Painting by numbers, with a dash of Mr Bean

By Julia Weiner, May 23, 2008

Tal R paints using only seven colours — and sees the Rowan Atkinson character as a good analogy for art.

Tal R certainly set himself strict parameters when preparing work for his current London exhibition in London. Sixteen paintings are on show, all of them the same size (250 x 250cm), and all painted in the same fixed palette of seven colours. 

Tal R was born in Israel in 1967 but has lived most of his life in Denmark. “I was born during the Six-Day War in Tel Aviv,” he says.

Tal R in his studio

“My father was serving in the army when I was born. My mother is Danish, so when I was six months old they chose to return to Denmark. I attended the Jewish school in Copenhagen and every year we travelled back to Israel. Half my family lives there.” 

So does he consider himself Israeli or Danish? “I think I am floating somewhere in between,” he says.

“It was quite complicated when I was young. For example, Tal means a number or a digit in Danish. It is the most ridiculous name a child could have, and so I called myself Klaus, which is a very common name in Denmark. I wanted to be like everyone else. However, as you grow older you grow to appreciate being between cultures.”

What about his name? Why does he call himself Tal R? “I was born Tal Rosenzeig,” he says.

“When you live in Denmark, it is a very difficult name to spell. Even I have problems spelling it out for people. So I decided to shorten it to Tal R. I like it that way.”

Why and how did he decide to use just seven colours? “The project took four years and I wanted to set some parameters for myself while working on it,” he explains.  

“If you ask a question and have 100 possible answers, it becomes complex.  If you only have a few possibilities, you get more precise results. To achieve some kind of freedom, I prefer to have a limited range of choices.” 

The seven colours he used for the paintings are black, white, red, yellow, green, brown and pink. “The six main colours I used feature in a painting by Edward Munch where they make up the pattern on a bedspread in the painting,” he says.

“I thought, why not just use those colours? But Norway [where Munch came from] is such a moral place, and the colours were rather Nordic, and so I added pink as a representative of the body.” 

The shade of pink he chose is not exactly a flesh tone, but more reminiscent of bubblegum.

He agrees. “It is not that naturalistic, so maybe it is a more contemporary image of the body.”

On show alongside the paintings are seven shallow showcases, each one containing several framed paintings and works on paper. Each showcase is painted and named after one of the seven colours he uses, except for white, which has mutated to silver.

Wandering around the gallery, you look down on these “pedestals”, as he terms them, and their contents. It is an unusual way to present his work.

“There is a very banal reason for it,” he says.

“I feel there is a great difference between looking at a painting on a wall and looking at it when it is lying on the ground. Paintings that hang on the wall have monumental status.  When they are on the floor, you feel more in charge — you can move them around, you can move around them, you can show some source material with them.”

The press release for the exhibition lists “the dark history of The Holocaust” as one of the influences on his work, but he rejects that statement. 

“I am not interested in the Holocaust, but I grew up with it. I had no choice. My childhood stories were not about Moses on a mountain, but about Auschwitz. Many family members from my father’s side were Holocaust survivors, so it is part of my life’s baggage.”

The one obvious example of an image connected to the Holocaust is a drawing of Hitler in one of the works.

“All the work that I do comes from private stories, but I want them all to end up objective. The image of Hitler is not properly painted because I could not decide how to paint him and left him undone,” says the artist, not really explaining why he chose to depict the Nazi leader. 

Other paintings may remind viewers of the Holocaust. There are strange towers surrounded in black clouds in one and a long dark road that leads through fields of goggle-eyed beings in another. Despite the colours being inspired by a great Scandinavian artist, Tal R reveals that in Denmark, people do not think his work looks Danish. 

“My work does not belong to either the Nordic or the Israeli-Jewish tradition. For example, Mr Bean is funny without the need for language. Art is like Mr Bean. It can talk to many different cultures with no subtitles needed.” 

He may not work in the Jewish tradition, but there are Stars of David dotted about his work. Are they symbolic or the result of doodling? A bit of both seems to be the answer. 

“If you sit down and draw in the sand, you draw a square, a triangle and sooner or later you are going to draw a Star of David,” he says.

“Of course, those images are probably related to my Jewish background but I would doubtless draw one anyway if I put my foot in the sand.”

Tal R: The Sum is at the Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London NW3 until June 29. Tel: 020 7472 5500

Last updated: 3:02pm, August 28 2014