Like a bird on a wire…

Meet Australian-born Audrey Bergner, whose dark paintings of bleeding and dying birds express the horrors and human tragedy of the Second Intifada.

October 25, 2007 10:41
audrey bergner 88 224

audrey bergner 88 224. (photo credit: )


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Visit an artist's exhibition of paintings in which the whole collection of work is entitled "Birds," and what would you expect to see? Some of us might expect to see paintings of snow white doves flying upwards with yearning, outstretched wings against a background of a brilliant blue sky dotted with one or two fluffy white clouds - suggesting, perhaps, the soaring human spirit. Others might anticipate a whimsical array of toucans with rainbow-colored bills, serenely perched on branches with huge banana leaves in some sort of Gauguin-like tropical paradise. Visit almost any gallery offering portraits of birds and you would be forgiven if you entered the place humming the song "Volare." Visit one gallery on Tel Aviv's Rehov Ben Yehuda, however, and what you will see is likely to fall quite outside your range of expectations: birds bleeding and birds dying; birds stalking, plunging and attacking; dark paintings dominated by angry splashes of blood-colored red along with broad, melancholy strokes of pitch-dark black. Among the titles of the paintings are "Bird of Prey," "Vulture," "Raptor," "Mosquito Bird" and "Bird with Three Legs." One painting, incongruously entitled "Sightless Bird," portrays a bird that is broken and bleeding, spending perhaps its final moment of life to take one last, miserable look at the world though a failing yellow eye. "Thought-provoking" is way too mild an expression to describe these paintings; words like "disturbing," or "frightening" come much closer to the mark. Welcome to the oeuvre of Audrey Bergner, who turns out to be the visit's next big surprise. Rather than the angry young woman in a black dress, short spiky hair and "Goth" style make-up that might likely have painted these somber pictures, Bergner is a soft-spoken, smiling, grandmotherly-looking lady with white hair tied back in a bun. Born 80 years ago in Australia and raised in Melbourne, Bergner lived in Paris and Canada before settling in Israel with her husband Yosl in 1950. The young couple lived first in Safed, where she and Yosl - also an artist - were among the earliest members of the artist colony that was forming in a neighborhood of ruined houses abandoned by Arabs in 1948. They were able to purchase a ruined house from the government for six pounds, which they renovated and lived in for seven years before moving to Tel Aviv, where they have lived and worked ever since. The Bergners have one daughter and four grandchildren, all here in Israel. Her first exhibition of paintings, in Australia, was in 1949; she has exhibited here in Israel, in galleries and museums, since 1952. In addition to painting, she has illustrated books and designed sets and costumes for both the Habimah and Cameri theaters. Bergner is also a prolific writer of short stories. A volume of these, entitled Tel Aviv Stories, was recently published in Hebrew. How long have you been an artist? "When I was six years old, my mother took a drawing I had done and showed it to the kindergarten teacher. I suppose that was the start. I always wanted to be a painter, but my parents realized after a while that painting isn't something you can earn a very good living at. So they tried to talk me into becoming an architect, and I became interested in architecture. But it soon dawned on me that to be an architect I needed to know a certain amount of mathematics, and I was absolutely no good at mathematics. Hopeless! So, I went to an art school." What brought you to Israel in 1950? Were you a Zionist? "No, not at all. My husband brought me here to Israel, but he wasn't a Zionist either. He came from a Yiddish environment in Poland - his father was a Yiddish poet. He simply wanted to live in a Jewish country as a Jew, but this had nothing at all to do with political Zionism. And Safed was so beautiful. I think that's what convinced me to stay." How would you describe the paintings in this exhibition? "Threatening, perhaps?" Threatening, disturbing - some would say frightening. What's bothering you? "How many years have you lived in Israel? I painted these pictures around 2003, in the midst of the Second Intifada. Things were not good then, and they are not good now. And if you live in Israel, you're very close to all this. In Australia I grew up with absolutely no political consciousness at all. Here, everyone is involved. I don't read the newspapers but I know what's going on, and I feel for things that are happening. I hadn't painted for a while - I was writing short stories. But then I thought that I ought to do something, but I didn't at all know how to express my feelings for what was going on. I didn't know how to paint a reaction to the things that were going on around me. So I started painting, without thinking of a subject, just with the brushes and the paints - just to, more or less, let the paint do what it wanted. And it came out as you see, in a way abstract, but also with birds. And the birds were attacking, being attacked, striding around, rising or plummeting to earth. A lot of red and black, very little blue." Are the birds in these paintings supposed to represent Jews, Arabs, both, or neither? "What about 'people?' [Laughs.] But they are birds. They don't always look like birds. You don't always see them; some of them are hiding. But 'Birds' is the name I can give to the whole series of paintings without it being wrong. 'Birds' is the name that fits everything here." Is your vision of things as dark now as they were when you painted these pictures? "I think so. I don't think that things have got better. I'm very pessimistic. And there's another thing - the fact that things tend to look darker as you get older." Have you ever taught? "No! I simply have too great a fear of standing up in front of a group of students who I'm sure know more than I do and trying to tell them something about art. I just don't feel confident enough to tell someone else what they should be doing with the paint and brushes. What would you tell a young person who approached you for advice about a career in art? "I'd tell them to go ahead and do it, to paint as much as possible. Perhaps I'd tell them to learn how to draw. That's important, I suppose. I'm always sorry I didn't study drawing more than I did. But the most important thing is go your own way. Smear bits of paint on a canvas, or on a piece of paper. You learn by doing. Try!" Audrey Bergner's exhibition, "Birds," is riveting, compelling and should definitely be seen. The paintings will be on display until November 9 at the Bernard Gallery, 170 Rehov Ben Yehuda, Tel Aviv. Contact exhibit curator Maya Moor, telephone 03-527-0547, or e-mail for details.

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