Avigdor Arikha was born to German-speaking Jewish parents in Rădăuţi, but grew up in Czernowitz (now in Ukraine), in Bukovina, Romania. His family faced forced deportation in 1941 to the Romanian-run concentration camps of Transnistria, where his father died. He survived thanks to the drawings he made of deportation scenes, which were shown to delegates of the International Red Cross.
Arikha emigrated to Palestine in 1944, together with his sister. Until 1948, he lived in Kibbutz Ma'ale HaHamisha. In 1948 he was severely wounded in Israel's War of Independence. From 1946 to 1949, he attended the Bezalel School of Art in Jerusalem. In 1949 he won a scholarship to study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, where he learned the fresco technique. From 1954, Arikha resided in Paris. Arikha was married from 1961 until his death to the American poet and writer Anne Atik, with whom he had two daughters. Arikha died in Paris from complications of cancer on April 29, 2010, the day after his 81st birthday.
In the late 1950s, Arikha evolved into abstraction and established himself as an abstract painter, but he eventually came to think of abstraction as a dead end. In 1965 he stopped painting and began drawing, only from life, treating all subjects in a single sitting. Continuing on this path for the next eight years, his activity was confined to drawing and printmaking until late 1973, when he felt an urge to resume painting. He became "perhaps the best painter from life in the last decades of the 20th century", in the words of the obituary in the Economist magazine. His practice thereafter remained to paint directly from the subject in natural light only, using no preliminary drawing, finishing a painting, pastel, print, ink, or drawing in one session. His profound knowledge of art techniques and his masterly draughtsmanship enabled him to abide until the very end of his life by this principle of immediacy, partly inspired by Chinese brush painting. It was a principle he shared with his close friend Henri Cartier-Bresson, to whose "instant décisif" it was analogous. He drew and painted exclusively from life, never from memory or photograph, aiming to depict the truth of what lay before his eyes, at that moment. He is noted for his portraits, nudes, still lifes, and landscapes, rendered realistically and spontaneously, but in their radical spatial composition they clearly bear the lessons of abstraction, and in particular of Mondrian. He also illustrated some of the texts of Samuel Beckett, with whom he maintained a close friendship until the writer's death.
In the words of the art critic Marco Livingstone, Arikha "bridged the modernist avant-garde of pure abstraction with traditions of observational drawing and painting stretching back to the Renaissance and beyond. He was truculently insistent that he was not part of any "return to figuration", but rather had found his own way as "a post-abstract representational artist"."
Arikha painted a number of commissioned portraits, including that of H.M. Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother (1983), Lord Home of the Hirsel, former Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (1988), both in the collection of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh. Other portraits include those of Catherine Deneuve (1990) for the French State, or that of the former Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy for the city of Lille.
As an art historian, Arikha wrote catalogues for exhibitions on Poussin and Ingres for which he was curator at the Musée du Louvre, the Frick Collection of New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. His writings include Ingres, Fifty Life Drawings (Museum of Fine Arts, Houston/Frick Collection, New York, 1986); Peinture et Regard (Paris: Hermann, 1991, 1994; new, augmented edition 2011); On Depiction (London: Bellew Publishing, 1995); and numerous essays published in such journals as the New York Review of Books, The New Republic, Commentaire, Literary Imagination, etc. He has also lectured widely, at Princeton University, at Yale University, at the Frick Collection in New York, at the Prado Museum in Madrid, and at many other venues. In 2006, he was invited by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid to select a number of works from its collection and to write the entries for the catalogue accompanying the resulting exhibition.
Arikha showed frequently (every two years, in London and New York) at the gallery that represented him since 1972, Marlborough, and over the decades he had over two dozen solo shows. In 1998 Arikha had a major retrospective at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem (of paintings) and at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art (of prints and drawings), which travelled to Edinburgh's Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 1999. From July 2006-January 2007 there was an exhibition at the British Museum of Arikha's bequest to it of one hundred prints and drawings. There was a retrospective of his prints at the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris in 2008. From June to September 2008 the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid hosted another retrospective exhibition of the artist.
Books on Arikha
- Arikha, by Samuel Beckett, Robert Hughes, André Fermigier(et al.) (Paris: Hermann; London: Thames and Hudson, 1985)
- Arikha, by Duncan Thomson (London: Phaidon, 1994)
- Avigdor Arikha, by Monica Ferrando and Arturo Schwarz (Bergamo: Moretti & Vitali, 2001)
- Avigdor Arikha: From Life - Drawings and Prints, 1965-2005, by Stephen Coppel and Duncan Thomson (London: British Museum Press, 2006), published to accompany their 2006-7 exhibition.
- Arikha, catalogue of the exhibition at the Thyssen-Borenmisza Collection, Madrid, Ed. Fundación Colección Thyssen-Bornemisza 2008.
- His Lifelines, Haaretz
- "Avigdor Arikha". Information Center for Israeli Art. Israel Museum. Retrieved February 2012.
- Avigdor Arikha collection at the Israel Museum. Retrieved February 2012
- Art of Avigdor Arikha at Europeana. Retrieved February 2012
- Arikha at Marlborough
- Arikha Online
- British Museum - Avigdor Arikha
- Avigdor Arikha at the Engel Gallery