Flamingoes, dogs, doctors and Picasso: Israeli artist paints his inner voices

Despite an ongoing mental health battle, Israeli artist Gil Levy produced an impressive body of work. Since his death in 2016, his sister, Orna Levy, has continued to curate and promote his art so it can be seen by the widest audience possible. She believes her brother was able to vividly express how it feels to experience psychosis and hear internal voices and hopes others living in similar circumstances can relate.

“He experienced the world in a different way.”

Colourful and optimistic, but also tinged with a kind of sadness, his works appear eager to connect. Childlike in ways, and dazzling, they seem to offer up a promise of happiness and spontaneity, but as with most successful art, there’s an ambivalence there. The warm Mediterranean palette sometimes tips over into something more lurid, jarring — even disquieting.

In her own way, his sister, Orna, attempts to unravel the mystery — to explain the flamingoes and priest-like figures , the concentric circles and other hermetic signs and symbols— and help understand the man behind the art, starting with his childhood.

“Gil was showing a lot of symptoms already when he was 8 years old,” says Orna. “He had problems, he couldn’t fit in, he was sensitive and intelligent. He was different. He experienced the world in a different way.”

Gil Levy

Both Gil and Orna spent the first few years of their lives in a Kibbutz, the collective communities in Israel that aspired to the utopian ideal of combining socialism and Zionism. They were not raised directly by their parents, but by the wider community within a system of collective children’s housing. Orna says she is happy to have experienced the Kibbutz, but says her brother was “miserable” and missed the company of his parents.

However, moving back into the family home in Ashkelon was not the answer to his problems. He was bullied at school for being different and became emotionally disconnected from family and friends. The situation continued to deteriorate and Gil started to self-harm and even tried to take his own life.

“Nobody knew anything about mental health in Israel 50 years ago.”

She says the family felt like they had been abandoned as “nobody knew anything about mental health in Israel 50 years ago.” Gil had to develop his own coping strategy, which included taking refuge in art and music.

Self-expression became central to Gil’s life. He became obsessive about the music of German classical composer Johann Sebastian Bach, which inspired him to take up the piano and buried himself in his art. “My brother did not live alone as there were a lot of books, music and poems around the house, says Orna. “His life was full of other artists and it was a dialogue with him.” Gil found inspiration in the abstraction of Pablo Picasso, Pierre Bonnard’s bright, impressionistic art, and most significantly, the subtle and self-effacing style of Paul Klee. He also related to Vincent Van Gogh’s life story and paid homage to him in his painting of a bedroom interior and a landscape with a man in a hat flying a kite.

My Room (left) and Alone (right)

Gil produced dozens of self-portraits as well as a series of works depicting the doctors who treated him for his mental health. Orna speaks of how Gil would take out his sketch pad during consultations and use doctors as models.

Doctor series

For decades, Orna lived in close proximity with Gil in Jerusalem, taking care of him and sharing his artistic journey. Jerusalem was the place he called home, although Orna says he did not feel overly attached. His relationship, she says, was ambiguous; it was a place of both pain and comfort.

In our telephone conversation, it is clear that she is still grieving for her brother. She talks about him with a tenderness about the “kindness in his eyes” and his drive to communicate through art.

“Only when he painted or played music was it loud enough to silence the voices.”

She says that in his later years, Gil became increasingly remote as his health deteriorated. “The older he became, she says, the conversation with the voices took a very large place in his life. “Only when he painted or played music was it loud enough to silence the voices.” Whilst the voices were “comforting” to begin with, as the years passed they became “harsh and cruel.” As he became physically sick with a stomach condition, he also had a crisis in his own faith, feeling as if he had been abandoned by God. The voices, she says, often came in the form of animals, such as the dog-like figure in the painting ‘Us’.

‘Doctor’ (left) and ‘Us’

Orna feels that Gil would have benefited from a greater emphasis on psychological support and wishes he had experienced “more talking and less chemistry”. She says she regrets that he spent most of his life feeling alienated from the rest of society. “He fought all his life, she says, to be a subject and not an object. Everywhere he went, he said ‘I am Gil, I am here, treat me as a person.’”

In 2001, Gil took part in an exhibition at the UN in New York and momentum and interest has continued to grow around his work. Orna says he always worked at a frenetic pace, as if against the clock.

Despite his premature death last year, his vivid and intense works continue to glow, lit up by his enthusiasm and love of art. Orna says she never gave up on her brother and will continue to promote his work and campaign for the more humane treatment of people with mental ill health.

At EUFAMI, we are honoured to be providing a home for the artwork of this talented, complex and fascinating artist.

Interview carried out by EUFAMI Events and Fundraising intern, Paulina Gono and Communications Officer Paul Nolan