Artist to Know: Yosl Bergner

Liz Catalano
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Millea Bros. to Offer 1975 Sketch by Famed Israeli Painter

While creating his allegorical works, Israeli painter Yosl Bergner drew from international sources of inspiration. Born in Vienna and raised in Warsaw, Bergner witnessed rampant anti-Semitism in his early years. He fled Europe for Australia as a young man. Bergner empathized with the oppressed Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of his new home, and he mirrored the style of their artwork as he settled in the newly-created state of Israel. These critical migrations— with their accompanying heartache and political undertones— haunted Bergner throughout his decades-long career. 

A 1975 painting by Yosl Bergner will come to auction with Millea Bros. Ltd. on December 1st, 2021. Bidding begins at 10:00 AM EST. Before the auction starts, get to know Yosl Bergner and his art.

Yosl Bergner in his Tel Aviv studio. Image by Marc Israel Sellem for The Jerusalem Post.
Yosl Bergner in his Tel Aviv studio. Image by Marc Israel Sellem for The Jerusalem Post.

Yosl Bergner’s father was a renowned Yiddish poet, and his mother was an opera singer. The family moved to Warsaw, Poland when the artist was one year old. There, they sought the support and culture of a rapidly-expanding Yiddish community. Bergner later recalled learning Polish from the family’s maid and eating vegetarian meals during widespread food shortages. 

Anti-Semitism also defined Bergner’s early life. He grew up between the World Wars amid rising hostilities in Warsaw. The widespread prejudice led many to seek a permanent homeland for European Jewish communities. Bergner’s father favored the Kimberley Plan, which proposed a massive relocation to Western Australia. The plan fell through, but the Bergner family decided to move southward anyway. Bergner studied at Melbourne’s National Gallery School before fighting in World War II with the Australian Army.

Bergner quickly established himself as a leader of Australia’s rising modern art scene after he returned from the war. He immersed himself in the work of Aboriginal artists, studied Vincent van Gogh, and read the bleak writings of Franz Kafka. Each of these elements informed Bergner’s painting career. His Social Realist pieces carry shades of dark humor. Ordinary kitchen items cast sinister shadows in his compositions, often standing in for threats of war and violence. Bergner also painted childhood memories from his Polish shtetl. His art reflected his lived experiences: “I’m a storyteller through paintings,” Bergner told The Jerusalem Post in 2015. “I tell stories of how I feel.”

Yosl Bergner, Seated Figure, 1975. Image from Millea Bros. Ltd.
Yosl Bergner, Seated Figure, 1975. Image from Millea Bros. Ltd.

Yosl Bergner immigrated to Israel shortly after its establishment. In Tel Aviv, he continued to paint while designing sets and costumes for theaters. Bergner eventually received the Israel Prize for painting in 1980. The upcoming Millea Bros. auction will feature a Bergner painting from this period of his career. Completed in 1975, Seated Figure shows a person reclining in a chair. The central figure appears to be hunched over as they tap their fingers together. Expressive dashes of color pepper this sketch-like piece. It comes to auction with an estimate of USD 7,000 to $10,000. 

Bergner exhibited widely prior to his death in 2017. He twice represented Israel at the Venice Biennale and became a beloved figure of Israeli fine art. Prices for Bergner’s paintings at auction have also held steady over the last 20 years. Tiroche Auction House of Herzliya in Israel regularly sells Bergner’s artworks for $20,000 or above. Examples from the 1970s are particularly favorable. During this period, the artist deviated from his usual still lifes to paint two-dimensional figures with pointy chins and straight noses. Bergner placed these characters in countless environments, from Jewish wedding ceremonies to vaguely sinister windows. Sotheby’s established Yosl Bergner’s auction record in 2018 with the sale of Kushan (The Deed). The three-paneled piece achieved $162,500 against a slightly low estimate of $120,000.

Yosl Bergner, Kushan (The Deed). Image from Sotheby’s.
Yosl Bergner, Kushan (The Deed). Image from Sotheby’s.

Yosl Berger’s Seated Figure will come to auction in the first session of Millea Bros.’ Select auction series. The event starts at 10:00 AM EST on December 1st, 2021. The catalog particularly features the work of Greek and Greek diaspora artists, including Chryssa and Giorgos Sikeliotis, from the collection of Litsa Tsitsera. For the complete auction details and to register to bid, visit LiveAuctioneers.

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Liz Catalano
Liz Catalano
Senior Writer and Editor

Liz Catalano is a writer and editor for Auction Daily. She covers fine art sales, market analysis, and social issues within the auction industry. She regularly collaborates with auction houses and other clients. A Chicago native, she holds a BSW degree and is based in Pennsylvania.

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