My phase of painting large epic landscapes in oils happened to coincide with a period in my life when I spent most summers in Israel. From around 1978 until about 1986 I went there every year, partly out of idealism and partly because I just loved making paintings of the place.
Looking back on that time now I can see that the two motivations were part of the same “condition” and fed an inner yearning to find expression for my youthful optimism and romanticism.
As I think I’ve said before on these pages, Israel, although geographically a tiny country, can often feel vast to the naked eye. Among the hills and valleys of the “pan-handle” of the northern Galilee, and especially in the arid canyons of southern Judea and the Negev Desert, the landscape creates an illusion of almost infinite enormity.
My initial efforts were okay as paintings but they failed to transmit the epic quality of the scenes I was depicting. But then I remembered a device often used by my favourite painters of “sublime” landscape, such as Claude Lorraine, William Turner and John Martin, which was to offset the vista against a peopled foreground. This not only gave scale to the views beyond, but also created a feeling of depth and a sense of “moment” with the human figures caught in time.
So, from about 1981 I began to inhabit my Israeli landscapes with people, normally young people like me, walking away, down a track or road toward some distant horizon. And for me, then, it did the trick, seeming to offer a message of future hope into the bargain.
Sadly (or perhaps fortunately) I failed to record most of the “Walking Away” series (I think I did around ten of them over the course of that year) on camera. In fact, I have very little photographic record of any of my people-in-landscape pictures from that phase of my career.
However, I have managed to cobble together what you see here, including two from the Walking Away series (one complete and a detail from another) and the rest, mostly details and sections from other pictures.
Despite the incompleteness presented, I still think one can sense the romance, and the optimism of the mostly-unseen whole paintings.
Regular readers and followers of these posts will be well aware of my ambivalence regarding my past life as a fine artist, much of which had its origins in the way I fell into art following regular school. I didn’t so much choose to be an artist as being an artist chose me. In fact, my greatest passion as a schoolboy was ancient history, but due to a combination of academic laziness and the relative effortlessness of making pictures I convinced myself that I’d have more fun being a painter. And thus, I spent the following twenty years pursuing a career for which I was intellectually and emotionally singularly ill-equipped to find lasting success.
To truly succeed in the world of contemporary art a thick skin is the first prerequisite, not the crepe paper tissue that covered my bones as I embarked on my life in fine art. And while it’s true that during the eight years of repeated false dawns and disappointment; praise and insult; momentary glory intermingled with incidents of outright abuse, the crepe paper gradually metamorphosed into the hide of a triceratops; I left the world of “pure art” disillusioned and cynical.
Several disillusioning incidents stand out to this day as key markers in my journey toward the exit from that world. The most farcical of these incidents was also the one from which the gouaches shown here date, and occurred only a year after I left art school, in 1982.
It concerns my first significant painting sale to an industrial entrepreneur who made his fortune securing the UK patent for the plastic seals that line beer bottle caps and somewhere along the way acquired a taste for collecting contemporary watercolours. He became aware of me and my work through his PA who became friends with my mother when she temped for the company and one evening in April the two ladies arranged to bring their boss to view my paintings.
As it happened, I had recently completed a series of large gouaches of Israel and had them hanging in my studio just in time for the visit. My “studio” was the converted – very small – spare bedroom of our bijou north London suburban bungalow and was all-but-filled by the gentleman; a jolly “larger-than-life” figure; his PA – an equally jolly and even larger figure; her daughter – built on similarly generous proportions; and my diminutive mother.
During what turned out to be the cosiest viewing of my artwork that I ever hosted, I quickly became aware that both the industrialist and his PA’s daughter were at least as taken with your truly as they were with the pictures. Nevertheless, after what seemed an eternity of me enduring their overly physical displays of affection towards me – incessant squeezing of my arms, numerous embraces and even the holding of my hands – all beneath the guise of gushing over my pictures – a sale was agreed upon. And what a sale it was, as he purchased all seven pictures I had on display, writing a substantial check for the full whack – no haggling or bargaining – then and there on our dining room table.
In my immediate euphoria over the sale I totally forgot the touchy-feely goings on of a few moments earlier in the studio and was even delighted when the guy suggested we all be his guests for supper at a pucker local Chinese restaurant. However, I was soon brought rudely back down to earth when I found myself sat between my new client and the PA’s daughter at a table slightly too small for the five of us, with the result that the cosy mood of the studio was restored, but with increased physicality.
In the event, I ate little of the delicious looking food as I constantly wriggled and squirmed to avoid the wandering feet, arms and even hands of my two neighbours. At one point, towards the end of the second bottle of Gewürztraminer, with their remaining inhibitions now completely dissipated, I had to fight off hands straying up my thighs towards my crotch from both sides! In my panic, I pushed back in my chair so firmly that the two lusting so-and-sos almost fell in against each other. Then finally, as we were waiting for our taxis outside the restaurant, the man made me the most extraordinary proposition. He brazenly suggested that I become his travelling companion, accompanying him on all his travels, in the UK and beyond, helping him build his collection of art. He assured me that all my needs and comforts would be catered for, and that he would pay me handsomely for my services. He even offered to set me up with a fabulous studio in the grounds of his Buckinghamshire mansion. Not wanting him to block the check, I asked him for a few days to think about the proposition. Five days later he sent his driver round to my house to collect the pictures, to whom I gave a typed note declining the offer. Needless to say, I never heard from the man again. I can only hope that the gouaches provided him with some degree of solace, unlike the PA’s daughter who had to make do without me and my works of art…
As a rule I avoid posting travel diary-type articles on the hoof. For one thing, I don’t think I’m particularly good at it. In journalistic terms I’ve always been more of an opinion piece writer than a roving reporter. However, the piece I was preparing for this particular post has gone the way of the defunct memory stick I’ve just thrown into the trash and so I was forced, just this once, into doing something spontaneous.
Fortunately I just happen to be based for these last few days in a place perfectly suited to spontaneous outbursts of all types; pictorial, literary and just about any other format one cares to imagine. For, if constant change, municipal renewal and incessant architectural upheaval are the mothers of urban reinvention, then Tel Aviv must surely rank as a grand civic matriarch.
As a regular periodic visitor to Israel’s cultural and commercial first city for the past fifty years my mind’s eye (not to mention my various cameras) has become a kind of time-lapse observer of Tel Aviv’s astonishing physical evolution. And while this is not the place to attempt a full description of that development (it requires a long book) I have over the three years or so of this blog attempted to give at least an occasional impression – in words and pictures – of what I’ve witnessed and continue to see.
Because this addition to that “series” is so unplanned (I didn’t even bring a camera on the trip and had to rely on my iPhone for the images), I’m hoping that in its own small, colourful way it will more faithfully transmit some of the atmosphere of this amazing coastal city.
These pictures are all taken from rooftop breakfast decks of our otherwise unremarkable little downtown hotel. I think they offer a distinct, technicolor and interestingly optimistic Tel Aviv tableaux…
In 1983 I painted one of my largest oil paintings on Canvas, and at over seven feet high (about 2.1 meters) it was certainly the tallest oil I ever did. It dates to the height of my post Saint Martin’s landscape period, intended as the center piece for a proposed exhibition of my works at the Israeli embassy in London (why that show never materialised is a story for another post). At the time, I still harboured a naive ambition to become a sort of 20th century successor to artists like Claude Lorraine and William Turner, and was thus obsessed with the spectacular, the epic and visions of the sublime. As with the subject of an earlier post (https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/06/15/masterpiece-or-merely-a-collection-of-successful-daubs/), I was still, at this stage, exclusively applying the paint with brushes, and consequently, my pictures could take weeks to complete.
Mount Meron from Sefad manifested as one of the more arduous pictures I painted, taking around a full month from sketch to final brush stroke. But, it was also one of the most satisfying experiences of my painting career as regards both making the painting, and my contentment with the finished work. My “technical intention” had been to draw the viewer in from the bottom of the picture and then send them on a virtual journey down into the valley and then upwards towards the distant mountain. My “intellectual intention” had been to stir the mind of viewer by the use of “sublime” tonality and rich graduated colour. Whether or not I succeeded as well as I believed back then is hard to tell without standing in front of the painting itself (last I heard, residing on the walls of a private home somewhere in France), but from the little one can tell from this format I didn’t do too badly.
Ten years later, toward the end of 1993 I made another large oil painting of another mountain, but for very different reasons, and with a very different approach. Around the mid to late 80’s I’d become bored with brushes and moved on to the more immediate and primal method of applying thick daubs of paint with palette knives. My mostly large canvases, were still spectacular and even epic, but “the sublime” had been replaced with raw painterly passion. The spacial illusion of the former supplanted by a flat tapestry of thick impasto.
[Mount] Maroma Sunbathed turned out to be the final large scale oil on canvas I ever painted – or “knifed” (about 4 foot square). I did it the first day my studio was set up in our then-brand new house in southern Spain. After eight long, hard months of building the house and living rough (see: https://adamhalevi777.com/2017/03/01/the-folks-who-would-live-on-the-hill-the-story-of-the-building-of-our-home-in-southern-spain-in-pictures/) the work was a celebratory expression of pure joy and relief. I merely pointed the easel at the mountain across the gorge from our home and proceeded to pictorially express the view before me. It took only about two hours, from start to finish.
Two oil paintings of two different mountains; executed in two hugely contrasting styles, separated geographically by 3000 miles and ten years in time. But here’s the funny thing; the genuinely wondrous thing. For, totally unbeknownst to me until I prepared and researched this post; I was painting two mountains with the same name!
Briefly; the name of the Galilean mountain, Meron is recorded in the Bible, in which it is also known as Merom, which itself (and this is the bit I was ignorant of until very recently) is an ancient Hebrew derivation from the earlier Canaanite Maroma.
The Canaanites in question were either identical with, or at least closely related to the Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon, and who ruled over what later became Galilean Israel well into the time of the early Israelite kings – perhaps as late as around 950 BCE.
About 800 BCE, Phoenicians settled along the southern and south western coast of Spain and quite possibly, in a way identical to European colonisers of the New World, brought the place names from their old world with them for recycling in their new land.
Bearing in mind the similarities the settlers would have noticed between the two mountains; both being the tallest in their native locales (the Galilee and the Axarquia respectively) and both sharing strikingly similar physical form, it seems highly plausible that they named their new mountain after the original Maroma.
This is at least as plausible as the currently accepted theory, that the word maroma (which means a rope or a cord, or a twisted flax in modern Spanish) has vague Arabic origins, but with no apparent etymological evidence for such a linkage. Far more likely it seems to me, that just as the Phoenicians indisputably named the nearby city of Malaga (Malaka – mlk), so too they named the region’s most imposing mountain, Maroma! The fact they were the subjects of my two most ambitious mountain landscapes proves nothing on the other hand, but it is one hell of a coincidence…
One of the things I’ve really been enjoying here in Sweden is playing with all my new toys, including my aforementioned fabulous slide scanner. It’s main purpose is to get my years of artwork digitally recorded and logged, but it’s also helping me rediscover thousands of my old general photos.
Between 1977 and 1991 I visited Israel about a dozen times and I never went there without at least half a dozen rolls of high quality slide film.∗ The pictures included here (presented in no particular order) cover most of those seventeen years and present a portrait of a diverse and multi-textured little nation.
∗Cameras used: Canonet 28 and Nikon FE / Film used: Kodak Ektachrome and Agfachrome.
In the summer of 1979 I spent two weeks with a friend in his apartment on the south western outskirts of Jerusalem. My host shared a studio with me at art school (in London) and had been whetting my painterly appetite with descriptions of the scenery in the hills close by his apartment. Although I was already developing into a studio-based artist, the thought of walking out into the Jerusalem forest, portable easel on shoulder and painting box in hand seemed exotic and enticing. And so it proved to be.
Every day for around a week we rose at the crack of dawn and walked across ancient pine-wooded terraces to a shaded clearing perched dramatically above the picturesque village of Ein Kerem and sketched madly from morning to sunset. The combination of the dappled light, the changing colours and tones as the sun traversed the sky, the constant humming of the cicada and the aroma of pine needles intoxicated our spirits. And as we ate our rustic picnic lunches, washed down with wine and then dozed, we dreamed we were reincarnations of Gauguin and Van Gogh.
I did all my sketching in pen and coloured ink. I found the intensity and the fluidity of the ink perfect for expressing the colours of the landscape and capturing the immediacy of the given moment. Then later, early the following year, back in my studio in London I found I could use the ink sketches to transfer that sense of moment onto canvas – thus capturing the moment and giving it both permanency and with expanded depth and breadth.
Presented here is one of the original ink sketches, and the culminating oil painting I made from them. I felt that the device of a triptych would give me the scope to represent not just the colours, and flow of the landscape, but also its altering mood across the course of a single day. This was my first attempt at a triptych and looking back at it now, although far from fully resolved,the sheer unadulterated joy of it does nevertheless bring a smile to my face. Whether or not Paul or Vincent would smile or smirk is another question altogether.
Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.
Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…
This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…
Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…
The image of someone walking away into the distance has stirred my artistic sensibilities since early adulthood. I’ve returned to the subject photographically and in paint pretty regularly since about 1979, from when the first picture presented here dates (Astrud at Tel Hai).
Several of these pictures are of loved ones, past and current, walking into a variety of landscapes, urban and open, and I guess that with them in particular, powerful feelings of vulnerability, both as a partners and individuals are aroused.
Two of the photos here have special poignancy: The one of my mother Hannah with my grandfather Harry was taken on a stroll in my home town of Edgware in the early 80’s when they both still had many years to live. I took the photo on my old Cannonette camera by accident. I was meaning to line up a shot of the lake we were passing when I must have clicked the shutter too early. It was only when the film came back from the developers that I saw the photo, and even then I instantly realised that it was a happy accident in that it had somehow captured the essence of them and their relationship in a way that no face-on portrait ever could have matched. The fact they are both now dead has made this image increasingly precious to me as the years have passed. The picture of my wife Dido walking her old and frail father into his house in Little Rock is even more poignant in that it represents the last photo of them ever taken together. About an hour later we returned to the airport, never to see him again.
All the pictures here, even those of total strangers, like the chap on Hampstead Heath, have a quiet melancholia about them in that they share a sense of our human transience.
Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.
But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.
All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.
Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;
Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;
A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;
Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.
About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;
Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);
In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;
And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.
However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.
The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).
Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…
This next post is a rare acknowledgement by yours truly of the approach of a Jewish festival. The Ten Days of Penitence, beginning with Rosh Hashana (the Jewish New Year) and culminating with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement ) are nearly upon us and it got me to thinking about desert landscapes.
I nearly always think of desert landscapes when any of the four main (“Mosaic”) Jewish festivals come around (Rosh Hashanah, Passover [Pesach], Pentecost [Shavuot] and Tabernacles [Succot]) as they were all – according to tradition – conceived during the desert wanderings of the Children of Israel – sometime around the 12th to 11th centuries BC.
These days most biblical historians, archaeologists and scholars dispute these wilderness origins for most, if not all of these festivals, dating them instead to reigns of the later kings of Judah – somewhere about the 8th to 7th centuries – or even as late as the Babylonian exile during the 6th to 5th centuries BC.
But whatever the exact historical origins of these celebrations they are fundamentally related to the worship of the ancient desert god Yahweh – one of the several Israelite/Hebrew components for what would gradually evolve into the eventual single Jewish God.
Having been fortunate enough to travel extensively throughout most of the “Mosaic Wildernesses” – known today as the deserts of Sinai and the Negev (or Arabah) it is not hard for me to understand how the ancients came to regard these spectacular landscapes as the domain of supernatural beings, and even gods. They have a mystery and a feeling of wonder, which in certain lights and conditions can be almost overwhelmingly sensually intense. The evening winds cascading and rebounding through the canyons of the southern Sinai mountains at dusk sounds like the angry roar of giants – or even the voice of the gods.
However, the current scholastic consensus is shifting northwards from southern Sinai to the less lofty, though equally spectacular jagged hills and psychedelic plains of the central Negev – formally known as the Wilderness of Zin – as being the true domain of the Hebrew Yahweh and even the location of his sacred mountain stronghold of Horeb.
Whatever the eventual verdict regarding the birthplace of the Jewish God will be – assuming a verdict is ever arrived at – Zin remains my favourite place on Earth. I think these images here give you a taste of the “divine” and rugged beauty of the place.
Fr. Justin Belitz OFM is the founder of the Franciscan Hermitage and author of "Success: Full Living," "Success: Full Thinking," & "Success: Full Relating." His teachings incorporate spirituality, science, and art for personal growth and development.