Show me a story

Set designer David Sharir says that ever since he was a child, he has had a passion for the theater. This comes through in a new documentary being screened about him at the J'lem Jewish Film Festival.

David Sharir 311 (photo credit: Courtesy of Barak Stav)
David Sharir 311
(photo credit: Courtesy of Barak Stav)
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 disciplines.
“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 documentary.
“There are elements of fantasy and the fantastic.
In 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 theater.”
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.
His 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 minute.
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 gingerbread.”
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.”