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Realistic portraits of masculinity win major art prize for lawyer-turned-artist

  • August 06, 2020

Yisrael Dror Hemed, winner of the Haim Shiff Prize for Figurative Realist Art for 2020, didn’t set out to become an artist. In fact, he first studied law.

“It took me a while to understand that this is something I want to dedicate my whole life to, to really dedicate my days and nights to it,” said Hemed, whose prize consists of a $10,000 grant to the artist, and a solo exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, accompanied by a catalog. “I gradually understood that it’s about commitment, and making the decision that no matter what, this is the important thing.”

The prize was created in 2008 by Dov Shiff, son of Haim Shiff, a hotelier and noted collector of Israeli art who supported many young and unknown artists. Hemed was one of more than 80 artists competing for the award.

His works are by and large — although not exclusively — classically rooted, realistic paintings of men, in various stages of life and situations.

“This is what engages me,” said Hemed. “Manhood and the myriad possibilities of masculinity, because I inspect myself and I also look at others and I try to show in my work that many possibilities are available.”

Hemed is gay, and while men and masculinity are a personal, intimate subject for him, many of the men portrayed in his works are not people he knows.

They’re often strangers he passes on the street, reflecting Hemed’s own day-to-day life.

“They’re passersby and I ask them to pose for a little while because I’m dependent on the lighting and the background that exists there,” said Hemed, who captures the model and the moment on camera, before heading back to his studio to paint it later on. “I can’t test their patience too much.”

Those are the images that viewers see in Hemed’s portraits: two doctors sitting on a curb (one with a mask, but the painting is from 2017); a group of young guys at a museum, stuck to their phones; a father holding his daughter.

“I try to paint everything I see, whatever grabs my eye,” he said. “I’m excited in front of many things I see in human nature and while I know it’s already been painted, with subjects like that, it’s not exactly what I would have done or said or described.”

There’s also the vulnerability that is inherent in his work, particularly with regard to social issues such as the MeToo movement against sexual harassment and the more recent Black Lives Matter protests.

“Those issues are in the back of my mind at all times,” said Hemed., adding that he pushes for liberalism and acceptance from his subjects.

It’s been more difficult to find subjects of late due to the coronavirus. Hemed doesn’t want to capture images of people wearing masks because it creates a portrait that lacks what attracts him most, which is people’s expressions.

“I take myself as the model because I’m the only one who is available, or friends, but not very often,” he said. “I have to do what many other painters have done before.”

Hemed had no formal art training, apart from three years of intensive painting studies with artist Maya Cohen Levy that he embarked on 13 years ago. Before that, he was a practicing lawyer with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in law from Tel Aviv University.

Drawing was always a part of his life, “my parents put paper and pencil in my hand,” said Hemed.

He began working with oils on his own when he was 13, and mostly drew objects, before recruiting friends or neighbors to pose for him.

Hemed practiced law for a while, and when he began learning with Cohen Levy, he discovered that at least four great painters — Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Paul Cezanne and Gustave Caillebotte — all studied law before dedicating themselves solely to art.

“It was a real comfort for me to find out about this pattern between two totally different things that have nothing in common,” said Hemed. “I think it’s about personality, how thoroughly I go into what I do, to deepen my knowledge. Those are characteristics that are important in any field you take on.”

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