True to Herself

Artist Bianca Eshel-Gershuni is finally getting the recognition she deserves. She received a lifetime achievement award, her works are being exhibited in three venues - and her photographer - son Uri Gershuni is curating yet another show of her work. She has also introduced a new element in her creations: computer art

My life has not been easy, but God gave me a great gift: the ability to go to sleep at night with some small thought and in the morning to rise early, sit down to work and be carried away by adventures. How many people can say the same?" asks artist Bianca Eshel-Gershuni.

At the age of 78, Eshel-Gershuni feels she has come to terms with the art world - to which she presented a considerable challenge for many years - after receiving a lifetime achievement award last year from the Ministry of Culture.

Bianca Eshel-Gershuni, the only female artist to be awarded the Culture and Sports Ministry's lifetime achievement award. Eshel-Gershuni, wearing a purple top and dramatic makeup, looks directly into the camera, unsmiling.
Uri Gershuni

"What gets me up and makes me go to the studio every morning," she adds, "is the fact that I always think the 'ultimate' work has not yet emerged, that it still awaits me, that the next one will definitely be much better."

Thus it is that today, even after important solo exhibitions, participation in dozens of group shows, and prizes, Eshel-Gershuni is still creating art. This penchant is also reflected in her home - a two-story Bauhaus structure on a quiet street in Ra'anana - where she has lived for 45 years. She rents out the first floor to an architect and lives in the three-room apartment on the upper floor, amid a celebration of color and richness. Her home is in a state of overload, crammed with artwork ranging from large sculptures, from an important show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1985, to paintings adorning the walls and jewelry on display in every corner. In the spacious living room are antique bureaus and other furniture chosen with great care, on which are piled books and collections of items including a huge array of ceramics, porcelain and earthenware dishes.

With all the objets d'art, it's hard to imagine Eshel-Gershuni emerging from her bedroom and finding her way to the room she has made into a studio. She also can't quite figure out how she managed to produce such large works in this very small space. Indeed, it's interesting to ponder how her art would have developed if she had more room.

Eshel-Gershuni has a very imposing presence. She always wears an outsize dress, her hair is carefully groomed and pulled back, and she usually wears a necklace and earrings of her own making. Bearing cups of coffee and a cake, she invites me to sit at the dining table, but there is not an inch of space on it: It's taken up by some 15 different life-size busts, each with a distinctive expression. Next to them is a group of some 10 smaller ones, less distinct and embellished.

The first group has since been put on display at the Herzliya Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of a new exhibition of works by the Culture Ministry's 2009 art and design award recipients. Eshel-Gershuni also has shows at Ticho House in Jerusalem ("Women's Tales: Four Leading Israeli Jewelers" ) and a one-woman exhibition at the municipal gallery in Ra'anana. She was delighted to win the ministry award, she says, but what truly thrills her is that her son, photographer Uri Gershuni, will curate an exhibition of her work at the Inga Gallery of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv in November.

"I raised a child who became the curator and photographer of his mother, and for me that is heartwarming," she enthuses.

The theatrical, grotesque heads sculpted by Eshel-Gershuni evoke earlier works by her, and also the more distant past: her student days at the Avni Institute of Art and Design, when she was preoccupied with figurative head sculpture.

"They are my friends," she says about the busts in her resonant voice, notable for its heavy Bulgarian accent. "On the one hand, I told Uri that I am very happy they are finally being taken out of here [my house], because they get on my nerves and I will be able to offer people a cup of coffee and a piece of cake at the table ... But on the other hand, how will I sit here in the morning with a cup of coffee without anyone to talk to?"

Eshel-Gershuni has lived alone for many years. She bought the Ra'anana house together with her husband, acclaimed artist Moshe Gershuni, and her three children grew up here: her daughter Atar, from her first marriage, who is an Alexander Technique therapist; and Aram and Uri, both successful artists.

"I love the house," she says. "My children were born here and grew up here. These days Uri finds it hard to visit. He says it's not a welcoming place the way it used to be, and he's right. I turned the house into a studio."

Ecological rationale

Also on show in the Herzliya exhibition is a series of new paintings by Eshel-Gershuni using a basic computer program.

"I've been turned on in a way I can hardly describe," she says proudly. "I have 600-700 paintings that I did with the computer in almost two years."

The artist's encounter with the computer began because of ecological reasons: "Instead of doing sketches all the time and using up reams of paper for which who knows how many forests had to be cut down, I thought I could do sketches on the computer, like architects, and then delete them. I didn't intend to make art from it. The person who taught me how to work with a computer also tried to teach me Photoshop, but I told him to forget it. I don't want gimmicks. I paint via 'Paint' with the mouse, and I want to tell you that it's not easy at all - it's a lot harder than with a brush. But in return you get a new, different quality. It's a little like someone who climbs Mount Everest. Why should anyone do all that tremendous Sisyphean labor: climb up and then come back down? There is something difficult about the process, but I guess I like that."

The computer works, the new series of busts and the portraits of heads in a book format that will be shown in the exhibition being curated by her son - all reveal a less tormented and powerful frame of mind than in the past. Asked about this, Eshel-Gershuni nods in agreement and explains that it has to do with aging: "When you're young you are far more forceful. It's a process. I can't tell you when it happened. I have softened a great deal over the years."

Looking back over Eshel-Gershuni's artistic career, from her student period at the Avni Institute, her interest in making jewelry although she never studied that craft, her return to sculpture in the 1980s, and her distinctive use of a broad and sometimes jarring range of materials - it becomes possible to understand the armor that she developed: to deal with the realm of jewelry design and the art world in general, and, no less, to cope with her ex-husband, Moshe Gershuni, and their close friends.

"Life is no picnic," she says in a compassionate, yet firm tone. When she talks about hardships she is referring to the death of her first husband, the departure of her second one and the implications the two events had for her life. Both of them, she admits, pushed her toward art, but in different ways.

Out of Sofia

Bianca Eshel-Gershuni was born in 1932 in Sofia, Bulgaria. She immigrated to Israel at the age of seven, but her visual recollections of Sofia continue to resonate in her work. They are evident in the materials she uses and in the rich, colorful "language" she has fashioned from gold, precious stones and expensive materials, and are heightened by her affinity for Eastern Orthodox and other Christian motifs - as seen in the dramatic presence of Christ and the cross in her work, images that were engraved in her memory during Sunday outings with her father.

At the beginning of 1939 the family boarded the Orient Express, the luxury train that crossed Europe into the Levant, bound for Palestine. "I still have the noise of the wheels in my ears and can recall the comforts of that trip," she says.

With the aid of her father's connections, the family received a warm welcome in the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community ) and settled in an apartment on Mendele Street in Tel Aviv. Still, the move from Bulgaria and the process of acclimating were complex.

"I was a funny kind of new immigrant. I wore a Scottish skirt, stockings with pom-poms and a hat - and that is also how I was sent to school. Just imagine. In school they changed my name to Levana [a play on "white," from Bianca]; they stuck me with the name of a cow," she explains, a note of anger still in her voice.

With the encouragement of her first husband, Moshe Eshel, she reclaimed her original first name and threatened to take the Interior Ministry to court until the bureaucrats agreed to change it on her ID card.

All she wanted as an adolescent was to belong, she remembers, to be a "sabra," and for this she paid the price of her Bulgarian identity.

"My parents did not know Hebrew well, certainly not reading or writing, and we did not have a Gordon commentary Bible at home and all kinds of other things that sabras had. Everything that was lacking at home I made up for outside. All in all, I missed a lot of things. Instead of going to search out Bulgarian folklore, which existed then mainly in Jaffa, I disavowed it. Today I regret it."

Even though her art is deeply grounded in her autobiography, she says, she is reluctant to speak publicly about her private life (though every few sentences she mentions one of her children or husbands ). This is apparently what happens when art and life are intertwined.

Her first husband was killed in a plane crash during the 1956 Sinai War after five years of marriage and passionate love "of the kind Satan would envy" - as she once said in an interview to Haaretz Magazine. She was left with their daughter, Atar, who was two years old at the time.

"It was so hard. I was so young, and if I hadn't had Atari, I would not have had the will to survive. Still, it was hard for me to raise her, to sing her songs, with my sadness. But she kept me alive," Eshel-Gershuni says, momentarily downcast but immediately brightening. "Today she is my best friend. Much of that through grief, pain and what we went through, but when we were able to overcome all that something good happened."

At the age of 33, living with her daughter in her mother's house, Eshel-Gershuni enrolled at the Avni Institute to study sculpting. Among her teachers were the artists Dov Feigin and Moshe Sternschuss.

"I didn't want to be a secretary or a teacher, I wanted to be an artist from an early age. I wanted art to be my profession, because I knew that if I didn't make it one, it would never be serious, only a hobby, like occupational therapy."

Even when at Avni she was an outsider, rebelling against the conventions of the time, which the teachers tried to implant in the students. Feigin, she relates, "was my teacher for life, but I never followed him in sculpting. He would drive me nuts and say, 'Bianca, not so stylized. Add material and leave it there to breathe.' Being a student was hard. It's very hard when someone tells me what to do; I try to listen, but it doesn't work. I have to do everything my way."

Feigin tried to nudge her toward abstract sculpture, which was then becoming the dominant form, but she insisted on the figurative. "I wanted to sculpt a cat, a horse, anything. That whole abstract thing didn't appeal to me and I was unmovable. Sternschuss, who was a frustrated sculptor, would find consolation by touching up the students' work. He would take a sculpture and say, 'Come here, I'll show you,' and remove a little here, a little there. I watched what he was doing and said to myself: That's not me. So I developed a method: when he wasn't looking I would give the work a little push and knock it over. 'Oy, Moshe, look what happened, the sculpture fell down, now I understand what you meant and I will start over' - and I would go back to my bad ways."

Resurgent volcano

After three years at Avni she met Moshe Gershuni. He was younger and had just entered the school. Spurred by the love that sprang up between them, she went on to study painting for three years, to remain by his side. After they were married they moved to Ra'anana in order to be close to fruit groves that he owned, although Eshel-Gershuni says she was deeply rooted in Tel Aviv.

After discovering how to work with soft metals from a friend, she began to make jewelry for her own use - "only to adorn myself," she explains. In a 2007 collection of essays that were published about her work, the editor, Mordechai Geldman, writes that she "created her first pieces of jewelry in order to wear them, as a kind of performance. Like body art, her jewelry is intended not only for decoration, but also as art in its own right, so that she is both a subjective and an archetypal artist." Geldman also found in the jewelry harbingers of the artist's later, large-scale works.

"I finished the institute and decided I would do only jewelry," Eshel-Gershuni relates. "At that time the trend of monumental sculpture began, with Anthony Caro, Henry Moore and all that heavy steel. I realized that I was not built for muscular work, or to hire assistants and produce works covering huge areas. At the time it never occurred to me that Giacometti did small things ... I started to introduce legends and myths into the jewelry."

Her unusual works, highly creative and instinctive, attracted much attention. They were noticeable for their size and the daring fusion of "high" (gold and silver ) with "low" (feathers, plastic and so forth ) materials. Within a short time she was making a living from the jewelry, showing her work at important exhibitions in Israel and abroad, taking part in international competitions and winning prizes (a gold medal at the international Sonderschau Exhibition in Munich in 1971, and first prize in design competitions sponsored by the Israeli Export Institute in the 1960s and 1970s ). In 1977, Eshel-Gershuni had a solo exhibition at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, for which the curator was Yona Fisher.

"The dialogue with him was fantastic," she recalls. "I wanted to turn the exhibition into an installation with stuffed animals on which I would place the jewelry. He told me, 'Bianca, it's your jewelry but my exhibition. Forget it.' You can always rely on Yona when he says something like that."

As for what sets her work apart, she explains, "When you put my jewelry on the table it has presence, you don't have to wear it. At the same time, it can be worn, and that's important for me." She is also aware, though, that the jewelry's powerful presence can be disturbing. "It takes someone with a very dominant personality to agree to wear jewelry like that. Suzy Eban told me that whenever she went anywhere with [her husband, the late] Abba Eban wearing one of my jewelry creations, people looked at her chest. 'It's all because of you,' she told me. But I told her, 'No, it's because of you, because you have a personality that can carry it.'"

The techniques she used for making jewelry were very evident in her sculptures, and also associated with the work of Igal Tumarkin during those years - albeit in a radically different way - and with that of the late sculptor Aika Brown. Both Brown and Eshel-Gershuni used mannequins in their work, though Brown usually painted his black.

At the beginning of the 1980s, Moshe Gershuni discovered that he was attracted to men and left the family's Ra'anana home; his wife stayed and raised the children. The traumatic event caused another deep crisis. "He awakened a dormant volcano," editor Geldman wrote, adding, "From that reawakened volcano, Bianca Eshel-Gershuni was reborn as an artist of bold expressiveness."

These developments were reflected in a major exhibition at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1985, following several years of work by the artist.

"It was a very rough time in my life, and the exhibition made it possible for me to purge all the grime and stay clean inside," she says. "I was brave, maybe the first to come out of the closet in some sense, the first who put things on the table and said: This is my pain, ladies and gentlemen. Have a look, because I am hurting."

Curator Dalia Manor, who sponsored Eshel-Gershuni's candidacy for the lifetime achievement award, wrote in her recommendation: "The interest in women's art and in crafts as one of the features of feminine creative work, the openness to art with biographical elements, the return to the narrative, to materiality, to feeling and, of course, the mixture of genres and the crossing of boundaries that characterize postmodern trends - this was the background to Eshel-Gershuni's solo show at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art in 1985, which catapulted her to center stage."

How did you feel about the exposure?

Eshel-Gershuni: "It was hard for me, but I wasn't afraid. I had no choice. It was necessary to externalize. It's easiest for me when I sculpt - more than talking, more than writing, more than anything. My doctor once asked me to show her what I was working on, and when she saw it she almost passed out. 'But, Bianca,' she said. 'You look perfectly normal - is this what you have inside?' Still, I think that if I had just told about some stomachache it would not have been interesting. What is interesting is the transformation things undergo thanks to the language of art. They become universal, a prototype for grief and the other problems I raise there."

It seems to me that from the start of your path as an artist, death has been present. What is your attitude toward it now?

"Look, death is found by life's side. I encountered death at such an early age, the dearest person to me in the world was taken. I feel the deprivation to this day, and also the fact that Atari did not get to know her wonderful father. We had plans for 45 years ahead, and in one day, in one minute, it all went down the drain. These days I hardly plan for tomorrow. No one is giving me guarantees. I know that life can end in an instant. Kobi [Harel, a sculptor who drowned not long ago] went swimming and didn't come back. With age death becomes more acute, standing at my side. But I will not resist. I am constantly preparing myself for the end. I always said that the angel of death will come and I have to be his friend so he will take me with mercy, take me in peace. I will not object or fight. I must come to accept that this is the way of the world. Each person has his allotted time. Naturally this appears in my work."

The municipal gallery in Ra'anana is showing paintings she has done since the late 1980s. Many are self-portraits: The outer "wrapping" is as young and beautiful as it was years ago, but the gaze is mature, melancholy, but also somehow complete, as usual.

"Uri was here," she says, "and saw one of the paintings. I told him it was a self-portrait. He said, 'Mom, you would give anything to look like that.' I replied, 'Uri, that is how I see myself.' The fact that I have grown older doesn't change the fact that this is how I feel inside." W