Avital Carno talks immigrant art, process and technique and the dynamics of a creative marriage with British-Israeli artist Ardyn Halter. His work has been widely exhibited across Europe, America and the Middle East and ranges across multiple media including oil paintings, stained glass and silkscreen prints.
Ardyn Halter was born in London in 1956 and studied English Literature at Pembroke College, Cambridge. He travelled to Iran and Afghanistan before moving to Israel to pursue his artistic career. His wife, Asnat, is a sculptor. This interview was conducted across an afternoon in early May.
Do you consider yourself primarily an artist or a lover of literature?
For me the two are indivisible. I loved poetry from my childhood, but I painted from the age of six, encouraged to paint by my father. I think my father really wanted to be a painter, and he ended his life as one: he even exhibited at Tate Britain. I was in many respects his alter ego, so he would buy me large sheets of hardboard and huge pots of paint […]
I had my first exhibition when I was nine, a solo show in North London, where Hornsey College of Art would exhibit […] But I loved literature, so it was logical to study literature, but with a view to painting. I was also a little bit put off in my teens by what struck me then as irrelevant theorising…the politicisation of art schools—I was much more interested in actually looking at art, going to exhibitions, to museums, seeing art, copying art.
How did you make the transition from reading English to working as an artist?
I don’t think that an interest in painting and an interest in literature are so very different, although the practise of both is, of course. Thought stimuli overlap, and often I find myself naming paintings or prints without consciously seeking the titles, but actually the titles come out of literature. For example, I have a large print [called] What Seas What Shores: [a quotation taken] from T. S. Eliot’s ‘Marina’.
For [Eliot] it was about the possibility of faith, and Pericles sailing through the mists, not knowing (but the poem is intuiting) that he’s going to be reunited with Marina and her mother, who were cast overboard by superstitious sailors who thought Marina’s birth on ship had caused the terrible storm they were battling. So for me, my print is really about the possibility of hope, and it was inspired visually by the view of a seascape from land from a town on the west coast of Morocco.
This is an example of how the feelings and the thoughts of literature and of image combined, wove themselves together—and in a sense that conscious layering feels very relevant to the actual technique I was employing in this large print, in which I layer screen printing and wood block printing: [it’s] about 19 stages.
Your book, The Water’s Edge, is very much preoccupied by the relationship between literature and art. Could you tell us more?
This project combines my love of poetry with image. I initiated a series of prints which then became a book […] I turned to eleven poets, some of them friends, some of them well known (Seamus Heaney, Geoffrey Hill, Don Patterson, Paul Muldoon, Stephen Romer, Gabriel Levin, Jamie McKendrick, Michael Longley) to include [their] poems within it. It’s not that the images illustrate the poems or that the poems are spurred by the images, but shown in tandem, one becomes conscious of water as being something primary in the consciousness of the poet [and artist]. Those were shown for three years in the main atrium of The British Library […].
What excites me most of all about print-making and when looking at prints, for me there are always two subjects: the image and the technique, the process of its making. Those are two concurrent subjects in any print, as I perceive them. So for the second half of the book, the poets sent me all their notes and emails about it—in their own hand. The notes, proofs, drafts and my own sketches.
It was the sort of book I always want to read. It has a sequence, of course, but you don’t need to follow it. Publishers Lund Humphries indulged me but they weren’t quite sure what category the book should be placed. After all, it’s got to sit on a shelf in a book store or library. Where do we put it? they said. In the art section, in the poetry section? …
Your wife, Asnat Halter, is also a sculptor. Do you ever work together? Do you think you influence one another creatively?
I think it’s impossible to tell. We don’t work together. I think that our comments on each others’ work, however carefully they’re placed, will inevitably have some kind of an impact; to what extent I don’t know, because her work and mine are very different. We have shown together on a couple of occasions, once in Tuscany and a couple of times at the Redfern Gallery in London, with whom we work. But I would say our fields and our approaches are different, and actually that’s quite a healthy thing.
There’s no sense of competition or overlap or stealing from the other’s ideas, which could conceivably strain relations—or might enrich them too. Her work is intuitive, eye to hand. It’s essential in its simplicity and yet also remarkably sophisticated, I find it extraordinary.
How do you think that being the child of a Holocaust survivor has affected your work, if at all?
I think it has affected my mind and part of my approach to the world, and thus it probably has affected my work. Both my parents had a great lust for life: they loved life, and they lived it to the full. I think that when you’re aware of the genocides perpetrated, the appalling disasters that have befallen humanity—for me, the other side of that is valuing life.
It’s almost as if one sets the other in proportion, and makes you value the positive things in life all the more because of the terrible losses of the past. […] While conscious of the Holocaust, I am also very conscious of the need for the next generation to find voice to be able to talk about it, but from our own experience and not by adopting the expressions of my father’s generation.
I painted my response to this subject in a series called The Family I Never Knew. Part of what I sought to express, visually, is the difficulty of approaching the subject, the shortcomings of the ‘sympathetic imagination’: the term which Professor Christopher Ricks used when talking about the poetry of Geoffrey Hill.
My father came from Poland, the youngest of a large family who were all killed by the German Nazis. Had Israel existed [for them], and had some of them lived in Israel, then a larger proportion of the family would have survived […] and I think that this is forgotten when many outside of Israel look at Israel—they don’t realise how extraordinary it is that after two millennia of persecution, the Jewish people has a home-land, can protect itself, and maintain civil rights and democracy for its population and for all minorities […].
Of the several projects I have worked on in Israel, the largest is one my father and I worked on together, called Yad LaYeled (The Memorial to the Child): it’s in the north of Israel, an educational centre to commemorate the Jewish children who were murdered during the Holocaust. As our starting point we took the drawings made by children at the Theresienstadt Camp during the Second World War and we made them into stained glass windows. [This was] to celebrate the creativity of the children’s lives, rather than dwell on the murderous ways in which their lives were taken.
I think it’s helped to create understanding of Jewish history, but also beyond that I think it implants a seed of the importance of tolerance in the minds of the children visiting there. The guides at Yad LaYeled guide in three languages: Hebrew, Arabic and English.
You also worked on a memorial for the Rwandan Genocide. How did your experience of the Holocaust impact this?
The organisers of the National Genocide Memorial in Rwanda turned to me after seeing Yad LaYeled: they commissioned me to make two stained glass windows for the National Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. For me this meant a great deal, because one of the great lessons for me as one of the second- generation born to Holocaust survivors is that we must not be indifferent to the suffering of other people. [I tried] to create in visual terms, in stained glass […] something that might strike a chord with both the Rwandan survivors and their families, and the perpetrators who also come there to learn and understand the incitement that influenced them […].
You moved from England to Israel when you were 21. Do you see yourself as a British artist or an Israeli artist? Do you think your work from when you were living in England is distinctively different from you work living in Israel, not because of time but because of place?
What I think is probably not so relevant, but I don’t really think of myself as either. […] I would say that there is no such thing as ‘Israeli art’, and I’m not sure there is such a thing as ‘British art’—there once was, but today it’s so pluralistic. Well, there are so many different movements in art and so many different so—called ‘schools’: many of these categories are convenient taxonomies for critics or art historians, but I’m not quite sure how helpful they really are.
Our world has shrunk because of easy travel and ubiquitously available images. Sense of place expressed in visual terms must therefore have changed in recent times, except for landscape artists who walk the same walks and belong to a physical environment they seek to represent in recognisable ways. I’m as interested in landscape as I am in our idea of landscape or place. And I am also interested in the meetings of place within memory, the contiguities of place in our minds.
Here’s a painting that tries to express my fond memory of Isfahan in Iran (where I spent a month many years ago) and the incompatability of today’s Iranian totalitarian politics with the democractic liberalism of Israel. It’s called Isfahan is Half the World.
Apart from fitting your work into a particular genre, do you think that themes or preoccupations in your work are distinctively Israeli or distinctively British?
I’ll answer that obliquely by saying that for a long time I felt, although I did most of my work there, that in Israel my work really isn’t part of what’s going on here at all. But surprisingly my recent museum exhibitions were attended by 40,000 school students, which for Israel is a great number […] I suddenly began to feel that I very much do belong, and that I was communicating to this younger generation: this younger generation certainly seem to be visually alert.
It is very encouraging. And in fact last week the museum director reported to me that a group of seven and eight-year olds were at my exhibition and they sat round afterwards giving their comments, and one of them said he will ‘watch with interest the progress of this artist’. So that gave me hope—that I’ve a future, and second that I’ve got some kind of a following.
Featured image: detail of Coming Up For Air (2001–02), screenprint.
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