The Jardin du Fleuriste in Sèvres, just west of Paris, is part of a promenade currently being built to showcase the works of late Israeli artist Achiam.
The permanent free exhibit of his sculptures will house three works: Mère à l’enfant, Femme assise, and Tendresse further realizing Achiam’s life dream of sharing his work with as many people as possible.
Born in a kibbutz in Galilee in 1916—two years before the British mandate—Achiam spent his adolescence thinking he would become a farmer until art surged into his life. But the realization only occurred when he was in prison due to his anti-British sentiments.
“Being an anti-British communist activist, he was often arrested and during one of those arrests he found a nail on his cell floor,” wrote Achiam’s biographer Anne-Marie Anthony. “He picked up the nail and started carving on his cell wall.”
Upon his release, Achiam started art classes after his brief detentions in prison and practiced carving by working in quarries in the Jerusalem area.
In 1947, he travelled to Paris, hoping to pursue an artistic career.
The French capital was then the home of some of the world’s greatest artists—Picasso, Dali, Brâncuși—whom he befriended.
Achiam carved sculptures directly from a single stone, a technique that is physically demanding. The shape of the stone influenced the way he thought out how the piece would look.
“In his early years, he sculpted out of stones he found,” his widow Odile Shoshany told me when I visited her home in 2012, seven years after he passed away.
He spent his artistic career sculpting some 500 works, with Israel and Judaism always remaining central to his creations.
Biblical figures and stories were among his favoured themes, like his King David, Job, Adam and Eve and the Tower of Babel.
“He only gave those figures core traits, no details, to bring out their universal meaning,” said Adrian Darmon in his book Regarding Jewish Art (Autour de ’art Juif). “The figures represented in many of his sculptures expressed several emotions at once.”
“Achiam didn’t use models and did not draw sketches planning out his sculptures,” writes Darmon. “He used hard material like basalt, granite and sandstone for his monumental pieces and more sensual stones for indoor pieces, like alabaster and serpentine.”
In Israel, his work is displayed among Roman ruins in the coastal town of Binyamina at the Shuni museum’s exhibit, The Achiam Museum of Israeli Sculpture. His work is also in the Tefen museum in Galilee and in Kibbutz Yifat, where his mother lived. The sculptures Job, Joueur de Corne, and Femme Assis live in the Paris Museum of Modern Art, while La Sulamite rests in the Centre Pompidou.
He worked for more than 50 years in France and was awarded the Paris Beaux Arts Grand Prix in 1965.
For years Achiam and his wife, Odile Shoshany, welcomed visitors into their home and large garden in Sèvres, which they had turned into the Achiam sculpture garden.
Their hillside house and garden overlooked the historic Saint-Cloud park, and were filled with dozens of monumental works. While his delicate and smaller sculptures remained in their home. Shoshany would often welcome her guests on the veranda which overlooked the sculptures, talking about her late husband with the visitors coming to see his work.
“This is the garden’s back door, where he received the raw material and which he later used to dispose of what was left once the work was done,” Shoshany said. Even after he died, she never dared to clear out the works he had yet to finish.
Some of Achiam’s work has a tragic dimension showing his opposition to war. He does not shy away from responding to horrifying events like the Holocaust and Hiroshima. But his most cherished theme was the cycle of life, with a special emphasis on maternity as his monumental sculptures depict pregnant women and breastfeeding.
“Achiam believed that sculptures could get what he called ‘a fourth dimension’ when they successfully expressed human feelings. It was essential for him to show not only beauty but also love, joy or sadness,” said Darmon.
“I wish the city could create a space for Achiam’s amazing work,” Shoshany said. For years she worked tirelessly to find ways to preserve and enshrine her late husband’s work.
At the beginning of 2020, Shoshany’s deteriorating health made her leave her beautiful home and consequently find a new one for her husband’s collection.
But the vision his family had for how to preserve his legacy changed this year as it became harder to find a new space to keep the works from the sculpture garden together.
As the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted in May, dozens of Achiam’s sculptures were sold, including in Paris’ renowned Drouot auction house.
It was a difficult moment for Achiam’s relatives and friends, but the garden’s disappearance has generated news that might have comforted Achiam.
“He never really wanted to sell his work but preferred giving it away to towns so that as many people as possible could see it,” she said.
Now multiple works are currently displayed around public spaces west of Paris. His bronze sculpture Guitar player has been placed outside a music school in Sèvres, where children waiting for their lessons run around it. While a basalt Bass musician welcomes visitors at the entrance of the Chaville Atrium theatre and community centre. His bronze breastfeeding N° 3 sculpture is outside Chaville’s city hall.
And with the new promenade in the Jardin du Fleuriste in Sèvres, three more of his works will be permanently displayed for the public to see easily and accessibly.
So even though his French garden is no more, his sculptures will live on in public and private spaces.
The feature image from Odile Shoshany/Wikipedia.
Shirli Sitbon is a journalist for TV channel France 24. She reports from Paris for Haaretz and the Jewish Chronicle.