Obituary: Yosl Bergner (1920–2017)
By Zoey Tang
Israel Prize laureate Yosl Bergner passed away on January 18 in Tel Aviv at the age of 96. Considered one of Israel’s most celebrated expressionist painters, his artworks reflected the life of the poor and working class. The multi-talented artist also established a reputation as an illustrator and costume designer.
As an artist, Bergner did not limit himself to the confines of art, but sought to establish relationships with various groups of people who were suffering from hunger, wars, discrimination and persecution. His concerns for these people are reflected in his portraits, which features figures with gaunt pale faces and large black eyes, rendering them helpless and forlorn.
Bergner was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1920 and grew up in Warsaw, Poland. Due to the rise in anti-Semitism in Europe, Bergner’s family emigrated to Australia in 1937, where he studied at Melbourne’s National Gallery of Victoria Art School. His studies were disrupted during the onset of World War II, when he enlisted in the Australian Army for four and a half years.
After returning from war, Bergner befriended many local artists and became an influential figure in Australian art history. His critical eye encouraged his peers to develop their painting styles and push the boundaries of tradition. His personal experience and his knowledge of the Holocaust atrocities occurring back in Israel brought light to the treatment of indigenous Australians; he is considered one of the first non-indigenous painters to depict the plight of Aboriginal people. Bergner also explored the urban environment and the impact it had on working families. He is credited to have influenced some of Australia’s prominent modernists, such as Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, Sydney Nolan and John Perceval.
Bergner left Australia in 1948 and spent two years traveling around Europe and North America. He settled in Safed, a city in northern Israel, for seven years, before moving to Tel Aviv in 1957, where he resided until his death. The artist set up his studio near his Tel Aviv home so that he would remain disciplined in his practice—he painted almost every day.
During his life in Israel, Bergner was awarded the Herman Struck Prize in 1954, followed by the Dizengoff Prize for painting just one year later. He was also named an honored citizen of Tel Aviv in 2006. He exhibited both locally and abroad, and in 1985, decades after his departure from Australia, he went back to hold his first retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne. In 2000, Bergner was also the subject of a major retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
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