Zohar feels time is right to revisit his portrait of Diana

Simon Yaffe speaks to an artist who made his name with a royal commission

ARTIST Zohar is used to wandering. As a young boy, he travelled across war-ravaged Europe with his family in a bid to reach the Promised Land of Israel.

So it wasn't too difficult for him to up sticks from his Jerusalem home to London.

And the move proved to be an inspired one, too. For he was commissioned to paint Princess Diana at Kensington Palace.

"She was very sweet and friendly and there was no pretentiousness or snobbery about her," Zohar recalled.

"But I could feel there was something very sad about her and, looking back, I now feel she was lonely and isolated.

"Until this day many people ask me what she was like and I always thought that I could give a better answer in painting than in words."

He was commissioned by the military regiment Royal Hussars in 1990 to paint the Princess, wearing an off-the-shoulder midnight blue gown.

Now Zohar feels the time has come to put the combination of his memories, feelings and thoughts on to canvas to create a much larger portrait of Diana, who died in 1997.

"In quite a short time I saw so many sides of her personality - from glamour to loneliness and isolation," he explained.

"These contradictions fascinated me and evoked a lot of empathy and closeness.

"I feel as if I owe it to her to do a portrait that she would really like and recognise her true self in it.

"I have a vision of the painting and hope my instincts will lead me correctly."

It is all a long way from his birthplace in Kazakhstan for Zohar.

Born Israel Zigbaum towards the end of the Second World War, his father, Chayim, escaped his native Poland during the Holocaust, while his mother, Esther Kapuschvesky, was from Lithuania.

Chayim's first wife and one of their sons were killed in the Holocaust, as were his four sisters.

Her had escaped to the Soviet Union, but after the Nazis invaded Russia, many Jews were evacuated to Kazakhstan.

Zohar, who was born in the city of Aktyubinsk (now Aktobe), said: "They realised that that it would be no good to stay in a communist country."

They ended up in a town near Burghausen, on the German/Austrian border, before heading to Marseille, where they caught a ship to Haifa. The Zigbaums settled in the village of Nesher.

Zohar believes he was born with a God-given talent for art. He recalled: "I started drawing when I was two.

"It was not just normal drawing, either - they were three-dimensional profiles and portraits.

"I didn't just draw hands, I tried to imitate muscles and so on. My observation of nature was very different."

Zohar started studying art professionally at 13 and worked with world-renowned teacher Abraham Yaskil for around three years.

Called up to the Israeli army when he was 18, he was not one for patriotism.

He said: "My father was the dominant figure in my life and he taught me liberal ideals.

"I didn't grow up in a nationalistic home. Being Israeli didn't have to mean being patriotic.

"I served in the intelligence unit between 1962 and 1965 and I didn't have to kill anyone.

"Just because they happened to be on the 'other side', did not mean I wanted to kill them. My father instilled this idea in me."

Many Jews Hebracised their names when they settled in what became Israel .

But Zohar's father was not keen, even though he kept asking them to change it from the more European Zigbaum.

"There was a lot of antagonism by native-born Israelis towards Holocaust survivors," he explained.

"They thought that the European Jews had gone to the gas chambers like lambs to the slaughter.

"It took a long time for Israelis to accept what they went through. I changed my name, but my mother and father kept theirs."

In the mid-1960s, the art world was rapidly changing into what eventually became conceptual art.

Zohar had studied at Jerusalem's Bezalel Art Academy and was accepted as a member of the National Artists' Union at 21.

He recalled: "The academy was a temple. It was the greatest thing to happen and when I was accepted as a student I felt like I had conquered Mount Everest.

"It was the most exciting moment because I was getting to know so many other artists.

"At the time Jerusalem was a very small town and the circle of artists was a group of around 50 people who knew each other well.

"They all socialised together and my teachers became my friends."

But the academy was still considered 'classical' art-wise, and began to change its infrastructure towards a more conceptual version.

"It became a modern art school and I didn't feel very welcome," Zohar added.

So in 1968 he took a course with Viennese artist Ernst Fuchs and became his assistant.

"I stuck to what I believed in and refused to change my artistic vision just because it wasn't considered fashionable," he said.

Zohar has since become a master of classical techniques and has had major exhibitions throughout his career, including highly successful shows in London, Paris, Geneva and The Hague.

"The classical artists in Israel adopted me as one of their own," Zohar explained. "I began to sell paintings and teach privately."

Not too forthcoming about his four marriages, Zohar has five children.

And two of them have become well-known in Israel - Matan is a trance music producer and composer, while Alma is a musician.

Zohar was living in what he describes as a "beautiful house" and was quite content among lots of friends and mixing in bohemian circles in Israel when he decided to move to London in 1986.

"I was strongly involved with the Peace Now movement," Zohar said.

"I believed that for the sake of Israel, it should not be an occupying power.

"It was a disaster and I fought with every capacity to change this situation.

"When Menachem Begin came to power in 1977, the political map moved significantly.

"That is when I began to lose hope, so I just took my chances and moved to London."

A meteoric career blossomed in the English capital and he was invited to paint Henry Catto, the American ambassador to the UK.

Zohar was commissioned to do his first work of Princess Diana after a highly successful exhibition in Mayfair in 1989.

"The gallery owner introduced me to two officers from the Royal Hussars and said they would like me to do a portrait of their commander-in-chief," he recalled.

"I thought it would be an old gentleman with a white moustache, so when I learned it was Princess Diana I almost fainted.

"I spent nearly a day with her at Kensington Palace and when the painting went on display, I had been up all night because my son Matan had just been born.

"She was asking me all about it - there was something so down-to-earth about her.

"Everything you read about her being an amazing and lovely person is true."

As well as Diana, he has done commissions for the Middle Temple in London and for the City Hall in Belfast, as well as a large group portrait of the High Court of Justice, which now hangs at the Middle Temple.

Based in Highgate, north London, Zohar has never practised Judaism.

"I have never been to a synagogue for a service and I was not barmitzvah," he revealed.

"My children were not barmitzvah either.

"Judaism for me is the Yiddish language - I am deeply attached to it and I speak it well.

"I love the culture Jews have created through that language and I realise that there is a culture among Jewish people to achieve as high as possible in every aspect of life."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph