An artist's Mount Nevo

Moshe Gershuni, an aging iconoclast of Israeli art, still seeks to shake things up in Tel Aviv.

Moshe Gershuni painting 521 (photo credit: Courtesy: Givon Art Gallery)
Moshe Gershuni painting 521
(photo credit: Courtesy: Givon Art Gallery)
It’s hard to make sense of Moshe Gershuni’s exhibition at the Givon Gallery in Tel Aviv – the enfant terrible of Israeli art is true to form. A few remarkable paintings hang among rudimentary scribbles and blots – all of the work recent, made after his huge retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum last year.
According to veteran critic and curator Sarah Breitberg-Semel, Gershuni’s works embody the pinnacle of Israeli art. Breitberg- Semel came out of retirement to curate the retrospective last year and is the author of a monumental book about Gershuni that was published with the exhibition.
His current show – a year later – is exhibited in a way that is eccentric, if not plain silly. Scattered around the walls with no apparent logic or aim – except to confuse – some works almost touch the ceiling while others are down to the skirting board.
It is as if a rebellious child has been given free rein.
This artist, so widely admired for his strong expression of feeling, for the way his experiences of religion, politics and sex become the subject matter of his art, and for his rawness and honesty, is now old (75) and in poor health. Yet the desire to shock and smash convention remains his main impetus.
The title of the exhibition makes this clear: “Et Homo Factus Est – The First Anarchistic Exhibition.” The quote “And He became man” comes from the Catholic mass. Used by Gershuni, it conveys a sense of victimhood and accusation found in so much of his work, and the small, two-level gallery is filled with a kind of angry, upsidedown religiosity. But Noemi Givon, his gallerist, suggests that the anarchism in the title relates to the hanging of the work rather than to the paintings themselves.
Itamar Levi, curator of the exhibition, tells The Jerusalem Report the story behind the hanging. Levi, a psychoanalyst and an old friend of Gershuni, curated another of his exhibitions 20 years ago. This time, he says, he selected and hung the work in coordination with the artist – but on the last day Gershuni changed his mind. He told Levi he didn’t want anything that could be termed “elegant.” After an argument,Levi backed off and Gershuni, not strong enough to visit the gallery, gave instructions over the telephone. The show was rehung according to his specifications: a huge job for his devoted gallerists, the Givon sisters, who had to repair the walls at a moment’s notice – but apparently they were respectful enough of Gershuni to comply.
Only one painting hangs in the downstairs gallery, while all the others jostle for space upstairs. It is colorful, vigorous and thickly painted, an abstract landscape entitled “Har Nevo”: Moses was shown the Promised Land from Mount Nevo, and told that he would never enter it. Levi says that Gershuni told him that this would be his last painting – as if he could see, spread out before him, new possibilities for future painting that he would not be able to accomplish. By presenting it alone, Levi explains, Gershuni wanted to give it the power of an altarpiece.A series of lively little black prints hanging at the entrance to the gallery have an unusual provenance. Nurit Givon explains that they were made from biscuits, bitten and spat out by Gershuni, then dipped in ink and printed – an allusion to the Catholic Eucharist or wafer eaten at the mass.
Inverted religiosity seems to have inspired Gershuni from the beginning as an artist.
His work is filled with symbolism, scrawled over with biblical texts, words and opinions.
Ideas are at the heart of his painting – he is a painter with a lot to say – but his work is emotional and expressionist. And although he seems often to be motivated by anger, it is a deep and serious anger. Brought up with a strictly Orthodox Jewish education, Gershuni has a solid knowledge of Judaism and his work is informed by it: he may rail against it, but he is nourished by it. And he sees Christianity through the eyes of an erudite Jew.
By now the viewer can’t help searching for religious metaphors. “Gershuni wanted to turn the gallery into a church for this exhibition,” says Levi. Everything that is red – and there is a lot of it – suggests blood, or red wine as a symbol of blood. Drops and splatters that look as though someone had a nosebleed; smudged circles like the stains left by a dripping wineglass on a white tablecloth.
But it is the few strong, lushly painted canvases that make this exhibition worth visiting. Gershuni’s ideas and obsessions may galvanize his work – but are often so raw and frenzied that they almost vandalize it. His best work doesn’t need explanation.
Rich colors and sensual textures communicate on a strong, visceral level.
Using lacquers combined with pigment, he creates a smooth, reflective surface with underlying layers of translucent color.
You can almost see your face in them.
One canvas has the surface of a gleaming red toffee apple, another is like oily black licorice, with a deep green undertone.
In others, he scrapes and drags the paint, revealing luminous color underneath.
Famous as Gershuni is in Israel, he is virtually unknown elsewhere – even though he represented Israel at the Venice Biennale in 1980. Born in Tel Aviv in 1936, he is very much a national public figure, as well known for his leftist political stance and personal life as he is for his painting.
He is also known for having refused to accept the prestigious Israel Prize from Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003 because he was opposed to his policies.
When the government stripped him of the award, he sued to claim the prize money but the Supreme Court ruled against him. And in the 1980s, his marriage to the jewelery artist Bianca Eshel Gershuni ended with a public announcement that he was gay. Both their two sons are now highly regarded artists – Aram is a realist painter, and Uri a photographer.
Moshe Gershuni’s art is intrinsically bound up with his identity as an Israeli and a Jew, and with his need to use painting as a vehicle of protest. At his show at the Venice Biennale, he turned the Israel Pavilion into a particularly gruesome Holocaust memorial, with Nazi slogans painted in blood red.
As one of the leading Tel Aviv artists of his generation, he has commented in his work on much of the turbulent history he has lived through. But it’s the canvases in which he has allowed himself to be quiet and let the painting speak for itself that are, in the end, the most interesting.