Yosl Bergner dead at 96

Yosl joined the army where he served for four and a half years, after which he resumed his art studies.

January 18, 2017 18:22
2 minute read.
Theater Masks

Theater Masks. (photo credit: INGIMAGE / ASAP)

Artist, theater set and costume designer, book illustrator and Israel Prize laureate Yosl Bergner, perhaps best known for his individual and group portraits in which the subjects are featured with long pale faces, pointed chins and huge dark, soulful eyes that mirror both the sadness and the joy of the Jewish experience, died in Tel Aviv on Wednesday at age 96.

Much of his work for the theater was for plays by Nissim Aloni. He also designed sets and costumes for Yiddish Theater.

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His father, Melech Ravitch, was a famous Yiddish journalist, poet and novelist, and his uncle Hertz Bergner was an internationally renowned Yiddish novelist and playwright who had a close friendship with Isaac Bashevis Singer despite the geographic distance between them.

During World War I, the Bergner family left their Polish township and settled in Vienna where Melech met Yosl’s mother, a singer from Lodz. Yosl was born in Austria.

Antisemitism was rife in Europe, so Yosl’s father went to Australia in 1933, initially to raise funds for Jewish schools in Poland.

While he was there, he became interested in the Kimberley Project, which was similar to the Uganda Proposal, namely that it provided a settlement option for Jews where they could be free of persecution.

Like the Uganda Proposal, it was buried beneath the dust of history.

Melech returned to Warsaw with exotic photographs of Australia which generated great excitement and curiosity in his family and then went back down under. The rest of the Bergner family soon followed.

Yosl had already displayed an aptitude for art in Poland and had studied with Hirsch Altman in Warsaw.

After arriving in Melbourne, in 1937, he enrolled at the National Gallery Art School where the future icons of the Australian art scene were his fellow students and friends.

His studies were disrupted by the outbreak of World War II. Like many young Jewish immigrants from Europe who felt that they owed something to Australia, Yosl joined the army where he served for four-and-a-half years, after which he resumed his art studies.

In 1948, he decided to leave Australia and traveled for two years in Europe and North America. In 1950, he came to Israel, settling initially in Safed where he lived for seven years before moving to Tel Aviv.

Within four years of settling in Israel, he won the Herman Struck Prize. A year later he was awarded the Dizengoff Prize. Over the years, he won several other prizes and was named an honored citizen of Tel Aviv.

His studio was adjacent to his apartment, and he was very disciplined about going there each day to paint, and did so almost to the last day of his life.

In 1987, after an absence of half a century, he went back to Australia for a retrospective exhibition which largely featured scenes of the Warsaw and the Melbourne of his youth.

Inasmuch as he was a great artist, Bergner was also an engaging raconteur and could keep people spellbound for hours.

His funeral will be held Thursday, at 2 p.m., at Kibbutz Einat.

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