By Debby Luzia
Art lovers had always been somewhat ambivalent about Menashe Kadishman. On the one hand, an acclaimed and gifted sculptor, winner of the Israel Prize for sculpture, and on the other hand, a painter of sheep. “How many sheep can one paint?” people often ask, and I always wonder why nobody ever asked how Modigliani could have painted so many portraits. Actually, Kadishmans’ sheep are portraits by any standard, with defined characters and specific moods, but reducing Kadishman to a mere ‘painter of sheep’ does not do justice to a pioneering artist in the conceptual art movement in 1970’s Israeli art.
Kadishman was born in Tel-Aviv in 1932. His father died when he was only fifteen and he then left school. In the army he served on a Kibbutz and was in charge of a flock of sheep, a shepherd. And this role influenced his artistic career. After his army service, in 1954 he became a started to learn sculpture and in 1959 he went to study art in London, where he also married and had two children. He studies at Saint Martin with Anthony Caro and at Slade with Reg Butler. In the seventies, Kadishman experimented with geometrical shapes.
We are privileged to have a cast created in 1971 in for the sculpture “Big suspense”, executed in 1975.
Kadishman returned to Israel in 1972 after a successful period of international exposure.
One of the highlights of his career was in 1978 as the representative of Israel at the Venice Bienalle, where he brought a flock of coloured sheep and presented then as live art. Like a shepherd, he took them out of the Israeli pavilion to graze on the grounds of the Giardini.
In 1972, after 13 years in London, Kadishman participated in an exhibition not many are familiar with. It was held in the Gallery House, a space considered at the time as the forefront of the conceptual art scene in London. This exhibition, called, presented works by 6 Israeli artists, including Moshe Gershuni and Michael Druks, and aroused great interest in Israeli conceptual art.
Recently, Kadishman was approached by a group of international curators called “The Gallery House Archive Project”, investigating the conceptual art exhibited in London’s Gallery House in the 1970’s. Kadishman participated in an exhibition titled Affidavit with five other Israeli artist, among them Moshe Gershuni and Michael Druks. Kadishman exhibited photographs of cracked earth from the Hula Valley, alongside photos he took in New-York’s Central Park and parts of his “Phonebook Cardiogram” series. The latter are pages from London’s phonebooks which Kadishman tore out, erasing (marking) the details of the people listed. In a conversation Kadishman held with the Israeli curator Gili Yuval, he addressed that period as one of the most creative and fertile years for him as an artist: “I had very creative thoughts back then. Concepts”. Kadishman, more mature than his friends, felt that his life experience (the wars he had participated in and his life in the Kibbutz) helped to establish himself as an influential figure in the artistic milieu he was part of at the time.
On a more personal note, I want to point out two significant characteristics of Kadishman, or Menashke as those close to him called him. These two traits are; infinite generosity and totality. Without hesitation, Kadishman would draw portraits of people he met with, on a café napkin, a torn piece of paper, or any other material available. He then lovingly dedicated these doodles to his subjects. He also donated artworks to every charity art-sale or good cause he came across. Menashke had a huge heart. When he loved someone, he loved whole-heartedly, and his benevolence, as stated, knew no boundaries. In earlier times he had many artist friends, whom he loved to socialize with and exchange views on art. He was very friendly with Abraham Binder and spent many hours in Binder’s studio, exchanging thoughts on art. Another small, unbeknown anecdote: Kadishman adored flower paintings, and cherished his own collection of flower paintings by various artists.
Kadishman’s totality as an artist was evident also in his persona as a man, wearing jellabiya shirts, baggy white shorts and sandals all year round. Always a shepherd, loyal to his flock at any given moment. There was something very Israeli in his unrefined attire, and indeed, art lovers throughout the world see Kadishman as an icon of Israeli art no less than Reuven Rubin or Mordecai Ardon. His deep love of Israel and his sympathizing with the sufferings of the jewish people are both evident in many motifs in his creation – whether be it sheep, the binding of Isaac, mourners, or the flat iron discs symbolizing faces of the holocaust victims. Ten thousand of these discs create a powerful installation titled “Falling leaves”, laid together on the floor of the Berlin Jewish museum.
Kadishman made a unique contribution to Israeli art history, and has represented us with great esteem in countless prestigious exhibitions abroad. I wish for him to be remembered not only for his sheep, but also as a revolutionary artist and a wonderful sculptor.
I will never forget seeing the first exhibit of his sculptures sometime in the nineties. His ‘Birth’ sculptures made a great impression on me, especially as this subject is not a common one in male art. For years on I dreamt of owning such a sculpture. How lucky am I to have this dream come true.
Menashke, may you rest in peace.