True Colors

Turning his back on his own family's artistic traditions, Aram Gershuni follows the path of classical painting and the Old Masters. Largely self-taught, he produces portraits, still lifes and landscapes that many consider flawless

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

"I am 42 and have been painting for 39 years," Aram Gershuni said, as though it is natural for an artist to present a resume dating back to the age of 3. When we met, he had already been working since the morning on the finishing touches of his solo show, which opened last week at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. We were standing in the gallery on the museum's lower floor. Seventeen oils by Gershuni, among them portraits of his wife and children, self-portraits, landscapes and still lifes - all painted in the past five years - are on show. The electricians drilled the last holes in the ceiling and the noise, tension and excitement seemed to rattle Gershuni, so we moved to the cafeteria to talk.

The son of painters Moshe Gershuni and Bianca Eshel Gershuni, Aram Gershuni is a figurative artist whose works, exhibited in group shows and at one previous solo show (at Alon Segev Gallery in Tel Aviv), have won critical acclaim. Hours before the opening of this important one, curated by Prof. Mordechai Omer, he was visibly excited. Meanwhile, his children, Alma, 13, and Itamar, 9, were handing out invitations to the opening to their classmates, not least because they wanted their friends to see their portraits.

"For me, every painting is a huge pile of mistakes," he says of his works, which are characterized by technical precision. "Some people are bowled over by the look of the paintings and say they are flawless, but what I see and am mindful of is the mistakes. Mistake within mistake within mistake. The mistakes I was unable to correct jump out at me. That's what sticks in my memory. It's hard for me to be alone with my paintings."

The only art institution the virtually self-taught Gershuni attended was the Jerusalem Studio School, founded by Israel Hershberg - a figurative painter he calls his "teacher and mentor." He participated in workshops at the studio, considered the first school of new, realistic painting in the country, several times, beginning in 1997. Gershuni is faithful to the tradition of classical painting and to the art of the Old Masters, and his realistic works are based on observation or memory of a live model or still life, always illuminated by natural light. "Painting," he once declared, "is a lost gaze which I try to reclaim."

Aram Gershuni was born in 1967 in Ra'anana. He has a younger brother, Uri, a photographer and artist, and a sister, Atari, from their mother's first marriage. When Aram was 11, his father attracted public controversy with a series of subversive political works entitled "Who's a Zionist and Who Isn't" at the Julie M. Gallery in Tel Aviv. In a 1980 installation entitled "In My Heart's Blood" at the Tel Aviv Museum, Moshe Gershuni arranged 150 bloodstained white dishes on the floor in the shape of a swastika. A few years later, the Gershunis separated and Moshe moved to Tel Aviv to live with a male partner. His former wife has exhibited works using a variety of materials that integrate sculpture, painting, reliefs and jewelry.

Until the age of 18, Aram was immersed in painting and also developed a love for classical music, which he inherited from his father, who is known as a knowledgeable devotee of the classics.

"No one in the family played an instrument, but they listened a lot to music," Aram recalls. "They bought a piano especially for me, and I took lessons and played, but I was no wunderkind."

When he enlisted in the army, where he served in a noncombat unit because of an asthmatic condition, he stopped playing the piano and did not touch it for the next 20 years. Then four years ago, his wife Liza surprised him by bringing over the old piano from his mother's home in Ra'anana. Gershuni started to practice every day as if no time had elapsed. Two years ago, he bought a new piano, which is now in his studio. "Now I am looking forward to the next stage: a grand piano," he says. Once a week he has a private lesson with a teacher at the studio.

"When I paint, there is a stage at which my brain feels like it is on fire because of the concentration, and sometimes there are problems. I sit down at the piano for an hour or two and forget that there's a painting behind me on the easel, and that I'm having difficulty with it. After two hours of playing I go back to the painting and continue working easily."

'Art was in the air'

Asked when he realized that he was an artist, Gershuni says: "I had a childish urge to paint, which stayed with me when I grew up. Art was in the air in my parents' home, even when it was different from what I did. After the army, I decided not to enroll in art school. I wanted to see what it was like to sit all day and paint. That is the real life of an artist, not the bubble created by art schools. In 1988, I found a 700-year-old ruin in Safed, and there, in the alleys of the Old City next to Abuhav Synagogue, I spent a year trying to teach myself to sit and work quietly. I didn't know a soul and I was lonely as a wolf. Sometimes weeks went by without my speaking a word.

"It was there that I started sitting and painting and practicing in the studio. It was hard. I often long for the powers I possessed back then. These days my life is wrapped up in family, children, career and friends, but in Safed there was something special that worked and got the process started in the right way."

Your style of painting is anomalous in a family that engages in abstract art.

Gershuni: "My brother Uri seems to be doing something completely different. After all, he is a photographer and I am a painter. But our aesthetic sense is similar. Our worldviews are very similar, which is only natural, because we grew up in the same house. I do not feel the anomaly you mention. I do what feels right to me and I hear that I am an anomaly only because people take the trouble to remind me of it. When I started to paint, I was the loneliest artist in the world. Then I discovered the painter Israel Hershberg and forced him to be my teacher, because the first second we met I recognized that this was what I needed. I can hardly imagine how I would be painting today if I hadn't met him."

The largest and most dominant painting in the family section of the new exhibition is a portrait of his mother, Bianca Eshel Gershuni, entitled "Portrait of Bianca Eshel Gershuni." An oil on wood that measures 160 x 150 cm., it was acquired by a private buyer for $40,000 and is on loan for the show. Eshel Gershuni is wearing a red coat, gazing straight ahead, tranquil, strong - and very dramatic.

Gershuni: "I wanted to paint her in the studio, but after a while I realized that wasn't going to happen. She was never going to come to the studio and climb all the stairs. Walking is hard for her, because of a serious traffic accident she had. So I thought I would paint her at home in Ra'anana. But the house is insanely crowded. There is no room to move, because of all the statues, the furniture, her works and other objects. She's not in control of things and soon won't be able to find the way from the bedroom to the kitchen."

Your paintings usually contain a limited range of elements.

"That's exactly why I thought I would paint her amid the visual chaos of the house; maybe something different would come of it. I discovered that there is fantasy and reality in the house. I sat her down and it was absolutely impossible to open a window, so the lighting was artificial and murky. In the end, the only place where there was northern light was in my own childhood room, which was full of crates and stuff. I had to remove them, with all the dust and my asthma. I painted her with daylight entering from the side in a pose similar to what would have been used in the studio. On the other hand, it's my mother and my room as a boy. She sat occasionally, but I did most of the work alone in the studio. You could say that I spent every day for six months with her image there."

Is painting a portrait an intimate experience?

"It is an intense experience which I have with every person I paint. Because it is a lengthy process, I get to know the subject better than his mother [does]. I am totally focused on every wrinkle or lump on the face or the body. It is an experience. In regard to the Greeks and classical art, Nietzsche said - and I am quoting freely - that there is a marvelous superficiality in their art. The artists knew how to remain on the surface and let the internal content of the work, or whatever you call it, surface by itself. There was no need for manipulation or extraction by force."

"My mother influenced me more than my father. Obviously he is also a dominant figure in my life, and everyone who knows him knows how attached he is to the Western figurative tradition across the generations. My love for this type of painting comes from him. He does not paint in the same way, but I am realizing a type of fantasy for him, in that he was born in the wrong place and at the wrong time to paint that way. You could say I am his successor or you could say I rebelled against him. It's all theoretical. Our house was suffused with ideals and values which did not necessarily sit well with me, such as what art is and what good art is."

What is it like to be the exception when all around you completely different developments are taking place in the world of video and art?

"Back when I had a studio in Florentin [a neighborhood in south Tel Aviv], I used to walk around and peek into the little workshops of the carpenter, the metalworker and the engraver, and saw that each was sitting next to his machine and working. I identified with that and sat in my dark nook and worked ...

"I don't have a television at home and I don't read newspapers. And I don't go gallery-hopping; I have no need for it. I don't see anything and I am not connected to anything. We have a DVD and we rent movies. Liza and I like movies of the most inferior kind. Pure escapism. Wild action films to clear the head. Give us guns and shooting and executions and blood. We are at home in the genre. I am interested in the here and now, and I imagine that if the Iranians drop a bomb, I will know."

Why don't you go to see other art?

"I don't bother. A friend of mine asked me to come to his exhibition. I went by and it looked interesting, so I went in. I have many artist friends, but I have no need to stay up-to-date with what's happening in the art world. My daily schedule is fixed. I get up at 6 and go to the studio. Sometimes I am there until dusk, and after that I am at home with Liza and the children. I am also not much of a tourist. I go on my most successful trips without leaving the armchair. It's all in the head."

"Arikha does the baguette in one shot. He starts, paints and stops. The situation I prefer is lengthy work over a great deal of time. This should not be taken as a value judgment, heaven forbid, but it's something like the difference between a one-night stand and married life, which is an ongoing relationship with ups and downs. With all due respect to one-night stands, they do not satisfy me."

Placing the stain

Try to explain what you are doing in your art.

"A painting is never finished. There is no such thing, but at the same time I think that a painting, at least in its aspiration, always has to be complete. I have just created a new stain. I will be its first and generally its last viewer. If the stain I have put in a particular place is not complete, then it is not good. If it is good, I will use another stain and another, and a picture will be created. That is the meaning of the painting. It is the practice of being here and now, and constantly responding to what is created. Every new stain creates a new situation and a new reaction. I have educated myself to work with 100 percent concentration, and when I feel the concentration decreasing, I stop. I tell my students that the only painting worth continuing with is one that can be left the way it is now - and which still works. If it can't be left the way it is, it's best to start a new painting."

Is it easy for you to part with your paintings?

"Very easy. All I want is for them to get out of my sight. If there are more than two in the studio, I start getting uptight that the studio is crowded and I have no space to move. I have a big studio, but that's the feeling."

About 12 years ago, someone asked Gershuni to teach him how to paint. He hesitated, but finally said yes. "Suddenly there were 10 students without advertising or anything. It was too much for me, on top of which they touched things in the studio, and the studio is the inside of my head and I was afraid that my thoughts would also be moved around from one place to another."

In 2007, Liza Gershuni - "a real Moroccan from the Katamonim in Jerusalem, who left the cinema to become my wife and the mother of my children," says her husband - curated and produced "Presences," an exhibition held at the Tel Aviv Artists House, and an accompanying book. The latter includes 11 interviews by writer Dror Burstein of figurative artists from the school of what he calls the "quiet avant-garde."

The portrait of Liza in the new show at the Tel Aviv Museum depicts her as grim-faced and introverted. "I will be very happy if you don't tell her that, because she is very sensitive to this as it is," Aram suggests. "She has already vetoed a portrait of her. It's a mine field.

"The problem with portraits," he continues, "is quite a consistent one. In the past, a painting had a public function. When the king wanted to send a likeness of the prince from Madrid to Vienna so that the princess would agree to marry him, a painted portrait was sent. Nowadays we live in a world in which painting has no function. The artist Osvaldo Romberg once told me that to paint the way I do is like riding a horse: It's done for pleasure, not to get from one place to another. There was one case in which I agreed to paint a collector from New York on commission. The couple sat for me, but when they saw the result they became worried. I took the man to the Metropolitan [Museum of Art] and showed him paintings by the Old Masters. He saw that the faces were almost expressionless. It's not like smiling for the camera. He was convinced and explained to everyone that there is a 'museum look.'

Why did you paint yourself with your eyes closed?

"That's more complicated. I don't remember a precedent in the history of art of a self-portrait with eyes closed. I had a kind of thought that I could imagine myself dead; I was interested in how I will look when I am dead ... I am often busy making people fall asleep by means of long sittings in the studio, in order to bring them to a state in which they are not attentive, because then they take on the expression they have only when they are alone with themselves. They shed the uninteresting mask."

Why is there no portrait of your brother in the show?

"There is also no portrait of my sister Atari. She always gets angry because she is not mentioned. I don't know why. Maybe for the prosaic reason that my parents are not so occupied, relatively, whereas Uri and Atari are busy."

Your parents revealed everything in interviews: the tragedies and the pain, and the crisis related to the revelation of your father's sexual identity and its artistic ramifications. What did that do to you?

What are you complaining about really?

"I am incapable of answering some of the questions asked. The poking around in my childhood - even if it was long ago, some things still have an effect, others are not relevant. Everyone has the 'baggage' he lugs around from childhood. When [my parents] gave interviews to the press I shouted at them. They made a mistake that I do not intend to repeat. If it met some need of theirs, it's their problem. I don't want to repeat their mistakes. I don't want my children to read any such interview and feel bad."

What did you do with the pain?

"I expressed it to my parents. I worked on it; that's what people do. I worked on it with others. I turned it over in my mind. It's all connected to my art and to what I experience. The best way of coping, despite all the difficulties, was work itself. That is my therapy."

How did you get rid of the residual anger from childhood?

"I sit quietly all day and listen, and then anger surfaces and I am mindful of it because I am not going anywhere and nothing else occupies me. I say to myself, there is anger here, and I look at it more closely and it naturally dissolves. I do not repress it or make it disappear. I try to be alert and aware. To practice mindfulness is the greatest practice in the world, and I have been doing it for 20 years. True control comes from freedom - not from a lust for control. I practice the fugue from Bach's Partita. At first I have to think where to place each finger and I play it over and over, and from the practicing, freedom is created, seemingly of itself."

Is this connected to love for yourself?

"I don't think there is anyone who can practice something 10 hours a day and not love himself in some way." W

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