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May 2004 -- Objectivists often look to the past for great artwork to contemplate and admire, avoiding the contemporary art scene as hopelessly corrupted by postmodern ideas. In doing so, they sometimes fail to notice the few individual artists of our time who strive to create art that emulates the style of the Old Masters and projects a benevolent worldview. One such artist is Uri Gil .
His personal story is intriguing. After completing his compulsory military service, Gil remained in the Israeli air force as a career officer but turned to painting as a pastime when he was in his late twenties. He says he was drawn to painting because of the technical challenges it offered and because it is "an inner art that does not need a special environment, that does not need an audience." At the age of forty-two, Gil left his career in the air force to devote his time to painting but continued to fly as a reserve officer until his retirement in June 2003. By that time he was sixty—the oldest combat pilot in the world still on active reserve duty.
Though Gil was raised in an Israeli kibbutz (a collective village), he has always been a staunch individualist. Recently, he told an interviewer that in battle he never thought of fighting for his homeland or even for his family. Rather, he said, "every sortie that I flew, every dogfight, is a brush-stroke in my portrait in the mirror into which I will peer when my operational life is over. When I reach that day, I want to be satisfied with what I see" ("Uri Gil," by Avi Shmoul, Lifestyles, Fall 2003).
After leaving his air force career, Gil supplemented his income by doing commissioned portraits, including a portrait from a photograph of the young Ayn Rand . At the same time, he perfected his technique and produced boldly radiant still-life paintings and innocently sensual nudes. Unfortunately, though Gil's exploits as a combat pilot have been taught at Israeli and American military flight schools, his art is virtually unknown in Israel or abroad. Gil has needed his deep reserves of individualism to persevere as a painter in the absence of fame or fortune.
When he wanted to settle in the artists' village of Ein Hod, on the coast of the Mediterranean, he had to apply to be admitted. The first time he applied, the village council rejected his application because his artwork was deemed not good enough. The second time he was accepted, and today he lives there with his wife, Genia, a television producer. He paints six days a week, sometimes working ten to twelve hours at a time without a break, but reserves one day a week for his three grown children and four grandchildren. For relaxation, Gil enjoys listening to baroque vocal music, working in his garden, and walking along the coast. When he can, he travels to Europe to visit the great museums. Although the painting technique he now employs dates to the fifteenth century, his favorite period is the seventeenth century and his special loves are "the spirituality of Titian, the drama of Rembrandt, and the virtuosity of Velázquez."
Gil has had two shows at the Wilfred Israel Museum—a small museum in northern Israel—in 1995 and 1998, and has exhibited some of his work in Israeli galleries. But the reviews were lukewarm or nonexistent. Even a recent interview in the Jewish-American Lifestyles magazine focused on Gil's combat-pilot career rather than on his painting. Gil's general attitude toward criticism and obscurity is to shrug it off. "I don't take myself so seriously," he says. "I take what I do very seriously." He paints, he says, "because of me and for me." As a very private person, his greatest ambition is for his paintings to go far in the art world without anyone knowing who he is.
Currently, Gil is looking forward to his next artistic undertaking: as a farewell gesture to the air force he has left, he plans a 10.8-foot by 7.5-foot masterwork that will portray his fellow combat pilots in life size. After years of painting one person at a time, both portraits and nudes, Gil feels that he is finally ready to paint a group of individuals. Being a great admirer of Rembrandt, he dubs this painting My Night Guard. He expects that the painting will take several years to complete, for he plans to draw a multitude of sketches of the pilots' heads and hands in preparation for painting each one. He hopes that the sketches and documentation for this large-scale work will be numerous enough to make a book.
Initially, Gil worked in a modern abstract style, but he gradually advanced to realism, a style that he found more interesting and challenging. During the 1970s, after searching for a painting technique that would achieve the sort of realism he wished to create, he discovered a revival of Jan van Eyck's "mixed technique" in the works of the Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs. Fuchs is not well known in the United States, but since the 1950s he has gained some fame in Europe as the reviver of this technique, called "mixed" because it alternates layers of oil paint and tempera. Gil learned the basics of Fuchs's technique from the artist Israel Zohar, a former student of Fuchs, and then mastered it on his own. When Gil finally met Fuchs in 1976 and showed him some of his paintings, Fuchs said that he had nothing left to teach him.
The technique used by Gil starts with the careful planning of a painting, from start to finish. The execution begins with multiple pastel sketches from a model, until Gil is satisfied with a sketch that can be transferred to the canvas. Next, he prepares the underpainting: two coats of oil paint, each followed by white tempera (the only tempera he uses). Then Gil begins with the painting itself: alternating coats of oil paint, which is transparent, and white tempera, which is opaque. The oil medium dries slowly and the tempera quickly, so the tempera can be painted into the oil medium, which is what yields the desired effect. It is a meticulous technique requiring plenty of patience, since every coat of oil paint must dry for several days before the painting of the next coat can begin. Since a painting may require up to a total of thirty to forty coats, it may take an artist scores of months to complete.
Gil argues that a painting, to be effective, must have three contrasts: dark/light, warm/cold, and opaque/transparent. He is most concerned with the third contrast, which creates a sense of depth. He observes that in several paintings by Rembrandt, the clothing of the human figure and the background have the same color, but the background consists of transparent layers of oil paint while the clothes include some tempera, so the clothes look more opaque. In this way, Rembrandt is able to distinguish the clothes from the background and bring them forward. Because Gil is especially interested in contrasts of opacity and transparency, he is enamored of the mixed technique, through which such contrasts can be generated.
Gil typically works on several paintings simultaneously, in order not to sit idle while one painting is drying (and consequently he rarely uses a model during the painting phase of his work). Yet he says that the creative passion he feels for each individual painting cannot be summoned on demand. When a fire destroyed one of his commissioned portraits, the person who had commissioned it asked Gil to repaint the same portrait, but Gil found he could not bring himself to create the exact same painting again.
Although Gil feels indebted to Ernst Fuchs for reviving van Eyck's mixed technique, he does not admire Fuchs's choice of subjects: fantastic scenes verging on the psychedelic. (Fuchs founded the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism in 1948.) By the same token, though he works with a fifteenth-century technique, Gil uses it to depict the world around him—the world as he sees it. As Stephen Hicks commented in his article "Post-Postmodern Art": "The artist is not an archaeologist, and the point is not to resurrect and imitate the past. The point is that the world [the Old Masters] saw and a whole lot more is still out there." (http://www.michaelnewberry.com/soul/others/hicks/index.html)
In The Romantic Manifesto , Ayn Rand wrote an artist should portray man as he might and ought to be, and one could argue that Gil's paintings fit the definition of Rand's Romantic Realism. "As he might be" is the realistic part—the exact rendering of scenes, entities, colors, and shapes. "As he ought to be" lies in the selection of subjects—not fantastic but Romantic, excluding the ordinary. Historically speaking, Gil's paintings are reminiscent of the paintings of nineteenth-century French artist William Bouguereau, for they have the same realistic style but also the same idealization of beautiful models and settings.
Predictably, Gil has been criticized for this Romanticism. Said one critic: "Gil's models are all young and beautiful, as if aging does not exist." Meeting the critic later, Gil told him: "It depends on how you look at it. When I paint a young woman I know she will not be young for long. There is nothing as fleeting as youth. That is why I try to capture the fleeting moment."
One of Gil's hallmarks is the sense of naturalness and innocence conveyed by his nudes, for his art successfully surmounts the challenge of painting even the most sensual nudes with decency. Part of the reason for this, perhaps, is that Gil regards the model as an equal partner in the artistic creation. At any rate, in describing Gil's work, the curator of the Wilfred Israel Museum stated well the viewer's experience: "The relationship to one's fellow person as a man or woman is complete and sovereign. This approach is poles apart from the pornographic approach, which sees the model as an instrument, and consciously ignores the humane and individual" (from the museum brochure).
Perhaps that is one reason why Gil's approach and attitude toward his subjects remain so remarkably benevolent, considering that he is a man who spent years shooting down enemy aircraft and dodging their return fire. He paints what is close to him physically and what is also close to his heart—his house furnishings, his wife and daughters, and young, beautiful models. The result is a realism infused with idealism. To quote the curator of the Wilfred Israel Museum again: Gil is "leading the reality to its own state of perfection while paying strict attention to each and every detail" (from the museum brochure).
Sometimes, indeed, Gil's realism verges on Naturalism, as when he paints the sole of a foot with its chafed skin because "a foot should look like it was walked on." Always, though, he endeavors to paint the beautiful. He left an art class when the instructor declared that a painting must not be judged by its beauty but by its accuracy. He believes that a painting should satisfy a psychological need, affirming David Kelley's assessment in his essay " Art and Ideals ": "Art is the most powerful means of creating embodied abstractions." But Gil adds: "There are two types of esthetics that satisfy man psychologically: the beautiful and the sublime. I paint only the beautiful."
Yet, beauty alone is not sufficient for an image to be considered art. A beautiful sunset on a desert island is not art. On the part of the artist, observes Gil, "art is connected to intention, to a sentient being." On the part of the spectator, "art is the connection between the painting and the response it evokes." In Objectivist terms, beauty is neither an intrinsic quality of the painting nor a subjective response of the spectator. A painting's beauty is consciously intended by the artist and communicated to the spectator via the painting.
Uri Gil has done his part for the revival of beauty in painting. The question is whether the world will respond.
Michelle Fram Cohen holds an M.A. in comparative literature from SUNY at Birmingham. She studied art in Israel and at the Art Students League in New York, and has published many literary essays and reviews. Her interview with sculptress Martine Vaugel is posted on Vaugel's Web site at http://www.vaugelsculpture.com/index.php .
This article was originally published in the May 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.