The 'grande dame' of Jerusalem

Veteran painter and teacher Tova Berlinski has a first exhibition with a former student, as she considers the role of artist and memory and artist and mentor.

Berlinkski 88 224 (photo credit: Antea Gallery)
Berlinkski 88 224
(photo credit: Antea Gallery)
In the 55 years since she first picked up a paintbrush, Tova Berlinski can't stop seeing flowers. She is not painting about nature or beauty. Flowers are what she remembers of her hometown, which would later become a concentration camp, where her parents and four of her five siblings were killed. History and death are entwined in her memory with images of color and growth. She is still struggling to make sense of it. "The flowers are angry," Berlinski explains of her floral period, a small selection of which is now showing with works of former student, Rina Peled, at Jerusalem's Kol Ha-Isha Women's Center. As a young woman in 1938, Berlinski sailed from Poland to Palestine, leaving behind her hometown Oswiecim locked in her memory as a small garden village splashed with colorful flowers and friendly relations between Jewish and Christian and German and Polish neighbors. Unlike most of the local survivors, Berlinski never saw the Auschwitz camp going up a kilometer away from the town or her neighbors being transported there. She never encountered the Nazi guards, and never saw or smelled the acrid smoke spilling across the sky. Leaving Poland before the war not only saved her life, she says, but has largely defined who she is as an artist, captivated by disparate images of beauty and pain. After seven visits to Poland since 1984, what haunts her is that there are no graves for the loved ones she left behind, and nowhere for her to leave memorial flowers. "The colors express my pain; my rage," she says. In the 1990s, Berlinski spent several years painting flowers as memorials and commentary, including her black period of solitary flowers, scratched aggressively in black and gray pencil and chalk on paper, one of which was donated in 2006 to the museum at Auschwitz. The Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Herzliya Museum featured works from this period in solo exhibitions in 1995. Galleries in Poland also showed the works in 2002 and 2006. Unlike the fertile, seductive and optimistic flowers of Georgia O'Keefe, Berlinski's oversized flowers look backward in history and tremble in horror, but without forgoing their corporeal or spiritual aesthetic. It is this attitude - not the flowers themselves - that better describes her and her six-decade art career. After performing in musical theater as an actress and soprano at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater while in her 20s, she studied drawing and painting in 1953 at Bezalel, where she was especially inspired by teacher Shlomo Vitkin. From 1957-59 she and her husband lived in Paris, where she continued to study and paint, influenced by such abstract expressionists as Willem DeKooning and figurative color field painters like Milton Avery. Even in her more abstract works during her early years, Berlinksi's images always alluded or hid figurative references and ideas related to her past. Later, trying to express her grief more directly, she tackled family portraits. A painting of the artist's father shows him looking quiet, while part of his face fades into geometric pattern. The portrait of her middle brother is further abstracted, with the face fading in and out of geometric fields and patterns. Her mother, she says, was the hardest and most emotional to paint. A young and petite, but stylish and independent-looking woman in a dress stares elusively forward, while she fades softly in and out of focus, as if trying to escape a desert mirage. Berlinski frequently sits in her living room armchair, speaking silently to the family portraits adorning her walls. A group family portrait was donated to Yad Vashem. She also paints through the eyes of a veteran Jerusalemite. During the first Palestinian uprising, Berlinski painted a series on stones as she was moved at their sudden transformation from images of local historical reference to weapons. Either in painterly, thick strokes or flat color fields, she has also pictured the landscape and people of the town that has become her second home for more than half a century. She was awarded the Jerusalem Prize for Art in 1963, the same year that she had her first solo exhibition at the Jerusalem Artists House; the Teddy Kollek Citizen of Honor in 1993; and the Ish-Shalom mayoral prize for art in 2000. Her works have also been shown across the country, including in a solo exhibition at the Haifa Museum in 1970. Antea Gallery co-curator Rita Mendes-Flohr calls Berlinski "the grande dame of Jerusalem painting." Mendes-Flohr and co-curator Nomi Tannhauser tracked Berlinski down to participate in the gallery's second exhibition on the subject of mentor-artist relationships because of her reputation as a teacher of artists in Jerusalem since the early 1960s. "She is a good painter [with] her own style; and is very known, loved, and appreciated as a teacher," says Meira Perry-Lehmann, a senior curator at the Israel Museum. "Just two weeks ago I visited an artist in her studio who was talking about her." "It is inevitable," says Berlinski, "that a teacher will influence her students. But the teacher must also know to encourage independence, and when to let go." Rina Peled , who shares the current exhibition, began her Jerusalem art studies with Berlinski in 1974. "When I met her the first time, I was taken by her excitement, her passion," says Peled. "She was so beautiful, so impressive - even her house was impressive; I remember every door was painted a different color. She had a huge impact on me." Berlinski taught Peled how to draw with pencil and pastels and to paint with watercolor, acrylic and oil paints. "She gave me the technical foundations, but also freedom. This is rare. Hirsch [a later teacher] was philosophical and domineering. She wasn't like that. Around 1986 she said to me, 'You don't need to study with me anymore; you can study independently and work on your own," says Peled. Berlinski has remained a close friend and mentor. She would also encourage, such as curating Peled's first public exhibition at the Jerusalem Artists House. "That she believed in me gave me confidence," says Peled. "Today when I am going to show my work, I always turn to her first, to get her blessing." Berlinski also blessed Peled's latest "Sky" series, that hangs with her own flower paintings, saying she could feel the evening dusk when looking at them. "I can feel precisely what a person feels when they are standing on the beach looking up at the sky at the time when the sun goes down," she says. Peled's fascination with the ever-changing light and movement, from the technical and metaphoric point of view, directs her landscapes, that, like some of Berlinski's work, hover somewhere between decorative and moody. "My works are not sad or angry [though]," explains Peled. "Minimalism and monochromatic color are just my forms of expression. The sky is very impressionistic. But more than that, it's mystical, hopeful." Still, for the last 35 years, says Peled, "the way she taught me to use color and composition, and the artists she loved and taught me to love - Cezanne, Picasso, Milton Avery and Ori Reisman - are in my work." Peled, like Berlinski, also paints metaphors about the Holocaust, but from a pure Israeli rather than personal perspective. The golden but muted graphic images, etched as if with barbed wire, developed from the typical experience of a high school student who watched the Eichmann trial on television, she explains: "I'm not from a family of Holocaust survivors; I'm Mizrahi. But from early childhood, the Holocaust was part of the collective atmosphere." Peled, who teaches modern European history and art history at Hebrew University's pre-academic school and at the Alma College in Tel Aviv, went on to get her doctorate in 2002, with a Holocaust-referenced dissertation, "The New Man of the Zionist Revolution: Hashomer Hatza'ir and Its European Roots." After visiting concentration camps in Poland and Czechoslovakia during this time, Peled uses details of her photos for references of composition, light and darkness, in her works. "Even in the camps, I looked for the light," she says. A show of the concentration-camp series, "Far Away from the Sun," is showing now through June 27 at the Yair Gallery in Tel Aviv. Peled, who says her landscapes have been influenced by painters from the traditional, like William Turner, to the more modernist, like Paul Klee, says one of the greatest inspirations she got was from Berlinski, who despite living a life marked by tragedy and loss, continues to be continually nurturing and positive. "In the end, you have to work on your own. She gave me the biggest gift - to trust myself and to be part of the world." Artists Mentor Artists is showing at the Antea Art Space at Kol Ha'Isha's Women's Center through June 17. The gallery entrance is in the parking lot on Rehov Hama'alot at King George Avenue, Jerusalem.