Yosl Bergner was a major influence on both Australian and Israeli art and is considered an important painter in both countries. He lives and works in Tel Aviv.
Yosl Bergner was born in 1920 in Vienna and grew up in Warsaw. His father, the writer Melech Ravitch, introduced Bergner to German Expressionism. However he wanted Yosl to learn a trade, which Yosl saw as being a painter. In 1937 due to the deteriorating situation in Europe, Yosl Bergner emigrated to Australia with his family.
Yosl Bergner began to study at the National Gallery Art School in Melbourne while working in factory jobs. In WW2 while in the Australian Army as a ‘friendly alien’ Bergner continued to paint. Together with other similar young Australian painters, Bergner joined a group called the Angry Penguins. In 1942 the group showed paintings at the Contemporary Art Society anti-fascist exhibition. Bergner effectively introduced Australia to a combination of expressionism and social realism. He portrayed Jews in the ghetto and as refugees, and painted downtrodden Australian workers, especially Aborigines. Yosl Bergner was the first white artist to show portraits of Australian Aborigines, linking the oppression and discrimination they suffered to that of the Jews.
In 1948 Yosl Bergner left Australia to travel and exhibit, moving to Israel in 1950, settling in the Safed (Tzfat) colony of artists. Initially Bergner’s work was not well received in Israel, as it was considered to be too Diaspora orientated, instead of portraying the ‘New Jew’ being created. In 1957 Bergner moved to Tel Aviv, where he still lives and works.
Yosl Bergner’s style is a combination of expressionism and social realism, and many of his pictures have haunting images of the past. All his pictures tell a story, although the story may not be immediately obvious to the viewer. Bergner often uses images from the first drawing he did as a young child in his work. This first picture told the story of someone who fell under the wheels of a train and showed the man’s wife and daughter looking on, wondering what to do next. Also in this first picture was a clown, or a triangular face, which was the beginning of one of his frequent themes:- the image of a clown in a pointed hat. Bergner also uses object trouvés in his work, for example he creates angels from discarded boats he found on a Haifa beach. His latest works have a ‘toys’ theme and particularly appeal to children.
 Other Works
As well as painting, Yosl Bergner illustrated various books including book covers for Penguin classic editions of Franz Kafka, who Bergner admired. He has also produced theatre costumes and sets for a variety of Hebrew and Yiddish plays, especially those of Nisim Aloni, a major Israeli playwright.
Yosl Bergner exhibits his work in Israel and abroad, especially Australia. The Tel Aviv Museum has held several retrospective exhibitions, the last one being to celebrate Bergner’s 90th birthday in 2010. He is still considered an important artist in Australia.
There are several books about Yosl Bergner, including one ‘Art as a Meeting of Cultures’ by Frank Klepner, as well as numerous catalogues of exhibitions and books of his illustrations and paintings. Bergner’s own ‘What I Meant to Say: Stories and travels as Told to Ruth Bondy’ was published in 1997, and an earlier book ‘Yosl Bergner: Paintings, 1963-68’ was published in 1969. There is also an Australian film ‘Painting the Town: A Film About Yosl Bergner (1987) about his life and work. His work is available through galleries, auction houses and online.