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Leonid Balaklav – Togetherness

Past Exhibition

11.02.2010 - 25.03.2010

Behind the Fence
by Gideon Ofrat

“I always used to have a fence. Now, finally, I broke it. I am not in exile any more” Leonid Balaklav tells me as he points to a long wooden fence in a Chagall’s painting of Vitebsk. Balaklav remembers the fence from his childhood in Moldavia, with the threatening dog in the passageways. I am thinking of Bialik’s story Behind the Fence and the poles of the fence that separated between the region of the Jewish town and the new challenging world outside, in Joseph Budko’s paintings. This way or another, Balaklav is dismantling the fence, and it seems that the thin planks piled up in his studio in the Gilo quarter in Jerusalem, on which he has painted more and more skinny and elongated portraits, are planks that have remained from the dismantled fence. Balaklav has set himself free.

Leonid Balaklav acquired his reputation mainly in the 1990s, due to his tormented self-portraits. Later, came the portraits of family and friends, that revealed the painter’s enchantment with the local natural light, and there were still lives, and occasionally landscapes. But it seems that only now, once the ‘fence’ has been dismantled, the artist has the ability to confirm the world as achieving a balance between synthesis of inner and external worlds, that radiates physical and spiritual light, while projecting a feeling of goodness and blessing. True, one can remember a few giant landscapes painted by Balaklav in Mitzpe Ramon in 1992, two years after he immigrated to Israel, but these were landscapes that were not part of him yet, but expressed his desire to quickly integrate himself with his new homeland. Only now, Balaklav can point to his goat paintings and express his true feeling: ‘These are self-portraits’.

Originally, the goats were painted near the school attended by Balaklav’s son, in Rosh Zurim in Gush Etzion. Schoolchildren from another school surrounded the artist when he painted the goats crowding in their pen. Balaklav was fascinated by the light reflected from the goats’ backs, and like a Middle-Eastern Pierre Bonnard, he painted the pen as being partially closed and partially open towards the outside. There is fence grid in the front plane of the picture, as well as in its background, remains of a fence that that no longer blocks anything, and in the middle, the goats are rubbing against each other. Don’t we spot the one and only male goat, and of course – the black kid casting curious glances outside? Here we have the audacity of the ‘other’ young one, looking out to the yard, towards a white goat standing by another kid. If you ask me, this black kid is Leonid Balaklav, the eternal child who is looking from the inside, from the familial sheltered space, towards the outside world that is bathed in light.

Generally, Balaklav paints his goats from the inside. He places himself inside the pen, alongside the goats. As always, his posture is humane, modest, warm, and loving. Time after time, his eye captures one or two curious kids in the pen’s gate, facing towards the glowing light, which is at once beckoning and threatening. And if Balaklav goes out, he keeps staying close to the building, observing the goats and the donkeys eating and drinking together, submerged within their own world, a couple of horses in the yard and the three children wanting to feed them, or a group of donkeys under the open-sided shelter. Whether inside the pen or near it, Balaklav’s animals are set in a pastoral region: a dimmed pleasant and soft light is shed upon the horses, a warm light glows from yellow stacks of hay, from behind which the artist watches the shadowed donkeys. And in general, the light emanating from these paintings by Balaklav is warm and enticing: some lights are pinkish, some yellow, while yet others are white and brown. There is also a bit of sky-blue, imbued with pink and yellow, adding to the warmth of the light that renders the painter’s – and our – vision pleasant.

Only then, does the good familial feeling that Balaklav conveys in his animal paintings become clear. And only then, one discerns the profound connection to a series of landscapes painted at the same period as those of the goats and the other farm animals: in his new landscapes, the artist’s look is directed permanently outwards, from his apartment’s interior and through grids or window frames (even through a balcony’s iron grids). Once again, the fence is broken. The interior is homely, intimate, warm: the laundry is hanging out to dry, the son’s bicycle (the same son who caused Balaklav to arrive at Rosh Zurim and the goat pen), that is also a distant reminder of the painter’s childhood (Balaklav in 2001: ‘My dad had one bicycle […] my brother and I took turns riding it […] nowadays I also paint a boy on a bicycle. This is Yossi, my son, and this is me.’[1]) – the sense of security of home and family is conveyed. Here, distant hills or the front of a nearby building do not comprise a contrast to the interior: since external and interior balance each other in amicable light games – in morning or night, in the afternoon, on a rainy day or on a sunny one – interior and external are in harmony.

The shadows cast by the balcony’s iron grids impress upon our consciousness that the ‘fence’ is no longer a barrier, but serves as an invitation to view the world through it. True, Balaklav will almost always stay at home, among his family – human beings and animals – but now he can effect a peaceful and even idyllic alliance between this protected space and the neighboring world. Therefore, our assumption is that the goat paintings of Leonid Balaklav are those of home and family, and that they constitute another sheltered space in which the painter feels at ease. Like the black kid, he looks innocently outwards in order to define another space. And accordingly, in our consciousness there emerges an understanding that Balaklav’s plank paintings are another confirmation of the familial element in the process of freeing himself from the fence’s restrictions: since each and every pole is a portrait of the artist’s mother and father, his sister and brother, or a portrait of children and mothers with their babies, women, etc. All these constitute an enhanced family, that also includes landscapes: because all these plank paintings are characterized by light blue and yellow, reflecting the sky and light that glows from a shirt, a face, etc. A Hassidic (or a ‘Gothic’?) spirituality characterizes these narrow and tall figures, that all respond to El Greco’s Catholicism, but depict a Jewish prayer directed towards heaven.

And then, we return to the goat ‘family’, and relate it to the Jewish goat recalled from Chagall’s paintings (as of 1911). It seems that Chagall’s goat, from the Russian-Jewish town, that floats in the sky or stands on the ground, has turned in Balaklav’s paintings into a bridge that connects his childhood in the Moldavian exile, in the city of Belzi and its surrounding villages, with his new life here, in Israel. ‘Like a dacha’, he refers to his goats, confirming the post-Russian birth of the artist in Israel. And thus, as I return to Chagall’s fence painting, the one Balaklav showed me in his studio – to the painting Above the City, 1914 (the artist and his sweetheart hover over Vitebsk and its long wooden fences) – my eye captures the green goat grazing in one of the yards. I also do not overlook the ink drawing of a goat and a baby carriage drawn by Chagall in 1916, and this enhances the affinity between Balaklav’s goats and the familial landscapes, among them the son’s bicycle. And all these – there, in the artist’s studio in Gilo – suddenly relate to each other in an act of love that encompasses mankind and the world.

In his paintings of the 1990s, Balaklav employed light as a means of body perishment and freeing the soul (‘with this light I erase things’ he then said[2]). At that time, his anorectic plank paintings, too, carried portraits that looked like transparent, nearly disappearing, ghosts[3].  In his present paintings, on canvases, planks, and cardboards – the light is not erasing things: it builds, it confirms, and it says a ‘yes’ of pious thanksgiving.

[1] From an interview made by Galia Bar Or, in Leonid Balaklav: Face of the Light, Museum of Art, Ein Harod, 2001, p. 33

[2] Gideon Ofrat, “The Language of the Perishing Body” Leonid Balaklav: Face of the Light, Museum of Art, Ein Harod, 2001, p. 33

[3]  Ibid, p. 15

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