Portrait of the Artist as an Old Man

Yosl Bergner is adamant. “I am not contemporary,” he says, “not acshavi, as they say in Hebrew.” What he means is that his sort of work is out of fashion among the cognoscenti, that his paintings languish in the storerooms of museums rather than hang upon their walls. But in another sense he is as contemporary as today’s Ha’aretz. From the day he first put pencil to paper, his work has been in constant dialogue with history—let us not beat around the burning bush — with Jewish history. His first known work — created when he was aged six or thereabouts — depicts a train crash. Plenty of children draw trains, but not many toss a dismembered corpse beneath its wheels. Beside the dead man stands his wife and their child. Her thoughts are spelt out in Yiddish: “What will I do now?” Regarding the scene from above is a clown: not laughing, but weeping. Is it God? No, it is Yosl. Perhaps not a self-portrait exactly, but a self-representation, as if Yosl had already chosen his role in life: a witness to history. Indeed, the whole of Yosl’s career in microcosm may be seen in this childhood drawing: the catastrophe, the confusion, the compassion, and the delicate balance between tragedy and comedy.

He was born in Vienna in 1920, but educated in Poland. His father was Melech Ravitch, poet, traveller, and, until 1934, Executive Secretary of the Fareynfun Yidishe Literatn un Zhurnalistn in Varshe. He was a navigator in a world that was as chaotic as in the days of creation, where all was in flux: politics, culture, the very fulcrum of the universe. It was to Ravitch that Isaac Bashevis Singer turned when he left the provinces for the capital. There he lodged with Melech and his family, becoming a vegetarian (in imitation of his host), and a seducer manqué. According to Yosl, Singer even tried to seduce his mother.

Fanya Bergner was a chantress, but devoted her energies to raising Yosl and his older sister, Ruth. I do not know about Ruth, but Yosl must have been a handful. Early on he began to suspect that the Ukrainian woman who helped his grandparents around the house was harbouring a secret. Lifting her skirt one day he discovered what it was: no knickers. What he saw put him in mind of a halved apple. As with Adam, it was knowledge hard earned. “My grandfather smacked me,” he remembers, “and my grandmother did not save me. But I did not cry, because it was worth it.” As much as his signature, the halved apple has become Yosl’s trademark.

Maybe it was this escapade that drew Yosl to Crime and Punishment. In any event, the precocious sinner read it, aged eight, and other Russians ensued. Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were the household gods, its Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Ravitch, moreover, had been among the first to recognise Kafka’s genius, translating him into Yiddish as early as 1924, and introducing it with the following: “Kafka’s writing is like a bell in the night, whose reverberations will never cease.” Literature remains a vital source of sustenance for Yosl — and a major inspiration — but he elected to remain a reader, never a writer. He needed to map out territory of his own, beyond his father’s shadow.

Ravitch meanwhile, sensing that the scales were tipping the wrong way, began to scout the world for a place of refuge. He failed to find an alternative Zion for his people, but did find a sanctuary for his own family in Melbourne. Setting his own course, Yosl enrolled at the National Gallery art school. By the time he left Australia in 1948, he was acknowledged as one of its most innovative artists. Alone among his peers he saw the Aborigines as more than figures in a landscape, recognising in their experience a mirror of the suffering endured by his co-religionists in Europe. After two peripatetic years he settled in Israel, not because he was a Zionist, but because he felt at home among Jews.

I first heard the name Yosl Bergner in the mid-1970s. It was spoken by an Israeli friend. Responding to a story of mine, in which a family of vampires rounds offa banquet with a plate of butterflies, she said: “There’s something you must see.” That something was a canvas called “The Butterfly Eaters”. My diners were decadent aesthetes, sublimely indifferent to the suffering of others; Yosl’s were auto-devourers of their own dreams, Zionists who could not see beyond the ends of their noses. But the connection was undeniable. I met Yosl for the first time in 1978, and we have seen each other at least once a year ever since. We are like yin and yang. I am Harpo to his Groucho; a world-class listener paired with a raconteur of genius.

In July 2010, when he was three months shy of his 90th birthday, Yosl took a tumble. I’ll describe the fall, but first you have to know the topography. Back in 1957 or thereabouts, a large win on the football pools enabled him to purchase a house on Tel Aviv’s Rehov Bilu. He still lives there with his wife. Audrey—also a painter—has a studio upstairs; Yosl’s is adjacent, with a separate entrance.

The accident began with a tiff over a bottle, which Yosl insisted upon carrying from house to studio, notwithstanding Audrey’s misgivings. She was right, of course. Yosl — already feeling unsteady — tripped and tumbled. Two years after the event he points to the birch outside his house. “See,” he says, “the tree broke in sympathy, but not the bottle. That I saved.”

Unable to rise he called for Audrey, but she was busy in the kitchen, and couldn’t hear his cries. Luckily the neighbours could. The two men — a couple of associates of the Tmuna Theatre — emerged, assessed the situation, and improvised a pillow for Yosl’s head, as Jacob had done at Beth-el. Yosl caught the eye of one of the men, and saw his predicament reflected there. Whatever he saw made him laugh. He was still laughing when a lady walking a lap dog appeared, like an apparition from a Chekhov story. The black dog sniffed Yosl, while its owner—diagnosing a fracture — helped Audrey summon an ambulance.

In the hospital Yosl ceased to be Yosl. The authorities insisted upon calling him by the name on his identity card: Vladimir. The younger nurses — nearly all Russian emigres — looked upon him as a deluded son of the revolution, as outdated as communism. “I was not properly asleep during the operation,” he told me when I visited him at Ichilov (I happened to be in Israel, teaching creative writing at Bar flan’s outpost in Yemin Moshe), “and I heard the doctors making jokes in Russian as they were banging into my bones.” It was not the laughter that unsettled Yosl, but the fact that he was not its cause. He was present as a body, but absent as a person; the dish-of- the-day, but never the centre of attraction. It was a vision of death, of the world going on its merry way without him.

As soon as he was able he asked Audrey to bring some Sotheby’s catalogues from the house, in which several of his paintings were illustrated with eye-popping estimates. Armed with these, he would be able to both reassure himself and show off to the nurses. Even so recovery was slow. On my next visit Yosl’s hands were so white I thought he must be wearing surgical gloves. He was tortured by the creeping passage of time, and fearful of the silence his unwelcome meditations were all too willing to fill. Normally, Yosl has three lines of defence against silence and its attendant terrors: reading, talking, and painting (alcohol may once have constituted a fourth, but when it began to admit more terrors than it eliminated, it ceased to serve a useful purpose). Of the three, painting is the most potent. It is the keystone of his philosophy: I paint therefore I am. (I knew he was not himself when I visited him in the week before the accident, because he had gone three days without entering his studio.)

In the hospital, Yosl’s roommate was a centenarian. He was cheerful and uncomplaining, except when his son showed up, whereupon he began to groan like a battlefield casualty. At least Yosl was consistent; he moaned to everyone. But on the third day he rose: his wound was healing and his stomach—which had troubled him before the fall — was declared free from sinister content.

He was upgraded to a convalescent unit. It was crowded and the only bed available was among so-called “abnormal Jews”. “Not abnormal like Jews normally are,” says Yosl, “but real old abnormal Jews.” He laughs. “You know what?” he says. “I recognised them instantly. They were just like the Jews in my paintings. But my daughter, Hinda, she nearly fainted when she saw them.” The bed-ridden ones were supine, with black holes instead of mouths. Some reminded him of the graters he so often paints, others of the broken kitchen utensils he humanises. “Graters are like Jews,” he says. “The apples are destroyed but the grater always suffers.” When Yosl began to fill a sketchbook with Goyaesque sketches based upon his fellow convalescents, Audrey breathed a sigh of relief.

By mid-October Yosl was sufficiently recovered to be the guest of honour at a retrospective at the Dan Gallery — Up to Now: Old and New in the Painting of Yosl Bergner — in honour of his 90th birthday. On the Sunday prior to the party I walked around an otherwise empty gallery, with only Yosl and Audrey for company. He paused before a canvas depicting a jeep sprouting birches. It was inspired by something Nissim Aloni, the word-crazed playwright with whom Yosl collaborated for many years, saw during the Six-Day War.

Other sights caused Aloni to take to his bed for two months after the end of hostilities. But this vision was more gentle. He saw an enemy jeep camouflaged with trees — in the middle of a barren desert. Yosl placed the whole scene within a bell jar, as if the men who dreamed-up this scheme breathed entirely different air. The painting encapsulates one of Yosl’s constant themes: the persistent blindness of dreamers.

Another of the paintings relating to Aloni (in effect Yosl’s blood-brother) showed an empty wheelchair. The image dated from 1958, but it was revisited in 1993, when Yosl produced a whole sequence of them, in response to his friend’s incapacity. He sent me photographs of the paintings the following March. “Here are the thirteen paintings about Nissim which I finished on the thirteenth of October [Yosl’s birthday],” he wrote in the covering letter. “But I added three more later on. I numbered them because it’s like a personal diary about a friend’s suffering… I’m not going to exhibit them… because I just can’t sell them.”

Images, no less than themes, persist in Yosl’s 70-year career. Like Ingmar Bergman in another context, Yosl is the impresario of a loyal ensemble, which may be called upon to perform at any moment. In one of the newer paintings, produced for the show, Yosl depicted kitchen utensils — saucepans, graters, grinders — in a tumult of panic, occasioned (one assumes) by the approach of an ill-omened bird. In the right-hand corner, just above the signature, stands an old-fashioned pepper pot, with something resembling a smile. “That’s me,” said Yosl. He reminded me that when he was a child he had no toys, and was compelled to improvise games with what he could find in the kitchen. The painting was called “Witness”. And that is exactly what Yosl has remained throughout Israel’s history, and even before that — through the agency of his idealistic father and uncles (“my meshugge mishpocheh”) — when the land was known as Palestine.

Afterwards the three of us repaired to the Caffe Marco for lunch. It was a big deal, being Yosl’s first visit to a restaurant since the fall. We passed a table at which three artistic types were seated; a white-haired man garbed from head to toe in white, his female companion, and a overweight old man in a wheelchair. Given his black tee-shirt, his tattooed arms, and his mean expression, he could easily have passed for a crippled biker. “I think that’s Tumarkin,” said Yosl, “Tumarkin the sculptor.”

They had previous. After years of friendship Tumarkin suddenly decided to uninhibitedly bad-mouth one of Yosl’s exhibitions. Yosl responded with a letter of thanks. “Critics get offended if you ignore their attacks,” Yosl told me, “and, as you know, I like to be liked.” He laughed. “Now when I just said ‘hello’ I could tell that he couldn’t quite decide how to respond. I could see in his eyes that he was thinking, ‘Are we still enemies?’.”

The table we chose stood beside the pavement, where we were spotted by a poet called Israel Har (author of “Between Old and Aged”, among many other poems). He was as hairy as a werewolf, though a blanched one. His expression was also wolfish. “We found him a wife,” said Yosl, “and they lived together, and had two kids, but then they divorced.” Afterwards he dwelt amid such squalor that Yosl felt compelled to act as dustman. So Har began to hide the rubbish in places Yosl couldn’t see from the windows. He approached the table and pulled out a book of poems by Melech Ravitch, which he had translated from Yiddish into Hebrew. Its jacket was decorated with an ink portrait of the author by his son, who even now courted his father’s approval.

Before the year was out, fire rolled down the slopes of Carmel like lava. Shuffling along Bilu, even before the blaze began, a fire hydrant had sparked Yosl’s imagination. To him it was not some inanimate object, but a bug-eyed creature that seemed to be watching his every move. In fact it seemed to be scrutinising everything, like some sentry posted to act when the infuriated world finally self-combusted. First these little critters populated Yosl’s head, then his canvases. A process of transformation occurred; the artist became the hydrant, bearing witness in yet another guise to humanity’s dangerous follies.

All Yosl’s hydrants wear a uniform of orange and white stripes, but they clearly possess a great variety of personality. In “The Admirers” a hydrant stands proud outside an apartment building observed by four residents; others seem more modest, with their armatures outstretched, as if anticipating an embrace. But the one that best sums up the state of the nation is called ” Putting Out the Fire”. The hydrant is large, but slightly off-centre. Its arms are raised, as if in surrender, and its mouth forms an oval, as though emitting a Munch-like scream. Before it stands a dog with its hind leg raised, behind it the flames rage unchecked. Out of the inflamed sky a raven plummets like a missile. You could see it as a recreation of Yosl’s accident, or a comment on Israel at 64.

In August 2011, Abir Moshe gathered them all for an exhibition at his gallery — the Dan — to be called Through Fire and Water. However, before he could remove them, Yosl almost suffered another martyrdom. Anxious to reach the toilet at the back of his studio before catastrophe overtook him, he stumbled, reached out, dislodged the stack of canvases, and found himself wrestled to the ground by his own creations. There he remained, his pants soiled, like the very epitome of the human condition, sandwiched between ordure and the imagination. Except that Yosl’s imagination was far from abstract, and was beginning to weigh heavily upon him. Fortunately Vicky, the Bergners’ cleaner, was there to take on the role of hydrant. Both artist and show were saved.

I missed the opening, but caught it before it came down. In addition to the fiery hydrants, it included a full-length self-portrait called “Funny Old Man”. In this magnificent painting Yosl is wearing a cap, a paint-smeared blue overall, and is supporting himself with a stick; an ancient Joseph in his coat of many colours. When he stood beside it the pair looked like twins, about to perform a soft-shoe shuffle.

Another year, another show. It is October 2012, more than two years since Yosl’s accident. I am in Yosl’s studio, which is like being in his head, or wherever it is that memory resides. He shows me the sketches he made of the “abnormal Jews” in the convalescent home. He remembered them when he thought his new exhibition — A Story in Installments — was ready, and in a frenzy produced nine new canvases featuring a cast of grotesques in serious dispute. He calls them “The Silent Majority”.

In one, a couple of men practically breathe fire at one another; in another, more figuringes are grappling; in a third, a group seem to be pointing the finger of blame at one of Yosl’s familiar birds of ill-omen; and in the most memorable image of all, a couple of long-nosed gargoyles seem to be screaming at the artist himself. Nor are they isolated in their fury, both being crowned with equally infuriated crows. The violent colours used by Yosl reflect the inner turmoil. These are not portraits of a people in repose.

Having completed them, Yosl was reluctant to review his handiwork; the hostility he had captured frightened him. Maybe they are even antisemitic, he thought. He was not sure that he wanted to exhibit them. His friends, however, persuaded him that the work had humour. It used to be said of the Sabras that they were prickly on the outside, but soft within. These paintings turn that comforting image inside-out. At first glance the canvases appear witty, cartoon-like, but a second glance quickly reveals the grim truth of rot within. Humour is there, but it is black.

Another sequence in the exhibition is called “Peeping Houses.” The houses are white-washed and red-roofed, and stand in a river valley, which sometimes floods. Behind are impenetrable mountains, and above is a threatening sky (which is sometimes filled with unfriendly birds or avenging angels). The only source of enlightenment is a single street-lamp, which appears extinguished. It is not clear what the houses are peeping at, since the landscape is devoid of life.

The writer Aaron Megged is in no doubt; as far as he is concerned the houses are not peeping at all, but bearing witness to the never-ending agony of the land’s existence. Other paintings evoke memories in him both loving and hateful. You see, old friend, he tells Yosl, being in my nineties has turned me into a pessimist.

Is Yosl a pessimist? I think not. But he is a divided man. His instinct is to entertain, to create laughter, but he is neither blind nor deaf, and he lives in Israel. On the subject of Scott Fitzgerald, Cyril Connolly wrote: “His style sings of hope, his message is despair.” This is another phrase that can be turned around to suit Yosl.

Already his studio is filled with new paintings. They show a figure draped in red (not unlike Chagall’s King David) being assailed by birds and other demons. “Old memories attack me,” explains Yosl, “and I fight back by painting them.” It is this combination of the deeply personal and the political that makes Yosl’s oeuvre unique. “I illustrate my thoughts and memories,” he says, “not the facts.”

More than 80 years ago, when he was a visiting his grandmother in Radymno, Yosl and his sister — Ruth — decided to stage an entertainment in the courtyard of the tenement. They had no idea what went on in theatres, but they did know that most had buffets. The performance consisted of the children standing on a table, from where each recited their single line. “Ja jestem diablem,” said Yosl. I am the devil. “Ja jestem aniolem,” said Ruth. I am an angel. Both were saying, “Look at me.” And the world did; for Yosl’s sister also became celebrated, in her case as a dancer. The children took a bow, then they invited the audience to attend the buffet, which in reality was nothing more than a bowl of sweets. Today the buffet is more substantial; and Yosl remains the master of ceremonies, still standing despite all possibilities to fall. The age of miracles has not yet passed.

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  1. Jewish Quarterly says

    Glad you enjoyed it! Perhaps you could write us a letter in response to the piece for publication in the next print issue? Details on the Contact page.

  2. angelika fromme says

    how exciting to read this article, a piece of literature in itself, and how compassionate the insight into Yosl Bergner. a.fromme, Duesseldorf

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