Daniel Enkaoua was born in 1962 and raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in France. At the age of 19, he emigrated to Israel, where he initially studied Talmud before taking up fine art. He spent the first years of his artistic career in Jerusalem, moving to Barcelona in 2004, where he now resides with his family. From the outset, his work as a painter has been dominated by only a few central themes. Aside from portraits of his wife and children, they include self-portraits, still lifes of objects, plants and vegetables in addition to vast panoramic landscapes that he approaches in ever-new painterly formulations. It is remarkable how faithful the artist has remained to such private subjects, for which he has drawn for over thirty years almost entirely on his immediate surroundings, his studio, family and his own personal view of the world. A great deal of serenity is tangible here in the artist’s universe. Inside the studio, objects and people are shown directly and unspectacularly, and in the outside world, Enkaoua’s early pictures of our cities have long given way to sweeping views over nearly empty landscapes.
We encounter family members in these paintings: Sarah, the wife and mother, the daughters Yam and Aure, the sons Liel and Natan, and the artist also shows himself to us in one of his self-portraits. Enkaoua employs the whole of portraiture’s typological spectrum in these works, ranging from portrait heads to the full-length figure; he has all of these possible forms of portraying the human figure ready at hand as a rediscovered and revitalised potential of concentrated personal characterisations.
The close-up offers the greatest degree of intensity, for example when the presentation of the figure, as in “Sarah, la lumière en face”, is reduced down to the bust, looking out of the picture directly at us. This close proximity to the person and the glance addressing us from the painting represents an explicit invitation for us to enter into a visual contact, to open up a dialogue. Nearness to the sitter takes on even more intimacy in “Sarah accoudée”. The portrait focuses on her lowered head that rests on one hand while she looks up at us in an expressive pose. Not only is it impossible for viewers to escape deeply felt emotions in such a close-up but the immediate, almost private contact between sitter and artist also becomes our touchstone in viewing the person.
The portraits of children in this exhibition speak over and above the individual work of Enkaoua’s concept of historical tracing. Only a few examples are needed to demonstrate the artist’s method of presenting biography in portraits from various years, for example in the stages between “Aure en robe orange” (2015), a full-length portrayal of his daughter standing, to “Aure de face en bleu” (2016-17), in which the girl is again shown in full-length amost standing on the lower edge of the painting. Representational parallels as they can be seen here in the selection of portraits types laconically capture the development of the depicted person in time, providing us with the possibility of comparative seeing, of tracing developments.
“En face”. The exhibition’s title already clearly indicates that the positioning of the figure, the frontal presentation and consequently also the direct confrontation with the viewer is an intentional part of the artist’s concept. Only rarely does one of the portraits deviate from this strict disposition of the figure, revealing more of the spatiality of a depicted head “Aure en blanc”, for example, where the figure in semi-profile appears towards the left and no longer fixes her gaze from out of the painting on the viewer. The range of the portraits variations is greatly reduced in these depictions of family members; we, the viewers, attain serenity and intimacy through the repetition of the poses, enter into a sequence of time and development of the figures whose calm depiction also integrates us in an emotional continuum. A close proximity ensues to the persons who face us so openly and vulnerably.
The recurring motif of standing and occasionally sitting constitutes a special feature of the artist’s depictions of persons to the extent that in most case the figures are logically presented in vertical formats. With the exception of his close-ups, the artist’s portraits are dominated by such portrait-format works. Enkaoua places his sitters against a neutral studio wall and gives them precisely the same space in the representation that they themselves assume through their physicality. The scene contains no further indications of spatiality. For the most part, we see the sitters before the diffuse surface of the studio wall, the colours of which are only occasionally modulated. The pictorial space is defined more broadly as regards composition solely in the cases of full-length figures standing on a dark floor that merges with a bright vaguely structured wall at knee level.
A contribution to the physicality of the figures is made by the light, which in most of the paintings illuminates the scene from the left, defining the volumes of the figures with bright highlights on individual passages of the body along with the resultant shadowing. Mild lighting of this sort from the side evokes a studio situation, heightening the impression of peace and relaxation that is already inherent to most of these paintings. The artist works directly from his model, constructs his paintings with brush, palette or finger from a diversity of individually applied brushstrokes. The duration of his work on a painting, which can extend over years in some cases, is evident in its multiple layers of paint.
Highly private views can finally be seen in a much less typical type of portrait, namely that of the bust of a reclining figure. In his “Portrait de Natan au sol” the viewer’s gaze is directed from above at the resting boy; the light also falls from above on him. The sense of vulnerability and need of protection that exudes from such a scene is unmistakable. The artist already shows his closeness to his child, who is also his model, in the selected pose that likewise determines our view of the boy and provokes reticence in the face of such intimacy. The artist frequently purports such a proximity to a figure by showing them, for example, with a slightly opened mouth, offering a degree of nearness and openness that is rare in art and first known since Rembrandt’s “Self-portrait with Open Mouth” from 1630.
And then there is the self-portrait, the queen of disciplines as an artistic means of self-questioning. Enkaoua complete a studio self-portrait in 2000 whose title “Personne” plays with the word’s ambiguity. It can mean “person”, but also “no one”. In any case, it already reflects a detached view as regards the celebratory and heroicising aspects of the self-portrait we know from the history of art since the Renaissance. The “Autoportrait au tee-shirt vert”, a small-format semi-profile bust from that same year, does not present us with a painter prince but rather a shy detached observer who looks while his own portrait emerges from out of the paint.
Wall and table are two elements that form the site of Enkaoua’s large landscape-format still lifes. In “Deux laitues vues de face” (2013), two heads of lettuce lay with the leafy part facing away from the viewer on a dark table against a neutral wall. The light coming from the front left intensely highlights the vegetable’s white and green sections against the backdrop of the dark tablecloth and their shadows. From our elevated perspective above the table, the heads of lettuce are presented as space-consuming, corporeal elements. Also seen from above, albeit in a space whose dark and bright backdrops are only suggested, “Le seau, la marmite et la bonbonne de gaz” (2014-15) introduces three protagonists. Bucket, pot and gas cartridge create a triad of cool colours, connected by the illumination light and their own shadows. The objects are dominated by blue and silver. The laconic row in which they are placed alludes to the quiet presentation of glasses and bottles as practiced by Giorgio Morandi. And it is solely through the arrangement of the objects is the presence of the person discernible in Enkaoua’s still lifes.
Daniel Enkaoua erected pictorial monuments to fruits and vegetables in a whole series of small and mid-sized paintings. Tomatoes, lettuce, chard, onions, raisins, quinces, pumpkins, watermelons. In numerous cases they fill out the entire picture plane, adding in the process intense colours to the rather reserved canon of colours manifest in the painter’s pictorial world. The narrow landscape format works depicting chard and garden onions (“Les grandes blettes”, “Les oignons violets”) or the mountainous rises in “Les deux tomates”, the objects and their embedding in the painterly all-over evokes echoes of the views of landscape and mountain outside of Barcelona produced around the same time.
“The outside is living in my painting”, said the painter about his landscapes. This indeed appears as the antithesis of those works that treat the inside, the people and the objects in the studio. The artistic transfer from the exterior to the interior succeeds in the works that convert the experience of the outdoors, the glance out over a landscape, the atmosphere of vast sight into the work on the painting.
At an early age, the painter gave shape to Israel’s barren desert landscapes. He did not portray them but looked and experienced, subsequently given shape to it inside the studio art space. The artist’s landscape painting underwent a lasting change in his work in the Catalonian landscape. From a high vantage point, we look in these paintings over a terrain that extends far off to the sides and features only the occasional colour interruption. Details are denied here, disappearing in the haze of distance. The low horizon line divides heaven and earth, although atmospheric transitions in hazy colours allow for approximate suggestions of distances and details. We lose the topographical overview of the terrain on account of our raised vantage point, but look instead at a lofty sky while the earth before us dissolves in colours. And never can anyone ever be seen in these landscapes.
The smaller horizontal-format landscapes are large paintings. The draw us into the vastness that the artist created in them. It is seemingly founded on a notion of nature that is related to Romanticism’s transcendental experiences, to a metaphysical conception of the seen and the shaped. In this context, the artist himself referenced the painting of Balthus, whom he admired “… for what he does beyond painting, for what the work radiates, for his way of creating atmosphere, of letting imagination be the guide.”
Abstraction, however, is not the painter’s intention, but rather a subjective painterly treatment of the vast landscape’s atmospherics. The association of the landscapes with specific regions by means of the titles are too firm allow for free abstractions of the experienced, and were furthermore – like “Le paysage vert” or “La vallée de Martorell” – each painted over a long period of time.
“It is very important to create, not to give up”. Spoken in 2003 before leaving Jerusalem, this artist’s creed clearly indicates that the true task of the painter is the creation of the world and of objects, and not simply their visual reproduction.