PARIS - Israeli artist Avigdor Arikha, who learned the power of art as a boy during the Holocaust when he sketched scenes from a concentration camp onto salvaged scraps of paper, has died in Paris. He was 81.
Romanian-born Arikha, a painter, draftsman and printmaker, went on to become one of Israel's most important contemporary artists, imbuing his portraits and scenes of daily life - a red umbrella against a wall, an overflowing bookshelf, a jumble of bottles in a cabinet - with enigmatic, disconcerting beauty.
"He had an exceptional gift for capturing something deep in people and expressing their mystery," French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand said.
Arikha died of complications of cancer on Thursday at his home in Paris, where he spent most of his adult life, said Janis Gardner Cecil, sales director for the Marlborough Gallery in New York, which represented him.
The artist, who abandoned abstract art for figurative work in the 1960s, was well-known for portraits of subjects including Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, actress Catherine Deneuve and his close friend, writer Samuel Beckett. He also produced many probing portraits of himself and his wife, poet Anne Atik.
Born in Romania in 1929, Arikha turned to drawing to cope when he was sent to a Ukrainian labor camp at age 12. Seventeen sketches survived the war: One showed a pile of corpses in a wagon and a naked woman's body being tossed into a grave.
The drawings came to the attention of the International Red Cross during a camp inspection. Soon afterward, Arikha was permitted to leave with a group of children already cleared for release, after he took the place and identity of a boy who had died, according to Duncan Thomson's biography, "Arikha." The artist's father died in the Holocaust, and his mother only learned that her children were alive in Palestine after the war.
Newly free, Arikha lived on a kibbutz, studied at the Bezalel School and fought in the war over Israel's creation, during which he was wounded in 1948. Recognizing his talent, supporters in Israel insisted he go to Paris to study and financed him.
Arriving in Paris in 1949, Arikha built on the foundations of his Israeli studies at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. His works are in permanent collections around the world, including the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Arikha is survived by his wife, Anne Atik; two daughters, Alba Smail and Noga Simonetta; and two grandchildren.