- VOLUME 10
- MY LIBRARY
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The Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization is a ten-volume series that collects more than 3,000 years of Jewish cultural artificats, texts, and paintings, selected by more than 120 internationally recognized scholars.
Missing Yosl Bergner
In the fall of 2015, Ruth Wisse, the renowned Harvard Yiddishist, published an essay in the Jewish Review of Books about Yosl Bergner, a friend of hers. The piece was a tribute, a sort of birthday gift (Bergner was turning 95), and, perhaps, a valediction: just over a year later, Bergner died in Tel Aviv.
A death at the age of 96 can hardly be said to be untimely, yet losing Bergner, who died on January 18th, feels not only sad but premature. Bergner was a prolific artist whose peripatetic life took him from Austria to Poland to Australia to his longtime home of Israel. As soon as the news broke, a raft of obituaries and appreciations—along with our modern form of tribute, Tweets and Facebook posts—popped up online. In addition to his creative work, Bergner was great company, a charming raconteur, and a character. He could be prickly, too, as when anyone called him an artist.
“I’m a painter,” he would admonish—“not an artist.” The difference? An artist was a dilettante, pursuing a whim or hobby. A painter, by distinct contrast, was a laborer, doing the steady, unglamorous work of artistic production. Painting was easy. Art was all grit and stubborn industry. “I come to work every day,” he would explain, adding, “I schmear and something comes out.”
That, of course, was shtick, designed to disarm; Bergner was no mere schmearer, not by his own estimation or anyone else’s. In a career spanning seven decades, he won major prizes of every sort, the Israel Prize among them. And his admirers paid handsomely for his work. Bergner’s “painted stories” (as a friend called them) fetched hefty sums. (They still do. Right now, anyone with $25,000 on hand can acquire Bergner’s 30 X 40 centimeter oil painting, “People at the Sea,” online.)
Bergner’s painting “A Sad Story” was included in Volume 10 of the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization. It is a strange, striking, and, yes, terribly sad work. It depicts linked train cars and small, shapeless figures in a white, denuded landscape. One’s first reaction is that a child might have drawn it. That impression is, of course, incorrect: Its artlessness is the product of labor and artistic cunning: a hundred subtle, deft decisions. Does “A Sad Story” capture some essential truth about the Holocaust? One looks, then looks away, and ponders.
It would be easy to label Bergner an artist of suffering, of Jewish suffering, but that, too, would be reductive. Bergner often painted Jews—Jews dancing, Jews playing musical instruments, Jews staring straight ahead, calmly—but these images are seldom bleak or objectifying. The colors are muted, but Bergner’s Jews are fully alive. One senses affection, present mainly in the quality of attention he paid to them.
One even senses humor, a gloomy, subdued humor, which may have been a family trait. Bergner had excellent artistic yichus—his father was the Yiddish poet Melekh Ravitch. In addition to being a wordsmith, Ravitch was a famous Lothario who may or may not have been romantically involved with Ruth Wisse’s mother. In 2000, Wisse worked up the nerve to ask Yosl Bergner about the affair.
“Halevai!” the artist exclaimed without pausing: “If only!”