Artist Yosl Bergner, 87, lives in two small, attached private homes on a quiet street in central Tel Aviv. One serves as the family home (where he lives with his wife, artist Audrey Bergner), and the second as his studio. He bought the houses in the 1970s, after winning the lottery. The back door leads to a well-kept and delightful garden with flowers, as well as citrus and other trees, "the likes of which you've never seen," he says.
Our conversation took place at his studio about a week before yesterday's opening of his new exhibition, "Trains," at the Dan Gallery in Tel Aviv (74 Ben Yehuda Street). Bergner's studio is full of paintings, most of them his. There are also a lot of family photos, books, catalogs, and a sculpture by Avner Katz that Bergner bought a year ago: "I used to have a very large collection of international works, but I sold it all for the children," he says.
On the table is the catalog of the Sotheby's auction that was held in New York on Tuesday. On the inside cover is Bergner's painting "Kassit Wall," which he painted on six wooden panels. This work, which was also displayed at his retrospective at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, was originally done for the Kassit cafe, in exchange for a bottle of whiskey. It was sold this past week for $121,000.
In the new paintings filling his studio, two images appear repeatedly: ravens and trains. The train, which he began painting as early as age 6 or 7, and which has been seen at previous exhibitions, now fills most of the frame. As opposed to the more optimistic note struck in his previous exhibit, "Childhood Paintings," in which he displayed contemporary adaptations of his childhood works, the present exhibit looks almost apocalyptic. The brown, reddish colors, some of which are gloomy, create a prewar atmosphere.
The attempt to speak to Bergner about the change in his work, about the presence of the Holocaust and about art in general is met with resistance. "If you want to talk to me about art, I can't help you because I treat painting as a profession," he says. "When I was young my father told me, 'If you want to be an artist, you must have a profession.' And I told him 'I'm a painter, a painter is a profession.' I really don't understand the word 'art.' Up until a few hundred years ago there was no such word."
And still one sees a change in your painting.
Bergner: "The motif of the Holocaust has become more dominant. It is inside me and I can't get rid of it, but I wasn't there. In general, my painting changes all the time and stays in the same place all the time. I paint more freely, and the point of view is changing, too - I'm starting to become smaller, so I see things close up."