Once Nomadic Australian-born Artist Finds Home in Tel Aviv Against All Odds

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The Tel Aviv landscape has undergone striking changes over the past 50 years, but two, in particular, stand out for longtime resident Audrey Bergner: more English-speakers and more dogs.

“And I like having both,” says the 85-year-old Australian-born artist.

Bergner, whose latest exhibition opened this week at Hanina Contemporary Art, a gallery in south Tel Aviv, wasn't always a big fan of the White City. When she first came on a trip in the late 1940s with her then-already-famous artist husband, Yosl Bergner, conditions were rather dismal, she recalls. “It was very hot, we stayed with friends, all of us sleeping on these narrow Jewish Agency beds in one small room. It wasn’t a place I wanted to come back to,” she says.

Her new exhibit, titled “Tall Tales of Carpets and Shells,” features two collections of work that had been packed away and never shown before: wall carpets dating back to the 1960s and pencil drawings and watercolors of seashells and conches dating back to the 1970s and 1980s.

If anything links these two seemingly unrelated bodies of work, it’s that they both draw inspiration from rather faraway places – both physically and in spirit – from the city Bergner has called home for the past half century.

Her fascination with shells, she recalls, began in her native Australia on a trip to the Great Barrier Reef, where she became increasingly captivated by their shapes. “We did lots of snorkeling then, which gave me a good opportunity to observe them up close,” she relates. The wall hangings, on the other hand, bear evidence of another preoccupation that has influenced her work since she first immigrated to Israel in 1951: Bedouin life in the desert.

“At the time that I made these wall carpets, I was doing many oil paintings of Bedouin and Bedouin tents. I liked the look of them,” she recalls. “We had many old blankets in the house we weren’t using, and I just started cutting them up. I began asking friends for any spare pieces of fabric they had, and that’s how this all started.”

No less diverse than the subjects of her current exhibit are Bergner’s artistic pursuits. Besides drawing, painting, cutting and sewing, she has also illustrated books and designed theater costumes and scenery. Years after many of her contemporaries were entering comfortable retirement, she launched a new career as a writer, publishing two collections of short stories in English in the past 10 years – “A Winter Sun” and “Tel Aviv Stories.” The latter, published in 2003, was translated into Hebrew in 2006.

The daughter of a Scottish mother and a German father, Bergner was born in Sydney, but grew up in Melbourne, where she studied art at the prestigious National Gallery of Victoria Art School. It was there that she met her future husband, Viennese-born Yosl, who grew up in Warsaw and moved to Australia with his family in 1937. The couple left Australia and traveled for a few years to Paris and Montreal, where Yosl’s father, the great Yiddish writer Melech Ravitch, had relocated.

“We stayed with him for about a year, and when Yosl would clear the dishes after our dinners, his father would sit with me and teach me Yiddish,” Bergner recounts. “I wish my Hebrew were as good as my Yiddish.”

They went back to Paris, where they were married, and then had to decide where to set down roots: Australia, Canada or Israel. They eventually opted for the latter.

“It’s not that we were Zionists – I’m not even Jewish, and Yosl was a bit of a Communist back then,” explains Bergner. “But we wanted to be in Israel because things were happening here.”

After they made their permanent move, the Bergners spent their first seven years in Israel in Safed, where they bought an abandoned property and were among the first members of the thriving artists’ colony there. “I just fell in love with Safed,” Bergner says.

In 1957, they moved to Tel Aviv, to a house on Bilu Street, to be closer to the heart of the Israeli art scene. Her husband eventually went on to receive the Israel Prize for painting in 1980.

Bergner has had her work exhibited in galleries and museums in Israel and Australia, but in recent years, she’s slowed down a bit. “I was inspired, though, to do some drawing after the Carmel fire,” she says.

The Bergners have one daughter and four grandchildren, among them, one granddaughter, who is continuing the family legacy, studying today at Tel Aviv’s Avni Institute of Art and Design.

As an English-speaker who made her home in Tel Aviv in the days when not much English was heard on its streets, what does Bergner think about how the city’s developed? “It’s developed in all sort of different ways,” she replies. “Some good, some not so good. Just like Israel.”

Wall hangings from Audrey Bergner's exhibit in south Tel Aviv.Credit: David Bachar
Multifaceted artist Audrey Bergner is inspired by far-flung places.Credit: David Bachar
Images of shells and conches from the Audrey Bergner exhibit in Tel Aviv.Credit: David Bachar

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