When we think of some artists, we can’t help but think of the themes they return to throughout their careers. Claude Monet created more than 250 oil paintings of the water lilies in his home garden. Paul Gaugin painted scores of Polynesian women. Degas had his ballerinas; Rembrandt painted himself.
For Israeli sculptor and painter Menashe Kadishman, the recurring theme was sheep. Big, beautiful, colorful sheep. Sheep that made him famous.
Born in Tel Aviv in 1932, Kadishman began his art career early, studying with Israeli sculptor Moshe Sternschuss at the Avni Institute of Art and Design in 1947.
In the early 1950s, he worked for several years as a shepherd on a kibbutz on the northern border with Lebanon and Syria. His time spent among the herds had a lasting impact on him, and guided his artistic vision many years later.
His featured piece at the 1978 Venice Biennale was a flock of painted sheep that he presented as living art. But it wasn’t until 1995 that Kadishman began painting the heads of sheep, typically with long, drooping ears and highly emotive eyes. Kadishman’s sheep were sometimes white, but just as often were blue, red, yellow, or combinations of colors.
Kadishman’s woolly subjects launched him to national and international fame, with his work appearing everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to London’s renowned Tate Gallery and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington D.C.
A Son of Israel
Although he was widely adored in the Tel Aviv art world, late in life in an interview with The Forward, Kadishman reflected that perhaps living in Israel limited the scope of his fame: “My mistake, if you can call it that, was to come back to Israel. It was [American sculptor] George Segal who told me if I had stayed in New York, I could have become one of the great American artists.”
But then he seemed to change his tune, adding, “But I really have nothing to kvetch about. When I lived in Chelsea [in the 1980s], I would walk down 23rd Street and maybe get a nod or two. But here in Israel, when I stroll down Dizengoff Street, I’m treated just like an Old Master.”
Israel has rewarded him for staying. Many of his large sculptures can be found throughout the country: at the University of Tel Aviv, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Israel Museum, and Rehovot’s acclaimed Weizmann Institute of Science.
In gift stores and galleries, tourists from around the world take home Kadishman’s colorful sheep on everything from wall-sized prints to mugs and mousepads.
Kadishman died in 2015, a decade after being granted the Israel Prize, the highest cultural honor the state bestows upon its citizens.