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A conversation with Shalom Flash
Dan Tsalka

You were born in a kibbutz and grew up there. Your father was a farmer. How come you became interested in painting?

I wasn't interested in painting. Only at the end of my military service I met someone who used to bring with him to the camp small art books in English. He lent me two of them. One was on Surrealism. The reproductions fascinated and intrigued me. I looked at them for hours. I then bought some oil paints and painted a number of pictures in a supposedly surrealistic style. Once the oils were finished, I stopped painting.

Didn't you feel like visiting a museum?

The first museum I visited was in London. I was just out of the military service after the Yom Kippur war, and I went on a trip to the states. On my way there I made a stop over in London. One day a friend of mine suggested that we visit the Tate Gallery. We were walking along the river, it was a beautiful day, and I thought to myself, why go indoors? But my friend insisted and in we went. On exhibition there was a show named " From Picasso to Lichtenstein ", and I remember wondering: what's Picasso got to do with principality of Lichtenstein? From Picasso to a certain place?...I knew nothing about the existence of pop-art and Roy Lichtenstein.

And what impressed you in the Tate gallery? Turner?

No. those were the small pictures by Dali, the less surrealistic ones, that fascinated me; the sea-shore landscapes, the mysterious atmosphere, the small boats - so small that it was clear only a great virtuoso could paint them. From that time on, I started visiting museums. When I arrived in New York I did not go to the Metropolitan Museum, but I visited the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern art. I traveled across the states on a Greyhound ticket and slept in the buses to save money. One morning I reached Chicago, and there, at the art institute, I was deeply impressed by a nude painting by William Beckman. Back in Israel, I enrolled at the Avni Institute and attended evening classes for about six month, studying especially with Kiewe. I was then accepted for studies of physics and engineering at the Tel Aviv University and was working in electronics. One day I sent one of the drawings I had made at the Avni Institute to my friend in London and asked him to check whether I could get into the Chelsea School of Art. He went there with my portfolio of drawings and presented himself as Flash. Two days later he was notified that he had been accepted, i.e. that I had been accepted.

And you left your physics and engineering studies?

The truth of the matter is that for some reason, I didnít hesitate too much.
I went to London and worked there as I had never worked before - from eight in the morning to four in the afternoon, five days a week, and in the evening I stayed until eight, attending adult education courses. My work at the time were mostly drawing and painting from a model. It's only on Sundays that I used to go out, walk through town, visit museums. But I loved living and studying in London and I would have stayed there were it not for Tammy, my future wife, who had to continue her studies in Tel Aviv. I told myself that I could also continue my art studies in Israel. I went back and enrolled at the Art Teachers' Training College, Ramat-Hasharon.

I heard that the college was quite a lively place then.

Yes, there was enthusiasm there, I won't say there wasnít, and I worked a lot. But what I wanted to paint was "illegitimate" and "irrelevant" in my teachers' opinion. There is photography, they said, why bother? I said nothing. I studied etching and silk-screen printing.

Two lost years?

Not really. I studied there the language of modern painting according to Hans Hofmann. I had my first exhibition. I went on studying, but mostly in silence. Do you remember an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Art Museum called "Drawing Now"?

Sol LeWitt's mural?

The black wall. I participated in the painting of Sol LeWitt's mural.
Bernice Rose, the curator of the New York Museum of Modern Art, provided us with written instructions. A painter was hired to paint the entire wall in black. Then it turned out that we had somewhat miscalculated the proportions. The painter came again, and the second time we made it. I even got a kiss from the famous Bernice Rose! Actually I had my doubts: painting a picture according to written instructions?...At that time my wife, Tammy, was preparing to continue her studies in Boston. I went with her there, not knowing that my life was going to change. I enrolled at the Massachusetts College of Art.

Was the atmosphere there any different?

The atmosphere? Yes, it was different. But after the two years at the Art Teachers' Training College, I felt that I knew everything. I knew what was relevant and I insisted I had nothing new to learn. However, one day, when my teacher, George Nick, noticed that I glued a piece of cloth, supposed to represent a shirt, into one of my canvases (I was then preoccupied with collages) he quietly told me: why wont you paint a shirt instead of sticking it in? Before he had his exhibition in New York, he hung some of his paintings at school. One of these was a beautiful small painting of the Dead Sea (he had just returned then from a visit to Israel and Egypt). I then started painting from photographs, and again my teacher and friend, George Nick, casually told me: when you paint from nature, it looks more ripe. I started painting from nature. The love that I had felt for painting was revived after so many years. It was wonderful to love painting again, to love again artists whose paintings hang on the walls on museums, those artist to whom I hadn't been able to relate after studying in the Art Teachers' College. I rediscovered the visible world, the world of shape and colors. When I studied for the Masters degree, I became familiar with the paintings of Edwin Dickinson. I was amazed by his huge freedom and spontaneity that grew out of great control. I looked a lot at Oskar Kokoschka's works. When I returned to Israel, all I wanted to do was to go out and paint outdoors.

In the show you had at the American Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, your paintings somewhat resemble those of George Nick. Later, however, the similarity disappears. Is your painting more lyrical then his? What actually happened?

More lyrical? I think the difference lies elsewhere. George Nick's painting is very rich, dynamic, Baroque-like. When I started working on large scale landscapes, on panoramas, I could not use thick oils because of the size of the paintings, the large number of elements in them and the complicated perspectives. I began working with thin layers and the picture became more classical-like, less wild. With thin layers of paint it is possible to expose the canvas here and there, to achieve glazura-like glare even when one paints wet on wet.

It may also be that the Israeli landscape fits better the thin layers of paint: the burning sun, the somewhat washed-out colors...

Yes, the character of the landscape is important, its grey, white, washed-out nature, the sunlight that blurs the differences but only in one sense: itís the image that dictates my painting technique. When one paints with thick paints, one must be entirely familiar with the pallete colors, a virtuoso at mixing the colors on it. The palette is the essence of artistic creation. When applying to the canvas thin layers of paint in an almost monochromatic continuum, there are more possibilities to make correction both in wet on wet and in wet on dry paint. The very possibility of correction affords huge versatility and freedom in mixing the colors on the palette. I sometimes miss George Nick's world, but I have chosen a different path.

You've mentioned before that after a while, in Boston, you could feel again kinship toward the works of the Old Masters.

Yes, especially the Italian masters: Canaletto, Bellotto; the pre-impresionist French painting, the paintings Corot did in Italy and a wonderful, though not that famous, late-eighteen-century artist by the name of Pierre de Valenciennes, whose paintings have only recently been hung in the Louvre. I lately saw four of his panels, twelve oil-on-paper paintings in each panel. Their poetics interest me more than that of more recent painters.

One might say then that you are elaborating on the vistas, the Vedute of the Italians and on the lyrical, and perhaps even contemplative, perception of nature of the French. And what place do Dickinson and Kokoschka have in your pursuit?

Their place, I presume, is on the side of freedom and courage. Painting within realistic constraints is what gives one real freedom, i.e. the possibility to go to extremes. It is not an arbitrary freedom but a freedom that gives joy.