no-doubt wanted to paint. I wanted to paint dozens of shapes, of objects, that were the components of the situation, and I could have come to the conclusion that I didn't need all the shapes, all the objects, only some of them. After choosing, I could delude myself that I had reached the utmost expression of what I was always seeking. In the painting that A.B. has, there's a space with dots and next to it a scrawl. I am sure it expresses some part of a situation I carried in my memory. The minimization relieved me, freed me from some debt. The image here is not symbolic, neither is it an abstraction in the usual sense. The dots and the scrawl are, in my opinion, main elements. And in this point the story in my painting exists.