A Total Mother, a Total Artist

Calling her Israel's first postmodern artist, a new book looks at the career of sculptor and jewelry designer Bianca Eshel Gershuni. The recognition was a long time coming.

Bianca Eshel Gershuni, 75, swims 40 laps every morning. She started doing this after a serious traffic accident 40 years ago, and it has become an addiction: "I solve all my problems under the water," says Gershuni, a sculptor and jewelry designer. "It's a substitute for a psychiatrist." The swimming pool also saved her in the 1970s when she underwent a serious creative crisis, with the advent of conceptual art. Married at the time to artist Moshe Gershuni, from whom she later separated, she started to feel disconnected.

"Suddenly we had all new friends," Eshel Gershuni recalls. "Instead of Rafi Lavie there were conceptual artists Avital Geva and Pinhas Cohen Gan. It was a very dominant environment and I, who until then had been a partner to everything, was unable to take part in this thing. It wasn't that I didn't admire what they were doing; they admired me as well. I would come out of the studio with a big new ring and they would react by saying, 'Wow, Bianca, that's great.' But for me, touching the material is essential. I need the colorfulness, the creativity and the sensuality. I felt that I had no interest in creating conceptual art. I was very miserable. For a year I didn't work, for a year I went swimming. I left the house at 8 A.M. and came home at 1 P.M. At home they were angry at me for allowing myself not to be involved in art."

After a year of swimming and psychotherapy she returned to the studio. "I decided that it was impossible for me not to work. For me work is like breathing. If I stop working, they'll put me away. Something kept me alive, and every morning, in spite of the far from easy life I had and still have - I thank God. He gave me a lot of troubles to deal with, like Job, but he also gave me a big gift: I have a reason to get up in the morning."

Eshel Gershuni lives in Ra'anana, on the second floor of an old Bauhaus building - the only one in the city, she says. She lived with Gershuni in this apartment, which is full to overflowing with objects and works of art (mainly hers), and afterward single-handedly raised their two children there: Aram and Uri, themselves both highly regarded artists. A few months ago, she was compelled to sell two works by Rafi Lavie, which were put up for public auction by Christie's, and commanded record prices. Some claimed that the high prices were a consequence of the news about the illness of Lavie, who died shortly afterward.

Eshel Gershuni, who stopped talking to Lavie in the 1980s after a critique he wrote of her work, felt a need to explain to him why she had sold his paintings, so she wrote him a letter after his death. "Not for publication," she explains. "I simply wrote in order to get it off my chest and he certainly hears me somewhere. I had to explain to him that I love his works, I was simply forced to sell them."

She is still hurt by that short critique published by Lavie in 1985 in the Tel Aviv weekly Ha'ir, about one of her pieces, which was displayed in a group exhibit called "Here and Now" at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. A partial citation from the critique also appears in the new book about her work, edited by Mordechai Geldman and published this week by Hakibbutz Hameuhad. "Her works do not become kitsch because, in spite of everything, their execution is not amateurish," wrote Lavie at the time. "But the exaggerated sentimentality that stems from the very use of symbols, does not, in my opinion, cross the threshold of art. Art remains bereft both in terms of the bridegroom, the statement, and in terms of the bride 0the aesthetics."

"Suddenly I opened the newspaper and read the criticism by Rafi, who was a friend," Eshel Gershuni remembers. "He never spoke to me about the work. Pick up the phone, say, 'Bianca, you're committing suicide. You're doing terrible things.' After all, who gives criticism? Your best friends. He hit me below the belt. He wrote that the work looks like 'high school kitsch.' During that period Moshe Gershuni was still at home. He went to him and said, 'How can you write such things about Bianca - you don't understand her work.' From that day on, every time I saw Rafi, I would say 'Shalom' to him and turn my back. He didn't exist for me anymore, and that's how things remained from then on. But still, I love his work. I think he's a wonderful artist. He did many bad things to Israeli art, but many good things, too."

In the book Geldman tries to offer his own explanation of Lavie's criticism, which is meant to do right by Eshel Gershuni. "Bianca became the first postmodern artist here," writes Geldman. "It's no wonder, therefore, that her works aroused a great deal of opposition in the person who was the senior artistic authority in those days - artist, art teacher and critic Rafi Lavie, whose work drew from the roots of modernism."

Pain and distress

The elements that bothered Lavie so much at the time - the richness, baroque colorfulness and the flirtation with kitsch - were even more strongly in evidence in her solo exhibition a short time later at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. This exhibition was, among other things, a reaction to her traumatic separation from Gershuni, who left the house because of his attraction to men.

Eshel Gershuni had met Moshe while studying at the Avni Institute of Art and Design in Tel Aviv. She began to study art relatively late, at the age of 33, after she lost her first husband, a pilot who fell in the Yom Kippur War, and was left with a young daughter.

Today she is not interested in going into detail about her private life, but does say: "Of course, autobiographical moments entered the work: my pain, his distress and homosexuality. I had to give expression to what was hurting inside. When my children were born, the jewelry I created included flowers; it flourished. I express my experiences. I deal with plastic art. That's what makes things very precise for me. It took me five years, from the separation until the exhibition, to express all the bad experiences. Had I not gone to therapy, I wouldn't have been able to work that way. At the time it was almost impossible to be a woman and to create. I had to be a total woman, a total mother, a total housewife and a total artist."

Most of the female artists during your time were forced to choose between children and art.

Eshel Gershuni: "But I was also forced to choose. I gave up a career, but I didn't give up my work. I always used to say to Gershuni: 'Don't ever ask me to stop working because I won't stop. I don't care about exhibits; you go and have a career for both of us. I'll stay at home, I'll work and I'll take care of the children.' I'm happy I did that. When the children came home from school, a glass of juice was waiting for them on the table. At the same time, I think that I managed to create a place for myself in the history of local art. I don't have an inferiority complex."

One could say that by means of the exhibition in 1985 you turned the sense of being a victim into a victory.

"When Moti [Geldman] asked me in an interview prior to the publication of the book about my preoccupation with the story of the Crucifixion, I replied that I identify particularly with Jesus. On the one hand, he was a victim of life and of the people who crucified him. On the other hand, he was a victim who came back to life and remained in people's awareness. I also die in order to return, and I hope that I will remain in people's awareness even after my death. On second thought, I don't really care. There are artists who work with materials that cannot be destroyed, and make catalogs and document everything. I'm exactly the opposite: I work with destructible materials that are hard to preserve.

"I hide out of choice and exhibit infrequently, because it's important that people see what I do. But what's more important to me is my work inside the house. People are also quite disappointing. One can't always depend on them. I find tremendous interest even in being by myself. Sometimes I sit here for 10 days without turning the key in the door, without going outside. People ask, 'Tell me, are you crazy, how can you sit alone in the house so much?' I say, first of all, I'm not alone, I have so many works here that celebrate with me, and besides, I'm not bored for a moment."

Still, one could say that you were a pioneer in many things and did not receive proper recognition.

"Moti did justice to me in this book. I always say that people skipped over me. There are many things that people should have mentioned about me. For example, that I broke all the rules in terms of metalworking. In the 1970s there was no metalworking of that kind. Up until then they made this clean jewelry - Danish, Swedish, that was the trend. Suddenly I appeared with this mixture of gold, tar, feathers. They thought I was crazy. At the time it seemed crazy, today it has a respectable place. I enabled the students at Bezalel [Academy of Art and Design] to break all the rules. They owe that to me in some way.

"The same is true of my sculpture. I started to combine all kinds of material: Scotch-Brite [scouring pads], nylon stockings - nobody touched that at the time. Today it seems natural. When I won the Bank Discount Prize from the Israel Museum, Sarah Breitberg said to me, 'I'm so happy for you, you deserve it so much. You sit there in Ra'anana, create your works and don't care about anything.'"

Do you regret that you chose your home rather than a career?

"I really don't. Look what wonderful children I have. What's the problem? I pat myself on the back, I raised them pretty much on my own. They turned out to be talented as well as good human beings. I believe in education and in personal example. I always used to say to Aram, 'Forget about art. First of all, be a human being.' I don't regret it for a moment. Won't God accept me with less of a career? Fewer works?"

Your children are both outstanding artists and very different from one another. Uri is a photographer, Aram is a figurative painter. What did they take from you?

"Uri and I are very close. He's a mother's boy. I raised him almost single-handedly from the age of 8, and together we experienced great pain. I think that that is also why he is very similar to me in many things: for example, his love for all kinds of objects, or the fact that we are both big fans of 'Kokhav nolad' [the Israel version of "American Idol"]. It comes out in his work, but in a much more precise and minimalist way, which comes from his father.

"As far as Aram is concerned, I always thought he was more like his father, and only recently he said to me: 'Mother, you know, I've discovered that I'm actually a lot like you. You dig into your work and so do I,' and it's true. In order to attain colorfulness in my works, I use many layers of paint. After all, I was a student of [Yehezkel] Streichman."

In a group exhibition that took place a year ago at the Artists' House in Tel Aviv, Aram, in addition to displaying still lifes, exhibited a large and impressive portrait of his father. The exhibition catalog included a conversation between him and writer Dror Burstein about the portrait. "When I painted a portrait of my mother, I suddenly discovered that her eyes didn't meet mine," said Aram to Burstein, at the time. "I said to her, 'Mother, look at me.' All of a sudden I understood that she couldn't look me in the eye. Painting is a look that was lost and that I'm trying to find again."

"I've already spoken to him about that," says Eshel Gershuni, who also remembers this comment well. "I said to him, 'Aram, You owe me an explanation about that. If there's anyone who doesn't look a person in the eye, it's you at me, because I happen to be a person who does.' Now he's painting me. He told me that I'll be the focus of his next exhibit."

After his father?

"Yes, but that was also a little bit my fault. He kept asking me to come and I told him that I couldn't go up all those flights of stairs to his house in South Tel Aviv. Besides, I'm a bad model. Do you sense my temperament? I don't stop talking and he keeps telling me, 'Mother, sit still, I can't paint you.' Recently he was here to draw me. We sat together for an entire day. I really love those days that I spend with Aram; while he's working we talk about many things. [Tel Aviv Museum director Prof. Mordechai] 'Moti' Omer, who saw the drawing, told him, 'Aram, that's a masterpiece.' I saw the drawing and I was pleased. Something human and very beautiful emerged there. It takes two to tango. He looked me in the eye."