30 January 2009

Yosl Bergner, the Australian Years

Frank Klepner wrote a wonderful book called Yosl Bergner: Art as a Meeting of Cultures, MacMillan, Melbourne, 2004. I was particularly interested in the part of Bergner's career that he spent in Australia and the influence he had on Australia's most important artists before and during WW2.

Yosl Bergner was born in Vienna in 1920, and was raised in Warsaw. With rampant anti-Semitism in Europe, the Freeland League for Jewish Territorial Colonisation was formed in July 1935, to search for a potential Jewish home land. Soon afterwards a pastoral firm offered the League c16,500 square ks in the Kimb­erleys, stret­ching from the north of Western Australia into the Nor­thern Terr­it­ory. The plan ultimately failed, but for a time, the idea was at least interesting. Bergner's father, Melech Ravitch, became involved in a serious investigation of the Kimberleys, and thus the Bergner family moved to Australia.

16 year old Yosl left Poland with Yosl Birstein, who be­came a nov­el­ist. Together the teenagers travelled to Australia, arr­iving in 1937 when this country was still in the grip of the Depres­s­ion. He thus belonged to the gener­at­ion of people uprooted from home and forced to build a life elsewhere. Even safely in Australia, Berg­ner struggled to survive. He worked in unskilled jobs in Carlton fact­ories, while studying painting at Melbourne’s National Gal­lery Art School.

Father and Sons, 1943

From this inauspicious beginning, Klepner asks, how could such a raw teenage new comer affect the course of art events? In Melbourne from 1937-48, Bergner be­friended many of the local artists who now epit­om­ise modern Aust­r­a­l­­ian art: Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker, John Per­c­eval and Arthur Boyd. The men socialised together.

Friendship with artist Arthur Boyd introduced a new avenue of Bergner inf­l­uence. Klepner suggests that Boyd came from the most stable back ground of all the 1940s artists and had never met anyone like Bergner with his deprivation and persecution. Boyd noted that Bergner’s great influence was his expressionist style. Yosl introduced him to writ­ers like Dostoyevsky & Kafka. Bergner’s profound commitment to human­it­arian values rein­forced Boyd’s own social conscience. Some of the urban paintings of 1938 and 1939 showed Boyd’s new direction: dark backgrounds, shroud­ing heavily outlined heads distorted by anxiety or cruelty, or some other existential, deep turbulence. Boyd noted that Bergner encouraged them to go be­y­ond their trad­it­ional landscape style; he introduced them to soc­ial commentary about the human condition, thus changing Australian art.

Adrian Lawlor returned from WW1 in 1919 & moved with his wife to Warrandyte where they lived for 30 years. Bergner was a frequent visitor at this home. Lawlor & George Bell str­ongly resisted the proposal to form a conservative Australian Academy of Art in 1937 and next year set up the oppos­ing, progressive Contemporary Art Society with Lawlor as secretary. Lawlor’s 1937 book and 1939 pamphlet dealt well with the controversy; he was a guide-lecturer at the 1939 Herald Show of French/British Contemporary Art and spoke on modern art at meetings.

Young Tucker looked upon his art as a hobby. It wasn't until meeting Russian Danila Vassilieff who arrived in Melb­ourne in 1937 and Yosl Bergner in 1938 that Tucker changed his mind. These foreign artists and their unsettling depictions of the anguish of the most oppressed elements of Australian society had a strong impact on Tucker. He soon began to investigate and create the trauma, insec­ur­ity and anxiety produced by the Depression and the war. The two Europ­eans’ experience convinced Tucker that, despite his back­ground and his poverty, he could also make a career out of his work.

It was at this point that Tucker’s talent was spotted by Sunday and John Reed, and his involvement with the Heide homestead and his ass­ociation Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Joy Hester, who became his wife. He felt for the first time, despite the differences of ideol­ogies and beliefs, very much a part of a like-minded group. Tucker wrote for the pub­lication Angry Penguins, the principal outlet for the expression of avant-garde ideas between 1941-6.

Still Life c1941 (Ian Potter) shows his Surrealist in­fluence. The domestic utensils of the house become alive, yet they remain sharpish. Noel Counihan's approach to light and dark was said to be influenced by Bergner's Still Life, a rendering of vegetables lying on a white tablecloth that melds with the European snow. "I was the first expressionist in Australia," Bergner wrote in What I Meant to Say, in 1997. "I brought express­ionism to Australia without knowing it." Inspired by European modern­ism his strong social-realist paintings were influenced (politically or in painting style) by French artists like Daumier.

Bergner's influence on Tucker, Noel Counihan, Arthur Boyd and Vic O'Connor was great. It was not just the style and mood of Berg­ner's paintings - the dark, glowering eerie cityscapes where the disp­os­s­essed, the victims and the loners wander. The Australian born artists clearly loved the idea of a marginalised refugee making it in art.

Of course Bergner wasn't the only source of Europeanisation. Ex­hibitions of modern art from Europe and America had a great effect on the local scene. In 1939 the Herald Exhibition of French and Br­itish Contemporary Art (aka Degenerate) in the Melbourne Town Hall assem­b­l­ed can­vases that included many of the best modernists in France and Britain. Then in 1941 the Contemp­orary Art Society held its famous exhibition, bringing together works testifying to the dynamic changes that had taken place in Australian painting since the 1930s. Two triumphs for progressive art.

Aboriginals in Fitzroy, 1941

Yet of the generation of artists that called themselves the Angry Pen­guins, Bergner was arguably one of the least app­rec­­iated! Bergner was probably unprepared for the plight of many struggling Austral­ians. Yet he felt a strong connection between the suffering of people everywhere, whether they were the Jews in Central and Eastern Europe, dispossessed blacks in central Australia or hungry children in Carl­ton. Among his subjects of that time were highly sympathetic depict­ions of indigenous Australians eg Aborigines in Fitzroy 1941 (SA Gall).

He painted images which were drawn from his experience of hunger; views of a sad urban environment, inhab­ited by refugees and slum dwellers. Klepner’s book has very moving, dark works like Citizen and The Pumpkin Eaters 1939-42, now in state galleries.

The empathy that Bergner displayed in his art attracted immediate attent­ion, according to Klepner, and inspired many young Mel­bourne artists during the 1940s. Russian artist Danila Vass­il­ieff also arr­ived in Melbourne in 1937 and met Bergner and Tucker in 1938. These meet­ings inspired Tucker to examine his values and to focus on the pain of the Depression and of war. Bergner's influen­ce on Noel Coun­ihan was just as important; Klepner suggests that Counih­an's ap­proach to light and dark was affected by Bergner’s expression­ism. Tuck­er, Berg­ner, Counihan and Vassilieff all joined the newly formed Contem­p­orary Art Society, to give voice to art not accepted by the estab­lish­ment and to influence the future direction of Australian art.

The Pie Eaters 1940 was shown at Melbourne's Contemporary Art Society An­n­ual Exhibition in 1941. Appropriately the exhibition was en­titled: Art and Social Commitment: an end to the city of dreams 1931-1948. Pie Eaters portrayed 2 refugees in a dark, barren environ­ment, enclosed by the wall behind them. They neither speak nor look at each other, as each is lost in their own world. Despite the title of the painting, there is no pie to be seen, just a bare table, an empty plate, a bottle and continuing hunger. Perhaps it illustrated a very personal and passionate response to the artist’s own poverty.

In the 1940s he was a homeless painter. Bergner’s association with the Australian Jewish community was pred­ominantly through Kadimah and the Yiddishists. He became very friendly with writers Pinchas Gold­har, Judah Waten and Yosl Birstein. Fortunately they provided food!

Tocumwal, 1944

During WW2, Bergner enlisted in the Australian Army Labour Company at Tocumwal NSW 1941-6. He worked with other Friendly Aliens who had been refugees from Axis count­r­ies. Drawing on personal experience, he evoked a mood of dejection and exhaust­ion eg Tocumwal, Loading the Train 1944. The bleak palette of muted browns added to the atmosphere of gloom. The 4 anonymous fig­ures, their bodies slumped dejectedly, had survived another day of endless loading and unloading goods trains for the war effort. Bergner later won a Commonwealth Rehabilitation Schol­arship, to return to studies at the National Gallery Art School.

For Albert Tucker WW2 was also an experience that viol­ated the social and moral stability of urban Australia. He was dis­turbed by the live-for-the-day mentality that pervaded the city with the influx of service­men on leave. Victory Girls 1943 presents a grotesque night image of two young women accepting the advances of drunken soldiers. In Flinders St At Night 1943, we note the nightmarish qualities of a woman dancing with a death mask and of 2 trumpeters playing away. The painting seems to be speaking out against the immense slaughter of human life and the distorted social relations produced by the war.

Bergner may have kept his sense of humour, but his work was often dark and despairing. There were hints of optimism eg the recurring motif of the ladder, symbol of hope. But dark­ness was ongoing. Two Women 1942, one black and one white, had an air of resignation. Father and Sons 1943 was beyond despair. Only Looking Over the Ghetto Wall 1943 suggested vague hopefulness, unfulfilled hopefulness (all three in the NGV).

Bergner was only in Australia until 1948, before leaving permanently for Israel. Yet it was Bergner who showed that art was not merely a ref­lection of Australian society; instead it could be an instrument in its very shap­ing. In his 11 years here, Bergner became politically more involved and his social criticism sharpened.

Over the Ghetto Wall 1943

He left Australia in 1948, travelling first to Paris and then to Israel in 1951. It is said that he became an Israeli without shedding his Jewish cosmopol­itan/refugee identity, an identity he zealously guarded in Israel’s melting pot of the 50s and 60s. Even after the state was est­ab­lished, Bergner’s Israeli works were filled by the trauma of the refugee. Eugene Kolb, Director of the Tel Aviv Mus­eum, curated a wonderful exhibition and catalogue of Bergner’s works in 1957.

Caustic Cover Critic blog amazingly found some book covers designed by Bergner.


JRSM said...

Thanks for that: I knew almost none of this--fascinating stuff!

Hels said...

You are a champion, JRSM.

I wonder why the Penguin Modern Classics people chose a Yosl Bergner cover in 1961. Mind you, I think it was an apt choice.

Katrina said...

I was so thrilled to receive your email and then to read this post!
Fascinating - I will be sure to keep in touch and let you know of my progress and any developments.

Best wishes to you


Unknown said...

Frank is a great individual, and a fantastic writer. Respect.

Hels said...

From Katrina...

what a pleasure to stumble upon your blog - the means not only to contact you, but also an invitation to wile away a happy hour reading your wonderful posts!

It was a google search on Yosl Bergner that pointed me in your direction, and direction is also what I seek from you

I am an Australian (Australian/Austrian actually - unfortunately without the German language), who moved to London some 10 months ago. I am currently studying at London's Courtauld Institute and am nearing the pointy end of my MA in the History of Art, specialising in Art in Exile - with a focus on German and Austrian emigres to Britain.

However my curiosity - and my excitement - has been pricked by Yosl Bergner. It is perhaps preliminary - and I would need to receive the approval of my Professor, but I see the potential in Bergner for my MA dissertation. It would be especially wonderful to take advantage of London's proximity to Israel, and to be able to interview Bergner and access the archive. At any rate I would love to know more and to read more and to see more of his works.

At this preliminary, fact-finding stage, however, I face a hurdle. London's wonderful libraries - even the British Library - really have no material on Bergner. I note that you delivered a lecture, with a great name, ' How Australian was Yosl Bergner?' at a Limmud conference in 2007.

Could I ask if you would please be willing to send me a copy of your lecture and illustrations? I could assure you this would only be for reference.

As a secondary request, would you by any chance have the contact details for Bergner's biographer -Frank Klepner? I would love to get hold of this book - for my research and for posterity within the Courtauld Library.

Hels responded...
good to know people are reading art history blogs. I always fear that you have to write about adolescent dating problems to have an audience :(

Anyhow Yosl Bergner would be a great topic for a Master's thesis. I do warn you that in my blog and in the conference paper, I was not very focussed on his art after the 1950s. It changed dramatically.

If you want to see his work from the 30s & 40s, you will have to visit Australia or get copies of Australian holdings. If you go to Israel, you will see largely his work from 1960-2000.

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this post!

Hels said...


Here is a big statement by Klepner: At the age of 17, Bergner brought the virus of Expressionism and social realist art to Australia. Galleries have long preferred the easier option of hanging Sid Nolan's prolific faux naif Ned Kellys.

AlexB said...

Dear Hels,

Thanks for you wonderful article about , how is my personal and very dear friend.

I am looking to for works of yosl in Australia, if you know of any or can refer me to people how own substantial work I would be grateful.

Thank you and have a nice day!!
All the best,


Hels said...


Although I only looked at the works painted IN Australia before Yosl's aliyah in 1948, I found a painting with an Australian theme painted in 1990:


And some at the Mossgreen Gallery in Melbourne:

Good to meet you :)

Hels said...

I have created a link to "Heide Gallery in Autumn" in the blog called The Resident Judge of Port Phillip.

Hels said...


I gave a paper on Bergner and the Angry Penguin artists at an Australian conference last week. Are you still interested in the topic?


Leonard Joel said...

A Yosl Bergner Sculpture Exhibition will be held in Malvern Rd South Yarra from 3rd-14th September 2014. Note that the sculptures were created in the last five years.

Hels said...

Leonard Joel

I have had a good look at the sculptures, many thanks. Clearly the collection of sculpted works were inspired by his 1960s paintings but who knew that a man over 90 years old had the physical energy to create these pieces.

Rita G said...

Came across your blog on internet, noted your interest in Bergner who I met many times as he is my husband’s cousin and I have some pictures he gave me.
Did you do the dissertation on his work?

Hels said...


you and your husband selected your family very well. Although my mum knew Yosl very well when he lived in Australia (1937-48), I still don't have any of his early works and can only admire them as a researcher.

Re my own academic studies, no, I know very little of mid 20th century art. My favourite period starts in 1650 and really ends rather sharply in the trenches of 1914.

Anna Epstein said...

Dear Hels
I have just published a beautiful art and history book called 'Melekh Ravitsh The Eccentric Outback Quest of an Urbane Yiddish Poet from Poland', and in the references I quote your blog and the post on Yosl Bergner. I was excited and grateful to find it. The book tells the story of Bergner's father's 1933 wild Australian outback journey in search of a Jewish homeland, at a time when European Jews were in danger of imminent destruction. It is illustrated by Ravitsh's outback photos and by Bergner's paintings based on those photos. It is about both father and son, united in their belief that they could change the world, one through literature, the other through painting, and in Ravitsh's case by the search for a sanctuary for his direly threatened people. The story makes reference to the 130-year search for a homeland outside Palestine, and more widely, to the current world-wide refugee crisis. The book has a Facebook page which your readers might be interested to share around, called 'Melekh Ravitsh by Anna Epstein'. Hels, I would be delighted to send you a copy of the book. Please email me. Kind regards, Anna Epstein

Hels said...


bless your heart. I hope the book does very well and I hope blog readers enjoy it too.

Anna Epstein said...

Thank you Hels. The book can be purchased at Readings Carlton and St Kilda, Thesaurus in Brighton, Avenue in Elsternwick, the Jewish Museum in Alma Road, at Heide and online at https://www.readings.com.au/products/31527940/melekh-ravitsh-the-eccentric-outback-quest-of-an-urbane-yiddish-poet-from-poland

Best wishes
Anna Epstein

Hels said...


thank you twice. I just found another reference to your writing in my blog that I had forgotten about: "The Australian Family: Images and Essays (1998). Well done.