Repeating Patterns

Aram Gershuni, the son of artists Moshe Gershuni and Bianca Eshel Gershuni, is one of Israel's best figurative painters. He says he has no problem selling portraits of his parents.

Dana Gilerman
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Dana Gilerman

"Music is the love of my life," says artist Aram Gershuni, when asked about his surprising habit of sitting in coffee shops in the morning and reading music scores. A piano that he bought himself for his 40th birthday a short while ago stands in his studio in Tel Aviv's Florentin quarter. He had not touched the instrument for 20 years, but since returning to it recently, prompted by the lessons taken by his 12-year-old daughter, Alma, he can't stop. "The truth is, it's an addiction," he says. "And now I'm addicted to Bach. I find myself sitting in the studio and playing his works all the time, for hours on end. I try to understand why it has such a strong effect on me. It's so three-dimensional. It's very similar to the things that occupy me in my painting. I remember that when I was a kid we had a lot of Persian carpets at home. I used to spend hours studying the patterns, extracting and returning them, changing them from positive to negative. Bach's music is like that kind of carpet, whenever I look at it I see something different."

Gershuni likes to read a composition before he begins playing it, "because I don't have perfect technical mastery of the piano and that way I can play it in my head the way I like," he explains. "The truth is that it's the same with painting. I imagine how I want to see the picture and all the work is done in my head. The part of applying the paint - like striking the keys - is the easy part, relatively speaking."

There is something deceptive about Gershuni, one of Israel's most impressive and highly regarded figurative painters. On the one hand he seems like an intellectual, on the other hand he relates to himself almost as if to a laborer. "My studio is located in Florentin. I walk there, I go through the neighborhood and see all the little carpentry and metal workshops, dusky little niches that haven't been cleaned for 50 years, everyone sitting at his machine, and then I go to my own dusky niche and sit down at my machine and do what I do. I definitely consider myself a kind of artisan or craftsman, who earns his living by working with his hands, and that's what keeps me sane."

Two paintings a year

"The time needed to get good results in figurative painting is very different than for the contemporary art studied at Bezalel [Academy of Arts and Design, in Jerusalem] or Hamidrasha [School of Art, Beit Berl Academic College]," he continues. "Contemporary art is less demanding in terms of the hours that must be invested. Someone like me, if he wants to produce any kind of a painting at all, must sit in his studio every day, all day. I work on one painting for half a year. Sometimes it even takes a year."

Does that mean you are very slow?

"No. I'm very adroit and madly effective and I also work a lot. I'm the opposite of a slacker. It simply takes a long, long time. Numerous hours of work that go into this board with the paint on it."

How does one price a painting that takes half a year to complete?

"The hours I put in are figured into the price but it's not very profitable. Sometimes people come to my studio and say, 'What you're doing is completely dumb. You should work fast, finish a lot of paintings relatively quickly and sell them not too expensively.' But anyone who really understands economics knows that one can also sell a unique product, of which there is only one, and that it costs a lot."

How much?

Gershuni prefers not to go into exact figures, but a check reveals that his large paintings sell for an average of $40,000 each. For his part, he says, "You have to see the whole picture. People see only the price and say, 'Wow, you must be a millionaire!' But sometimes I don't even have money for falafel. I don't paint for money. I get money for painting."

Gershuni's artistic training was the result of his relationship the Jersualem artist Israel Hershberg, whom he calls "my teacher and master." Gershuni was 21 when they met. "I can't imagine myself at all as a painter if not for him," he says. "There is a story from the Far East about a boy who travels from afar to reach a master living as a recluse in the mountains, and he asks the master to teach him but the teacher refuses. The boy lies at his door and doesn't move or give up until the teacher says: 'Okay, draw some water, chop wood,' and this grows into a teacher-student relationship; in my eyes that's the only way to learn."

That is what happened between you?

"More or less. There was no classroom, no framework. I would go to his studio every few weeks and we would spend the day together. He wasn't paid for it and was amazingly generous. This was an extremely intense, one-on-one relationship which has continued in various capacities to this day."

Aram's father, Moshe Gershuni, is one of the most important and revolutionary modernist painters to develop in Israel. His mother, Bianca Eshel Gershuni, is a pioneering jewelry artist, while his younger brother, Uri Gershuni, is a respected contemporary photographer. For his part, though, Aram Gershuni says that, "I never had to deal with the whole art scene, it doesn't interest me at all."

I don't know many artists who would make a declaration of that kind.

"Perhaps it's because I was born into the very center of the scene without anyone asking me if it's what I wanted. I wake up in the morning and think about the most interesting way to spend the day, what I want to do. Making the choice of art was also not something rational. It was unavoidable. This doesn't happen only in art, lawyers join their fathers' practices, so do contractors and dentists. It's very natural to continue doing what your parents do, that's the world you know. To veer away, in a completely different direction, is complicated."

Nevertheless, your choice appears to be almost the antithesis of what you saw at home.

"That's not correct. Both my father and mother are strongly connected to the tradition of European art. In the past few years it has become increasingly clear to me that there is a connection between what I do and what my mother does. Her creations are completely different from mine, yet the work process is similar. There is the aspect of handcrafting, of processes that take a long time, the filing, the polishing, the coating."

Family portraits

Gershuni recently completed a portrait of his mother that will be part of his exhibition next year at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. His last show, at the Tel Aviv Artists House, included a portrait of his father. The former was bought as soon as it was finished.

Did you ask her permission?

"She knew in advance that it would probably happen."

Is it difficult to sell a portrait of a parent?

"For me it's not difficult to sell any picture. On the contrary. That way, a painting has a life. With me, it's not alive, it's dead. I think of the painting as a process. It is born and grows up, it develops a personality, it becomes a little clearer but also a little more limited, and in the end it grows old and dies in my hands. That is the moment when I stop. If it has any kind of chance of coming back to life, to undergo any kind of transmigration of souls, it is with someone else. The collectors hang it on the wall, they live with the painting and look at it.

"I don't keep paintings in my studio. I like it to be empty, I like the feeling of emptiness. People always ask, 'Isn't it hard for you to say goodbye to your paintings?' But I'm the exact opposite, I want them to take it. The result doesn't interest me. The process ends the moment there is a result. Paintings that stay with me in the studio are either turned to face the wall, or I put them inside a steel drum, toss in turpentine and set it on fire."

Nevertheless, two paintings have remained in your studio, nudes of your wife, Liza, and of yourself, that were supposed to be in last year's Artists House exhibition.

"I'm keeping them. I didn't really have a choice. I put them aside at the request of our children. I don't think I need to embarrass them; in that respect I certainly learned from my parents' mistakes. I'm currently working on two nudes, a man and a woman, for the Tel Aviv Museum of Art show. It will be a way of compensating myself for the pictures I was forced to put aside. I didn't imagine it would draw so much opposition."

Justice Barak

Gershuni receives many requests to paint people's portraits but rarely agrees to them. One came about two years ago, when the Justice Ministry sought to commission a portrait of the retiring Supreme Court president, Aharon Barak. "That was certainly an offer I couldn't refuse. I had a few conditions and a few restrictions, and they were accepted."

For example, that he come to your studio?

"I softened that demand and said I was also willing to work at his office. But he said he was prepared to do what was best for the portrait and that if necessary he would come to me on Fridays, before visiting his grandchildren."

Did you work from a photograph?

"No, he posed for me a few times. He came to my studio in Florentin, with his bodyguards, and sat for several hours each time. I also worked on the portrait without him, otherwise it would have taken years at my pace. Actually, the main thing I did with him was to store up references - sketches, some in color, and photographs, and with these I worked from memory on the painting."

How did the people around you respond to his coming there?

"They were really surprised; people are used to seeing me come to work dressed sloppily, in paint-stained clothing, and suddenly there was Aharon Barak himself, and bodyguards. It was amusing."

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