Yugoslavian artist Maty Grunberg has called Israel home since 1948. A graduate of the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, he is an artist who knows no bounds. Maty has created etchings, sundials, sculptures and paintings, in addition to reinterpreting some of Judaism’s most beloved books.
You made aliyah in 1948, the year that Israel was established. What was that like?
Maty’s most recent exhibition, “One Hagaddah, Two Scolls, Three Life Cycles,” is on display now at the Beit Ariela Gallery in Tel Aviv. The exhibition showcases his reinterpretations of the books of Esther and Ruth, as well as the Passover Hagaddah.
What remained of the Jews of Yugoslavia after the Holocaust was 6,000 people. 5,000 of them emigrated to Israel in two large ships. I was five years old at the time. Our ship got stuck somewhere in the Mediterranean, so instead of three days, it took much longer. By the time we finally reached Israel, we pulled into the port in Haifa, and all the people got off the ship and were kissing the ground. I never saw anything like it.
Then somebody came in rubber clothes and sprayed DDT because they thought we were carrying diseases.
So everybody looked white with the powder. Afterwards, we started traveling and I remember there was a strong scent of oranges all along the road. I looked back and someone was crying. So I always connected the scent of oranges with crying. That’s my memory of arriving to Israel in 1948.
What inspires you as an artist?
That’s a mega question! The bottom line is an obsession with images. I came into art very late. When I was nine, I went to visit some friends of my parents and I saw a book of Van Gogh. I had never seen anything like it. At that time in Israel, the country was in a stage of building, and we didn’t have many art stores or libraries yet. Seeing that book, I thought, wow. I asked the people if I could borrow the book to copy all the pictures.
They said that I could come after school because the book was too valuable to be taken out of the house. So that’s what I did for one year.
I noticed how with Van Gogh, everything is built out of fragments. Little pieces, building the whole picture.
For a child, that’s a great insight and inspiration. It was really a self-discovery; everything is fragmented. After that, my school got an art teacher for the first time. He suggested to the headmaster to create some frescos on the walls of the new building. So they did a school-wide competition. I submitted seven designs, looking to the sea of Bat Yam, looking toward Jaffa, and to my surprise I won all of the seven walls. So I spent that year with my art teacher on the scaffolding. This was the last year of primary school. He taught me everything. He showed me what happened when you mix two colors, hot and cold colors, how to find my perspective. For me, this was a magical year.
When I moved to high school, they wanted to put me back in primary school because I had missed a whole year. Luckily, the headmaster was crazy about theater.
He invited a woman from the national theater to direct a play by Moliere at our school. I knew if I didn’t get into the play, they were going to throw me back to primary school. I got the lead role. The director was very impressed with my acting, but I was much more interested in the set design. I decided from then on that this was my destiny; to become a visual artist.
Can you talk about your current exhibit, ‘One Haggadah, Two Scrolls, Three Life-Cycles?’
I lived many years abroad in London and New York, and as an artist, I felt there was a part of me that was very connected to Israel and to my Jewish heritage. I’m not a religious person, but I’m a great believer. I believe there is a great order in this world that we don’t understand. It’s funny because if I was living in Israel, I would never create a Haggadah or the two scrolls because it’s too close here. But living abroad, I had the distance and I felt that I could do it. My first project was the scroll of Esther.
Working at the time in London was one of our greatest Israeli poets, Natan Zach. We had a lot of debate and questioning about how to do the scroll. At that time, in England in the ‘70s, there was a lot of strife, and I thought that my scroll needed to represent that with vivid color and energy. Then I saw a book by Rorschach with the ink-blot tests, and I was very inspired by the idea of people reading their own vision into what they saw. After I completed this scroll, I got a one-man show in the Jewish Museum of New York in 1978. The scroll ended up creating a lot of controversy because half of the public didn’t like the abstract nature, while the other half liked it very much. Many people approached me with projects after that, so it was a success in that way.
The second scroll, my take on the Book of Ruth, came about because of my awe of how women can change history.
The ability and vision of a woman. I was fascinated with that idea, and it led me to create Megillat Ruth in 1996. As men, we think that we are changing history, but it’s bulls@#t. Both of the scrolls represent the power of the woman, but the styles are very different.
What is your connection to the famous film director, Federico Fellini?
I never worked with him, but my first exhibition as a student was to create 15 etchings on the subject of theater of the absurd. I was called by the secretary of the school, and she said that an Italian gentleman wanted to speak to me. I met this man, who was very well dressed, asking me about this exhibition. I explained to him that I was from Israel and that I had worked in theater. He asked me what the cost was for one of the etchings, and at the time, I was a poor student, so I said 15 pounds. He bought the lot. He explained it was not for him; it was for Maestro Fellini, and that he was in the middle of making the film Satyricon.
Many years later, I was watching a documentary on Fellini, and he was being filmed sitting at this desk. Behind his desk on the wall were three of my etchings! I said to myself, not bad.
To learn more about Maty and his extensive work, visit www.matygrunberg.com.