The stereotypical artist is tortured, intimidating, and larger than life. But
David Sharir, the subject of a new documentary by Barak Stav, David Sharir: A
Retrospective, that is showing Sunday at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival at
the Jerusalem Cinematheque, is soft-spoken, candid and happy to share stories
about his work as a painter and theater set designer.
While many artists
claim to disdain publicity, Sharir is openly happy that Stav, a first-time
director, chose to make a film about him, and that it is being shown at the film
festival, which runs until December 23.
A show of Sharir’s paintings and
set design models is currently on display at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, and it
is open to the public free of charge. It’s a wonderful opportunity to see some
of the work on display in the film. Although he started out as a painter, and
studied art in Rome, he moved back to Israel in the 1960s and began to work in
theater set design as well. He enjoys moving back and forth between the two
“The combination of design and my imagination is what
inspires me,” he says.
Sharir admits his work is hard to categorize,
which is why it makes sense for him to be the subject of a
“There are elements of fantasy and the fantastic.
Hebrew, the term is ‘imaginative art,’” he says.
“I was always influenced
by theater. When I was growing up in Tel Aviv, there wasn’t much art to see.
There was a small collection at the Tel Aviv Museum. But my parents always took
me to the theater with them. It just wasn’t done then to leave a child with a
babysitter. I used to sit on my father’s knees and fall asleep long before the
end, but I always watched some of it. So I’ve always been influenced by
Sharir describes his professional life as “a schizophrenic
world. When I’m painting, I work in isolation.
But designing sets in the
theater is like playing ping-pong against 50 people. And it’s lots of fun. There
are no laws in the process, and there is a lot of egoism in theater. The best
part is pre-production.”
Sharir has designed sets for Israel’s most
prominent theater and opera companies, including Habima and the Cameri. Among
his best known sets are those for Peer Gynt, an impressive circular design that
was made out of wood, “like rings of a tree”: Yentl, in which “we started with
the shtetl and then got rid of the walls,” leaving a dazzling construction of
ladders and staircases; Dido and Aeneas, where a shimmering fabric that was part
of the set became a huppah, or marriage canopy, at the end; and Shira, where a
stone wall is moved to create various scenes, and was inspired by what he saw on
a walk between the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Rehavia and Talbiyeh.
set design models are art in themselves, but unfortunately “they usually get
thrown out at the end of the production.” The ones he has saved include an
arresting design for a production of The Dybbuk, which was cancelled at the last
Sharir’s sets received international acclaim and he was invited
by Sarah Caldwell to work with her at the Boston Opera. The sets he designed
there included those for The Flying Dutchman and Hansel and Gretel. His Hansel
and Gretel sets in particular drew praise.
Sharir was drawn to the Hansel
and Gretel story because as a child, he was fascinated by witches and made witch
costumes for Purim. But he wasn’t familiar with the illustrations that usually
accompany this story.
“I didn’t know forests, except the Keren Ha Kayemet
forest. I didn’t know the Schvartzwald [the Black Forest],” says Sharir, who
grew up in Tel Aviv and for many years lived in Jaffa. “So I made my own forest.
I didn’t know what a witch’s cottage is supposed to look like. I didn’t even
know what gingerbread was. Sarah Caldwell sent me a gift basket with
But his ignorance of the traditional images helped him
create his own startling ones.
Sharir always drew as a child, and studied
piano until he realized he would never be a musician.
“My parents, who
were Russian Socialists, weren’t happy that I wanted to be an artist. They
thought I would have a hard life, and they wanted me to have a profession,” he
says. He studied architecture, but quickly realized that it wasn’t right for
him. “I did it partly to please them,” he says.
Although he admits he is
not at the center of the Israeli art scene today (“Does it bother me? Yes, it
bothers me”), he is not fond of much of the art being created today, which he
finds superficial and driven by trends and fashion.
“Art is the
reflection of the artist’s inner world.
And if he doesn’t have an inner
world, then he shouldn’t be an artist,” says Sharir.
“I try to change
chaos into order. Today most art is chaos, and it doesn’t speak to me.”