Yocheved Weinfeld: A Conversation with Arie Aroch.
Massa 48, 22 November 1968

"The relationship between the plastic arts and play has long since been acknowledged by a theory that sought to explain the production of art forms by the innate human tendency to play. In fact, a spontaneous, almost instinctive need for ornament, which deserves the name of ludic function, can be easily noticed. Whoever has attended, pencil in hand, a boring meeting, knows it well. In the casual, hardly conscious play of tracing lines and filling blank areas on a page, fantastic decorative motifs emerge, sometimes reminiscent of no less fantastic animal or human forms."  Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens

The exhibition currently on display in the modern art room at the Israel Museum features 48 paintings by Arie Aroch, spanning 15 years of his work (1953-1968).

Although among Israel's veteran painters, Aroch is less popular and less well-known than his contemporaries, who because they are associated with one famous movement 
or another, the public perceives their paintings as neither mysterious nor amorphous. The public, having well-defined views on various artistic fashions, can refer to these paintings in the context of the movement to which they belong. Aroch, on the other hand,  is hard to define or to place within a definite movement, as his work has revealed many different aspects throughout his artistic career and widely ranging conceptions and pictorial problems within a single painting. Trying to describe and define Aroch's work is therefore like trying to give headings to a poem's stanzas and then realizing that each line and letter deserve a name of their own. The deep impression made on Aroch by Klee's childlike forms and Miró's playful humor call for a comparison between the kinds of processing to which each of these three painters subjected his impressions, pruning his images of the superfluous thus presenting them consistently, charmingly, tersely distorted. Yet the mechanical-spontaneous, apparently aimless, doodles of the CoBrA painters (who were active briefly after World War II in Copenhagen, Brussels and Amsterdam) aren't foreign to Aroch either. One could dare say that even some of the problems that concerned geometrical and lyrical abstraction (never mind the risk of including these two contrary approaches together) aren't missing in his work. Of all these he took what was good and essential and, after personal adaptation and condensation, raised it to a purer level, discarding the decorative and theatrical aspects that were so typical of some of Klee's and Miró's paintings.

It is, therefore, not surprising that the Israeli public at large, unaccustomed to pictorial language and faced with a scarcity of Aroch exhibitions, was and still is hard put to assimilate painting that is in addition to being personal  is also radical in its tenor, devoid of an attractive wrapping and grounded in European pictorial traditions that are not easy to adapt to.

Aroch's painting is a warm, sensitive response to objects and visual experiences--be it a terrace railing, a scratched wall, peeling plaster, an old Russian sign, or the working techniques of architects and craftsmen. The problems, manifested as forms whose sources are not always easily discerned, are realized in the paintings out of a love, which, even after the clear image has vanished, is conveyed to the viewer in each touch of the brush and each scribble of the pencil.

Most paintings are relatively small and intimate, mainly because of their events, which lack powerfully striking effects. They are, rather, like a multitude of soft whispers that invite extensive listening and being with, leading, yet again, to a happy discovery of a new tiny form or a hidden, previously invisible line.

I spoke with Aroch in the museum's exhibition hall, with his work creating, as usual, an intimate atmosphere and serving as reference points for his words.

Aroch: "First let's see the paintings in their sequence. I don't know whether you noticed, it's a little hard, but three different periods are exhibited here. The first is the entire series I painted between 1953 and 1956. I like these paintings. Interestingly, after '56, there's a three-year break, during which I didn't paint at all. That was in Brazil."

Arie Aroch was born in 1908 in Kharkov (today Ukraine). In 1924 he immigrated to Mandatory Palestine and studied at Bezalel. In 1932 he participated for the first time in a general exhibition. In 1934 he left for Paris, where he studied at the Académie Colarossi. His first solo exhibition was held in 1939 at the Kunsthaal Santee Landweer in Amsterdam. In 1939 he had a solo exhibition at Katz Gallery in Tel Aviv. From the 1930s onward he designed theater sets and costumes and in 1947 he exhibited with the Group of Seven. These artists and others founded Ofakim Hadashim in 1948. In 1949 Aroch exhibited at Viau Gallery in Buenos Aires. He joined the diplomatic service in 1950, was stationed in Moscow until 1953, served as Israeli ambassador to Brazil in 1956-59 and to Sweden in 1959-62, after which he settled in Jerusalem. In 1954 and 1964 he exhibited at the Venice Biennale. Solo exhibition were held in 1955  at Tel Aviv Museum of Art and at the Bezalel National Museum in Jerusalem.

"You see, the next painting is already from '61. I don't like the second period at all. During the first period, in '53, I painted out of love, out of plenitude. The painting ripened within me and, technically, in my hand. I could work on a painting for months--two, three, four. Here, in the second period, from which we picked only four or five paintings (which doesn't mean, of course, that during that period I painted only four paintings), I wasn't at peace with myself. I wanted to do something, to solve a problem, but actually I didn't like the work of painting itself. I'd much rather link the first and third periods. I think that the paintings I made in '64, and even more so those in '68, are a mature sequel-to the first period. With these paintings, for example, The High Commissioner, or the blue and red Ornaments, I'm pleased. I like them very much."

In 1955 Aroch painted Girls in the Garden. Mostly grayish-brown, the painting features at the bottom a brown rectangle whose base is wrapped in a purple stripe--a lightly "smeared" childlike brushstroke. Within the brown rectangle two girls in yellow-orange move like two funny wooden puppets on a stage. They are  painted with small, restless, expressive yet also kindly naive brush strokes. On the left side two clusters  of red flowers have been etched into the wet paint. From close up one can notice many more incisions--a Star of David and amorphous doodles that unmistakably convey the pleasure of making them.

The two paintings on display at the room's other end-- The Jewish Couple by the Dutchman Werkman and The High Commissioner--were painted in 1966. Both feature clear images. The High Commissioner is elongated and painted in diluted gray-white. A smooth square in rich turquoise appears on the upper left side, and, on its right side, the playful double figure of the mustachioed High Commissioner, which seems to have been copied in pencil with copying paper, like a children's painting. Two patches made with wide brushstrokes, one blue, the other red, are suspended in the lower right of the turquoise square. On the left side, several, apparently sloppy, lines, balance the composition well.

Weinfeld: "Defined forms, which correspond to natural objects, appear in both the paintings from the first period (such as Girls in the Garden, Cars on the Road) and those from 1966. There is a sense that these forms play different roles in each period. How are they different?"

Aroch: "Yes. That's a good question. There are clear images in paintings from the fifties, and then, after the intermediate period, during which I actually played more with large forms and color surfaces, the images came back in 1966. And it's true that their return isn't a return, because the nature and roles of these images differ in the two paintings. In Girls in the Garden the images are just forms that turned into girls by accident--maybe it was natural, or maybe I had some previous impression that brought along the 'story.' In terms of the painting, its composition and color, it wouldn't have mattered at all if I had painted elongated forms. They're no more than a patch in the painting.

But look at The High Commissioner, which I made in '66. Here the Commissioner's double figure is actually 'a picture from a picture.' If I hadn't painted the figures here, or if I had painted other figures, the painting would have looked entirely different. Even the content would have been different. In fact, this is what happened to the image in painting in general: after all the crises it went through it came back as legitimate, with a new, different role in Pop Art."

A large, perhaps the important and distinct, part in Aroch's paintings consists of lines and of letters in all their manifestations and forms, from the spontaneous childish doodle to the straight line drawn with a ruler. Bus in the Galilee and Landscape include wide, expressive, aggressive scratches. In the painting Z.K., a tailor's pattern drawn with the precise though inelegant line a craftsman would draw to mark his needs, there are straight lines above and small, fast, delicate, entangled lines at the bottom. The inscription at the center reads: Z.K.

Clumsy childish letters run horizontally in What's New at Home?, and green halved Russian letters crop up from the base of Old Inscription.

Weinfeld: "We spoke about the images. What about the letters?"

Aroch: "The letters are another matter. Do you see the doodles (I think this is how critics refer to the scrawls, right?) in Bus in the Galilee, or Landscape or Cars on the Road? I've always liked lines, in nature as well. I like fences, barbed wire. Scraps of wood. Bushes. Anything with entangled lines. And I wanted to paint these lines too. Here they're still just doodles. I played with creating a relationship between the lines and surfaces. I wanted to connect the surfaces with decorative scratches. Eventually the line got fed up with being a mere line and sought the form.

You know those people who scribble lines and shapes on cigarette packs? The first shapes they pick are letters or numbers. The anonymous person who drew the lovely digit 2 over and over--who knows when--with an untrained hand on the margins of one of the most beautiful miniatures in the Sarajevo Haggadah was just an alphabet writer.' His digits are so beautiful because he didn't insist on making them beautiful and didn't give them too much thought. At first I also drew letters, and then they became facts. A story readymade from reality to be used properly--to be integrated into the painting.

Then I tried to be like a tailor or an architect who draws his lines because he has to. Look, Z.K. is actually a tailor's pattern. The lines are the tailor's chalk marks. I didn't want painter's lines, the kind of lines a painter insists on making 'painterly' and beautiful.

In The Boat I wanted to draw practical designs. I tried to immerse myself in my craft like a boat builder is immersed in designing the blueprint--he doesn't think about the beauty of the lines. This is the source of all their beauty."

In the spring of 1966 Aroch exhibited at Massada Gallery in Tel Aviv paintings on color photographs and reproductions using Panda oil pastels like those in use by children.
Aroch: "I've always liked to paint and draw on old photographs, to continue the photograph, to change it. Children do it on photographs of important statesmen in history books. I'll show you something. Do you see this painting, Flying Angel? I found the board in the hallway near my studio--battered, scratched. In the Panda paintings I showed at Massada Gallery, the feeling and results were different--the importance lay in the reciprocal play between the visible and painted parts, whereas here I enjoyed the very possibility of continuing this beautiful 'battered' board, unintentionally scratched, which had become a sort of inheritance. The same with Around the Ochre: I found an old painting of mine which had been damaged. It had holes. At first I wanted to fill them. I thought: why do I need holes? People will ask why there are holes in the painting. While working I realized that I actually needed  them in the painting and began to widen them. The Faucet was also painted on an old scratched board."

The Faucet features two sections. On the top section are two blue-white patches and doodles in pencil. The bottom section shows a faucet drawn in pencil on a white background. The faucet is painted in light and dark gold with several deceptively casual pencil, ink and ballpoint doodles around it. A narrow black-and-red stripe running vertically along the entire right side connects the two sections.

Aroch: "At first I thought, just one touch and that would be it. But the painting swept me along, and I went on beyond my original intentions. The bottom part is actually another painting. While I was painting the upper part, the painting of a faucet that I liked very much was lying on one of my tables. It haunted me, so I finally brought it over here, and this is how the two paintings merged. You see, I like very much painting on boards that are already 'begun.' Sometimes I want so much to paint on all the beautifully scrawled walls. Just walls of buildings on the street. I'd be willing to live another 200 years and do just this."

Weinfeld:  "Tabletop with Reproduction by Léger seems surprising in this exhibition. I understand that it was also painted on an old board, but what's the place of the reproduction?"

Aroch: "It's an unusual painting in the exhibition even though it doesn't differ essentially from the other paintings of this period. I had a table in my studio on which I used to carve, to try out the pencils. One day I realized I wanted to continue with it as a painting. I painted it in very dark colors, brown, black. You see, here, for instance, there was also a triangle, and the Léger reproduction hadn't yet been attached. The painting was at the Venice biennale. When I arrived there and saw it I felt at once that here, on top, I needed a colorful patch. When the painting came back I started changing it at once. The Léger reproduction had been with me for quite a long time, and when I saw it , I said: that's it, these are the colors I've been thinking of. I tried to put the reproduction in several places on the painting and finally attached it with thumbtacks here--the holes are still visible--in the upper left. The painting remained like this for some time and seemed good to me. I thought that I didn't need to copy the reproduction if I already had one readymade, and I glued it on. Anyway, for me it's no more than a color patch I needed, and if I hadn't seen it, I would have certainly painted a similar patch.

Now, to conclude, I'll tell you that I've been painting since I was a child. Any time there was something, some defined thing I wanted to paint, when it was important for me to paint a painting that would resemble as much as possible the initial image I had in my mind--I failed, I wasn't at peace with myself and didn't like the painting.

Only after I understood that I must preserve the 'what,' all the interior experiences around the objects I loved, that I must not think about it, that I must surrender to the 'how' of painting, to loving the touch of the brush, to the love of doing, of doodling and small lines, then the appropriate and inherently necessary 'what' will emerge--only then was I able to make the paintings I had wanted to make but didn't know it.

And this is why I must constantly fight against myself because I know that I must always be free, as much has possible, of 'what I want to paint' and try to paint freely, like the person who's doodling absentmindedly on a cigarette pack during a boring meeting. You see, I don't paint much. Less than other painters, and this is because of this constant battle. If I could keep the 'what' like Picasso and if I always had at my disposal such an abundance of 'how' ----.