Moshe Gershuni: Up in the sublime, down in the gutter

Gershuni released a certain stopper in Israeli art, she explains, by combining the spiritual and the physical, the intellectual and the emotional.

Artist Moshe Gershuni (photo credit: URI GERSHUNI)
Artist Moshe Gershuni
(photo credit: URI GERSHUNI)
This week, we marked the shloshim (30 days) since the passing of celebrated artist Moshe Gershuni, who died at age 80.
In the winter of 2003, Gershuni was announced the winner of that year’s Israel Prize. Honored as he was to have been chosen, he refused to attend the ceremony and shake the hand of thenprime minister Ariel Sharon, whom he had actively criticized in his work. This refusal cost him the prize.
“I’m happy that some parts of the establishment recognize my years-long war over the culture and values of the State of Israel,” he said at the time. “On the other hand, I’m sad to be receiving this prize in the current political and societal climate of this country.”
The Israel Prize controversy is probably the most famous anecdote surrounding Gershuni. It exemplifies two very important aspects of his work and his personality.
The first aspect is his taste for protests, and his willpower to see them through.
“He used his many abilities in his political protests,” affirms Noemi Givon, one of the partners in the Givon Art Gallery and the owner of the Givon Art Forum, who worked alongside Gershuni for many years.
“I think he did it because he couldn’t bear any injustice. He was a humanist, and whenever he encountered any wrongdoing he had to respond to it.”
The second aspect reflected in this story similarly relates to his strong emotional side, which won him the award to begin with. The prize’s judging panel explained their choice as a tribute to “the first artist to bring back matters of body, prayer and a Jewish quality to Israeli art’s mainstream,” and to the change he had led during the 1980s with his “free, wild, bold-colored paintings.”
Even laymen notice the great sensitivity and emotion that have become identified with Gershuni’s work, but that wasn’t always the case.
Art by Moshe Gershuni. (Credit: The Art Platform PR Agency)Art by Moshe Gershuni. (Credit: The Art Platform PR Agency)
An aspiration
Gershuni was born in Tel Aviv in 1936.
Several of his family members died in the Holocaust – a fact that had a profound impact on him and was reflected in his art for many years. His interest in art began in the 1950s, and he worked under the tutelage of a few members of Ofakim Hadashim (“New Horizons”), an artistic movement greatly influenced by European abstract art.
Gershuni started his way as a sculptor, taking inspiration from conceptual art from around the world and incorporating it, with his own taste and ideas, into various pieces, exploring the physicality of the material, self-reflection on art and the artist, and gradually, injustice as well.
As a teacher at Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design during the early 1970s, he encouraged his students to experiment with art and with politics, and was seen as a rebel – so much so, that he was fired following provocative actions. Gershuni had a lot to express about the way he saw this country, explains curator and Israeli art researcher Tali Tamir in a joint interview with artist and senior teacher of art Yair Garbuz. The interview followed a lecture they gave about Gershuni’s work, as part of their series on Israeli art, one important painting at a time, in the Basis Art School. This evening in particular was dedicated to Hai Rakafot (“18 Cyclamens”), but was also a sort of memorial to the recently deceased artist.
His most famous political piece was 1978’s Yad Anuga (“Tender Hand”). “Yad Anuga is the protest piece [in Gershuni’s canon],” says Tamir. The piece tells the story of Yosef Ziad, a Palestinian man from Hebron who was beaten up by Israeli soldiers. The piece includes a table with a tape recorder, playing Gershuni himself singing the song “Yad Anuga.”
“It’s a song about a tender hand, and one that belongs to the very depths of Zionist, Israeli memory. It has a Beduin melody and was written by Zalman Shneur,” says Tamir. “The lyrics are about love, about this very gentle touch, but instead you can understand what the hand is really doing. This work is about humiliation and is very clearly political.”
But for Gershuni – and indeed any artist at all – there’s always the question of political influence and art’s ability to really change anything.
“An artist can’t change politics, but he can permeate deep into culture,” clarifies Givon.
“I believe that Gershuni’s work will permeate forever, precisely because of his ideological commitment to freedom of expression, to human rights, to the right to create art. It’s all there in his work.”
“People tend to say that political pieces convince the already-convinced,” notes Garbuz. “But so what? Most poetry is read by poetry lovers, not by poetry haters. The convinced need a healthy environment too, and they need to be able to encourage one another.”
The wish to touch and influence a wide audience is but a distant aspiration, according to Garbuz. “So is winning the lottery.”
“Gershuni wanted to be the national painter, like [Haim Nahman] Bialik was the national poet,” says Tamir.
“But it didn’t happen, because he’s not simple, because he’s complex and full of paradoxes.”
But art, in particular that of Gershuni, can have an influence on society.
“Art can have its impact in bringing to the surface things that people don’t yet know. People are educated a certain way. They went to school, they participated in the ceremonies, they did what they were supposed to, and they don’t understand they can do things differently. Art can broaden the mind and suggest new options.”
In a sense, that makes Gershuni a dangerous artist, according to Tamir. And in particular his post-1980 work, which took a great shift from everything he had done so far; from everything anyone in the local art scene had done so far.
Art by Moshe Gershuni. (Credit: The Art Platform PR Agency)Art by Moshe Gershuni. (Credit: The Art Platform PR Agency)
Seismic change
In the early 1980s, Gershuni went through a real revolution. It was both a personal one, with his coming out as gay and reinventing his life, and an artistic one, as he began experimenting with new physical techniques, painting with his own palms and fingers, his entire body over the canvas. The colors became bolder and more expressive, and emotional fragility was introduced to an otherwise restrained, cold art scene that was always in full control of itself.
Indeed, there is something very raw in his work; but don’t mistake it for simplicity or superficiality, clarifies Givon.
“He had a full and replete inner world. He combined the spiritual, the emotional… but he also had an enormous body of knowledge in music, literature, philosophy, religion and much more.”
His use of everyday symbols and images, such as soldiers or the cyclamen, is what brought him close to relatively large crowds, says Givon.
“He meant much higher-browed commentary by it, but he used tools that anyone can understand and relate to. It was a deliberate choice, no doubt. He is an unmediated artist, and was the same as a person, too.”
Gershuni’s unique mix of high and low is evident in many famous pieces, which would often use bold colors – red, yellow, black – and powerful imagery, and combine it with quotes from the Bible and other sources. He has a solid and wide intellectual base, explains Tamir, but the way in which it is expressed isn’t intellectual at all.
“There’s no inner logic, it’s not didactic,” Tamir says. “It all came from inside, it would sit and rattle inside of him, like he would say, creating archetypes for him to borrow from in his work.”
In fact, the state of Gershuni’s work is the true state of work, adds Garbuz.
Art by Moshe Gershuni. (Credit: The Art Platform PR Agency)Art by Moshe Gershuni. (Credit: The Art Platform PR Agency)
“He has his arsenal, but that arsenal rattles; it is used for something that words alone cannot do. That’s why he’s a painter, the words are only there as babysitters, to accompany him until he matures.”
What makes Gershuni’s body of work so special, explain Garbuz and Tamir, is that those same words, colors and images were used for something very unusual at the time: to express memory, and a past, something that many of the artist’s peers denied themselves.
“Zionist culture is based on the denial of exile,” says Tamir. “They took a big axe and just cut. They said, forget everything that happened before, the towns you came from, your languages. It asked people to forget, to throw away their pasts and align with what it now meant to be an Israeli.”
The state is trying to turn the memory of the Holocaust into power, explains Garbuz, but Gershuni insisted on accepting weakness and seeing the continuity of his own history and that of his society.
“When Gershuni dealt with the Holocaust, he did it like a person who asks what happens to a body that had some organs cut out of it, rather than ask about the quality of the knife,” which according to Garbuz is what Israel itself is concerned with.
“Schools teach children about concentration camps. But that’s what the Germans should be doing – they’re the ones who built them. We should be teaching Jewish history instead,” and like Gershuni, perhaps, focus on the sorrow and the loss.
Not only with the Holocaust, but indeed with religious and cultural subject matter in general – the star of David, the swastika, the Muslim crescent – Gershuni demystified the symbol: “Symbols stand in the way of any real dialogue,” says Givon. “And his need for true communication, both physical and spiritual, is the center of his entire body of work.”
Not only the center but a serious shift in what was even considered possible.
“He took away the symbol’s status as a symbol and made it into actual content you can show, discuss and interact with. That’s very bold and it was never done quite like that before him.”
Gershuni released a certain stopper in Israeli art, she explains, by combining the spiritual and the physical, the intellectual and the emotional.
“He was special for looking both high up to the sublime and down low to the gutters,” as Garbuz puts it. That may well turn out to be his legacy.