Life & Culture

Yosl Bergner: Israel's soul searcher is still standing

Yosl Bergner has told the history of his country in his paintings. At 89, he is as creative as ever.


The man on the corner of Bilu and Marmorek breaks off his conversation as I pass and says: “Do you know why this street is called Bilu?” He is wearing a khaki shirt and shorts, has a grey beard, and looks like an anachronism in Tel Aviv.

I shake my head.

“It’s an acronym made from the initial letters of Beit Ya’akov Lekhu Ve-nelkha — Let the house of Jacob go — the war-cry, if I can call it that, of a dozen or so idealists who came to Palestine from Russia in 1882.”

I tell the old-timer I am on my way to visit Yosl Bergner, who has painted many such dreamers, usually with carrion crows about to breakfast upon their illusions. “Ah, Yosl Bergner,” he exclaims, “why didn’t you say?”

Everyone in Tel Aviv knows Yosl Bergner. In 2006 the mayor made him a Freeman of the City. Now he carries a card which allows him to park his car anywhere with impunity. If only he could drive.

“No one has told the history of Israel better than Yosl Bergner,” says the man. “It’s there in his paintings. Did you see his retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art? That was a heshbon hanefesh, an examination of our soul, if ever I saw one.” Of how many artists could that be said? Hogarth? Daumier? Goya?

Some years ago Yosl had a nightmare in which he was an old man of 60. He awoke, reassured himself that it was only a dream, then remembered that he had just turned 70. It is October 13. I am on my way to the house he shares with Audrey — renaissance woman and wife — to celebrate his 89th birthday. I find him in his studio, as usual. He looks like a shopkeeper, in his blue overall. Because I am a writer, Yosl feels an obligation to entertain me with stories. He points to a black-and-white reproduction of an early painting on his desk. It shows a man’s face — feral features topped with a wild thatch. “Did I ever tell you about Billy Boy?” says Yosl. I shake my head.

The anecdote dates from the war years, which (thanks to his father’s foresight) Yosl saw out in Australia. “I found Billy Boy wandering the streets of Melbourne,” he says. “He was an alcoholic, but he had strong features. I persuaded him to pose for me. He slept on my floor. Pissed on it too. But this is not the story. When I painted Billy Boy I was trying to copy a portrait by Van Gogh. It had pride of place in the Melbourne Museum of Art. The story is that it was later proved to be a fake.”

Yosl laughs. He has never been over-confident about the ground on which he stood. It shook violently in Poland, where he grew up before the war, and remains unstable in Israel. To make matters worse, Yosl is a martyr to his feet (what guru of the pedal extremities hasn’t he consulted?). He has two main concerns about his new show, due to open in a couple of days at the prestigious Dan Gallery — will he be able to stand for two hours straight, and will he recognise all those who profess to be old and dear friends.

He does both of course. Afterwards he denies that he had enjoyed himself, insisting that he had merely given an excellent impersonation of someone who had.

The paintings — all recent — which fill both floors of the gallery, make up two separate sequences— Bottles and Angels and Kings. At first glance they seem to have nothing in common. The bottles are empty, drained of all content, but are remarkably expressive, like characters in search of an author. If the bottles were in some Middle Eastern tale then the other series — Angels and Kings — could be looked upon as their former contents (or rather inhabitants) — airy genie-like creatures enjoying new freedoms after years of constraint. These bright canvases — all flashes of reds, and yellows — owe their origins to the productive years of collaboration with Yosl’s great friend, the playwright Nissim Aloni, now in the other world.

It is not by chance that, while preparing for the exhibition, Yosl was visited by a dream in which he poked his head through a window of the Habimah Theatre (currently a building site, not a stone’s throw from Bilu). Since windows are an essential part of Yosl’s iconography, it was also as if he were trying to seek out the meaning in his own oeuvre. No wonder his head got stuck. All the world’s a stage, you could say, and (like it or not) Yosl Bergner is one of its great observers.

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