Provocative Israeli painter and sculptor Moshe Gershuni died at 80 on Sunday.
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Gershuni hit the headlines in 2003 when he was declared winner of the Israel Prize, but then-Culture Minister Limor Livnat revoked the award after Gershuni announced he would not attend the ceremony.
“My conscience prevents me from going on the podium – it’s not the time for ceremonies and celebrations,” he said, explaining his decision. Officials said that the real reason was his refusal to shake hands with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Gershuni petitioned the High Court of Justice over Livnat’s decision, but was unsuccessful.
Gershuni was born in Tel Aviv in 1936. He studied art at the Avni Institute of Art and Design, learning under renowned artists such as Avigdor Steimatzky and Yehezkel Streichman.
He held his first solo exhibition in 1969, at the Israel Museum. Two years later he was invited to teach at Bezalel – Academy of Arts and Design, Jerusalem. His years there were tempestuous, though, culminating in his leading a student and lecturers’ revolt against the institution’s management; he was forced to resign soon afterward.
He later taught at the Beit Berl School of Arts, where he was considered a charismatic and influential teacher.
Since the 1980s he was represented by the Givon Gallery in Tel Aviv. The gallery’s owner, Naomi Givon, said Sunday that “the sorrow and pain at his loss are great – we still can’t accept it.”
Givon first met Gershuni after his 1980 show at the Venice Biennale, where he was representing Israel along with Micha Ullman. “His paintings impacted my life and the course of this gallery,” she said. “Without him, I wouldn’t have devoted my life to art. The gallery displayed many of his works. I considered him the national artist, along with Ullman,” she added.
Sculptor Ullman called Gershuni “the soul of Israeli art, with his art coming from his gut rather than his head. His art was passionate and uncompromising. He mixed the personal with national and political themes. His art was like an ongoing cry of sadness over what was happening here.”
Following his 2015 exhibition “Germany,” Haaretz’s late art critic Galia Yahav wrote of Gershuni: “It’s hard to think of a more respected and beloved artist. His importance lies also in his function as a compass and active conscience. The range of his artistic and human impact will be the subject of many studies. It’s hard to think of an artist who more absorbed the barbaric power of the condescending right-wing regime here, one that humiliates artists with its wily bureaucratic ways. It’s obvious, after Livnat’s departure, which of them will be remembered.”
When awarding him the Israel Prize, the judges had written that Gershuni was “notable in his talent, originality and daring as one of the most original conceptual artists in Israel. He offered a riveting version of involved radical-political art. In the 1980s, he led a bold move with his free and wild paintings, dealing with Israeli mythologies and topics related to the Jewish spiritual world.”
He is survived by his partner Juan Garcia, as well as three children and a sister. Gershuni asked to be cremated, and no funeral or shivah (official mourning period) will take place.