Moshe Gershuni (born September 11, 1936) is an Israeli painter and sculptor. In his works, particularly in his paintings from the 1980s, he expressed a position different from the norm, commemorating The Holocaust in Israeli art. In addition, he created in his works a connection between bereavement and homoerotic sexuality, in the way he criticized society and Israeli Zionism-nationalism. He was awarded the Israel Prize for Painting for his work in 2003, but in the end it was revoked and he was deprived of receiving the prize.
Moshe Gershuni was born in 1936 to Yona and Zvi Kutner, who had made aliyah to the Land of Israel from Poland. Zvi, the head of the family, who was an agronomist and farmer, “hebraicized” the family name from Kutner to Gershuni, after his father. His mother Yona, née Senior, acted in community theater in Poland and made hats in Tel Aviv. The family lived in Tel Aviv on Hahashmal Street, and in 1939 moved to Mazeh Street. In 1938 Mira, Moshe's sister, was born, and in 1943, his brother Avshalom was born. Moshe was sent to the religious Bilu School and then continued his studies in a religious high school.
His father managed to save several family members from The Holocaust by arranging immigration certificates (certifikatim) to the Land of Israel, but some of his mother's relatives perished in the Holocaust. Gershuni described in a late interview the presence of the Holocaust in his childhood: “My mother was troubled all the rest of her life that she had not succeeded in bringing them here. And, like many others, I remember the years after the war […] I remember that I read everything I could on the subject, there were already personal accounts of it on the radio, in private conversations, from the relatives who arrived. […] it was in my consciousness, it was almost the center of my consciousness, in spite of the fact that my early years included the founding of the State and the war with the Arabs, but everything was a function of that experience.”
In 1952 the family moved from Tel Aviv to Herzliya, near to the family-owned orchards, in the Gan Rashal area. In 1954, Gershuni’s induction into the army was postponed by half a year because he was underweight, but the date of induction in 1955 was also postponed by the death of his father in an auto accident. Gershuni took over his father’s job in the orchards. After his father's death Gershuni began to move into the world of art. The painter Leon Fouturian and the sculptor Uri Shoshany, both residents of Herzliya, influenced him. From 1960 to 1964 he studied sculpture in night courses at Avni Institute of Art and Design, after days spent working in the orchards. His teachers were Dov Feigin and Moshe Sternschuss, members of the “New Horizons” group, which during these years was beginning to lose the central place it had held in the world of Israeli art.
In 1964 he married Bianca Eshel, who was also a student in the Avni Institute and a widow of an Israeli Air Force pilot who had been killed in the Sinai Campaign. After the wedding the couple moved to Ra'anana. In addition to Eshel’s daughter from her first marriage, a son, Aram Gershuni, was born to them in 1967 and a second son, Uri Gershuni, in 1970.
Gershuni’s artistic path began with abstract sculpture, strongly influenced by pop art. His first solo exhibition was mounted in 1969 in the Israel Museum. On the walls of the Museum were hung yellowish green abstract paintings in a geometric style, and throughout the space of the exhibition itself were strewn objects made of soft materials influenced by the sculptor Claes Oldenburg.
In the 1970s Gershuni produced a series of works influenced by the conceptual art of Europe and America. Yona Fischer who, in his position as Curator of the Israel Museum during those years, encouraged these trends, in retrospect stated that “the understanding that conceptual activity was what was developing here was not yet fully focused.” As the influence of conceptual art, particularly American conceptual art, seeped in, “post-minimalist” art, which was concerned with examining the material values of art (Formalism), while attempting to strengthen the status of artistic activity, began to develop in Israel. In addition, this type of art emphasized the ontological dimension of artistic works. Instead of objectives with a commercial aesthetic, this genre adopted a freer relationship with minimalist values and emphasized the exposure of the process of the artist at work. At the same time it examined and subverted the values of society with regard to its political and social views.
Gershuni’s first important works made use of automobile tires (“Inner Tubes”). The use of this material constituted a continuation of his preoccupation with soft materials, but Gershuni introduced new characteristics which had been absent in his work before. In “The Spirit is Willing, But the Flesh is Weak” (1969), for example, Gershuni exhibited inner tubes lined up in a row along a wall. The title of the work, taken from “Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 26:41),” referred to the gap between the body and the spirit, and between the perception of reality and human consciousness. A similar work was exhibited in 1970 in the “Group Autumn Exhibition” in the Helena Rubenstein Pavilion for Contemporary Art. Gershuni created a large sculpture installation called “Inner Tubes,” which included rows of 64 tire inner tubes arranged in piles and creating a net (“grid”) in the style of minimalist art. The work received broad public exposure because of a television reporter on Channel 1 who visited the exhibition and focused on Gershuni’s sculpture as an uncompromisingly curious object.
Another work that shows Gershuni’s ironic relationship with the grid is “Margarine Cubes on Paper” (1970). The work documented, in effect, an activity in which margarine cubes melted into the paper, while emphasizing the sensual aspect of the material. A reinforcement of this tendency can be seen in two videos Gershuni prepared for a television show created by Jacques Katmor for Israeli Television. In the video clip “Crawling” (1970; 32 seconds, black and white), Gershuni implemented an activity of signing with his body. He is photographed dressed in an Israeli army uniform, crawling over a dune in two opposing directions that are combined with one another. In this way, a kind of sign, in the form of an X was formed. This activity was described in retrospect by Ilana Tannenbaum as an act of ars poetica, which voids and cancels out the action it performs, at the same time as it makes an ironic statement about the Israeli military. Another work that was shown on the program included the covering up or sealing of the television screen “from the inside” with black paint.
Another series of works, also from 1970, is a series of drawings on fragments of paper, with names like “The Paper Looks White, but Inside, Within, It Is Black.” In these works Gershuni emphasizes the edges of the paper by tearing it or blackening it. These actions, according to Gershuni, were intended to show “that paper has thickness, that it is three-dimensional.” By pointing out the interior dimension of the paper, Gershuni was trying to indicate – ironically – the “beyond,” that is the transcendental dimension of art.
In the group of works that Gershuni created during the first half of the decade, content that diverged from questions of the characteristics of pure artistic representation began to appear. At the same time, Gershuni preserved the characteristics of form within conceptual art, that is, its arrangement in series, the use of text, and the reflexive dimension of the works. Among the new characteristics that appeared in his works was a whole series of clearly biographical references, both to the artist and to his family. In his work “My Father My Grandfather” (1970), for example, which was displayed in the exhibition entitled “Concept Plus Information” at the Israel Museum (Yona Fischer, Curator) in 1971, Gershuni hung an enlarged family photograph with a circle drawn around the head of his paternal grandfather. Next to the photograph was a caption that read, “My Old Man, Moshe the Son of So-and-So, Woodcarver. Plotzk, Poland, 1910.” In the 1974 “Benedictus” exhibition at the Yodfat Gallery in Tel Aviv, another work that made use of family photographs was exhibited. Under three photographs of his father and Red Army insignia, Gershuni attached a text printed on paper which said “My father was born in Poland and studied agriculture in France. He made aliyah to the Land of Israel in 1929. Planted trees.” The relationship between the images and the written texts were created, according to the later interpretation of Gideon Ofrat, pointed towards a disconnect between space and time, and between the Europe in which his grandfather lived and the Land of Israel in which Gershuni lived. The gap between the past and the present appears once again in his installation “Cypresses/Memories” (1971), which was displayed in The Artists House Tel Aviv, and which showed photographs from his childhood arranged on cut-down cypresses.
The series of photographs entitled “The Main (Real) Problems are with the Tongue and the Toes” (1972) reveals Gershuni’s interest in the body and corporeality as a topic of knowledge. In these self-portraits, Gershuni creates portraits by “mugging” in front of the camera, in a way that is parallel to contemporary American artists, such as Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, etc. The photographs of his face focus on Gershuni’s mouth and focus on the relationship between the surface and the gaping space. In the photographs of his legs, Gershuni continues with an examination of the relationship by exposing the toes of his feet through yellow paper.
Following the lead of Yitzhak Danziger, the spiritual father of many young artists of the 1970s, Gershuni participated in several performance art installations, which were called in those days "activities." "You could say we were 'Danziger's Boys'," Gershuni relates, "in the early 1970s, during the period when he was working in the Nesher quarry and was carrying out all of his experiments. That was during the time when he hung the wheat in the Museum, all that experimental direction that was exactly in the spirit of what we were looking for." These activities, that were political and social in nature, Gershuni developed in a kind of group that worked in the Hadera area, and which included Micha Ullman, Avital Geva, and Yehezkel Yardeni. The group made sure they had regular meetings with Danziger in Haifa and Tel Aviv and participated in tours he organized.
Among the group of projects the group carried out, called the "Metzer-Messer Project" (1972), Gershuni took photographs of the landscapes of Kibbutz Metzer, called a meeting of the kibbutz members, and "gave away" the kibbutz lands to these members. His colleague, the artist Micha Ullman, carried out an exchange of land between the Arab village of Messer and the neighboring kibbutz, and Geva organized books that were sent to recycling to Amnir Recycling Industries and set up an improvised libraries, among other things. The social dimension of these activities emphasized the work methods of art as an element in social progress. "In those days I used to say I didn't need a studio because I created products."
In 1972 Gershuni began to teach in the Department of Fine Arts of “Bezalel.” He was considered one of the central teachers, who supported experimental and political art. The “political discourse” of that period, according to Itamar Levy, “ran parallel to the formalist discourse.” An example of the political involvement can be found in a 1974 manifesto which includes artistic declarations, such as combining different artistic disciplines and putting an emphasis on work processes, along with a political petition from Bezalel's teachers and pupils, including Gershuni, which called for the formation of an investigative committee to examine the government's “failure” in the Yom Kippur War. In 1977, in connection with the “academization” of Bezalel, events reached a peak which included a series of strikes by the department and the students. Among the activities that Gershuni carried out with his pupils during this period was writing inscriptions that read “The painting problem is the Palestinian problem” and spreading them around the streets of Jerusalem. Because of the “rebellion” half of the teachers in the department were fired, among them Gershuni and Micha Ullman, who were considered the principal supporters of the students. In 1978 Gershuni began to teach at HaMidrasha - The Art Teachers Training College in Ramat Hasharon, where he continued to teach until 1986.
In 1978 Gershuni exhibited his work in a large group exhibition called “Artist-Society-Artist” at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. The version of his work “A Gentle Hand” that he displayed there included a newspaper article called "The Story of Joseph Ziad as Told to Leroy Frizen", describing abuse of a Palestinian doctor at the hands of Israeli soldiers, and including a voice recording on which he sings the song "A gentle hand" by Zalman Shneur, that was broadcast from a loudspeaker on the roof of the museum like a muezzin. In the catalog, Gershuni gave an explanation of the work that dealt both with internal politics and his own personal feelings:
"If I say that the song is 50 years old and that its source is from a certain period of settlement and a certain period of Zionism, will that mean anything? The song has emotional significance for me. The melody has Eastern motifs. I sing it the way I remember Ilka Raveh singing it in a night club in Jaffa, and he sang the way they once used to sing, during the time of enthusiasm for things Eastern, when they were still trying to be influenced by the East. On the soundtrack that appears here it’s as though I’m sitting there and teaching myself how I ought to sing “A Gentle Hand.
Gershuni’s varied work has had a great deal of influence on Israeli art. The combination of biographical characteristics, homosexual sexual expression, and aggressive expressionism, have comprised his most noticeable examples of anti-modernism beginning in the 1970s. In the 1970s Gershuni created minimalist art, in touch with American influences. However his work, along with the strictly formal side, was concerned with the physical aspect of artistic materials. In his work of these years there is a feeling of his squeezing in under the modernist grid while emphasizing self-examination and physical examination at the same time that he is adapting new artistic techniques, such as installation art, performance art, and environmental works. “A great many of my works in the 1970s were connected to what was going on between us and Europe,” Gershuni noted with regard to his work from these years, “which was essentially our homeland, because we did not have a history of art of our own in Israel,…while on the other hand there is the Zionist thing…we want to be part of the East, not part of the decadence of Europe.”
In her article, “"The Want of Matter: A Quality in Israeli Art" (1986), Sarah Breitberg-Semel described Gershuni’s work as conducting a complex, “two-faced” dialogue with Europe and its culture. On one hand this work is saturated with the characteristics of the same culture with which, on the other hand, he conducts a blood feud in the name of the Jewish people.”
In his article “The Visibility and Invisibility of Trauma” (1996), Roee Rosen claims that Gershuni’s works during the 1980s express a paradoxical relationship to the trauma of the Holocaust. The works are full of a mixture of symbols of European culture and of Jewish culture together with symbols of sexual transgression. This mixture, Rosen says, delays the establishment of a homogeneous, hermetic identity, and allows a reflexive view of the trauma of the Holocaust.
In 2000 Gershuni became romantically involved with Juan Jose Garcia Pineiro, a young Spanish man he had met on the Internet in 1999. Pineiro immigrated to Israel and began living with Gershuni in Tel Aviv. In addition, he rented a new, large studio in Southern Tel Aviv.
During the first half of the decade, a number of exhibitions that recycled earlier works of Gershuni were held. In Hamidrisha Gallery the installation “A Gentle Hand” was set up again and then left there as a permanent exhibition, and in 2005 the exhibition “Little Red Works,” which had originally been mounted in the Sarah Levi Gallery in Tel Aviv in 1979, was set up again. It was curated by Benno Kalev, a collector who bought many of the works that appeared in this exhibition.
After the decision was published by the Ministry of Education, Gershuni announced that he refused to shake the hand of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or Minister of Education Limor Livnat, and that he did not intend to take part in the Israel Prize awards ceremony. “I am very happy to receive the Israel Prize,” Gershuni announced, “but I am very sad to receive it in the political and social conditions that exist in Israel today.” In a letter that he sent to the Ministry of Culture on April 4, Gershuni wrote, “I cannot come and take part in the ceremony awarding the prizes. This is not the time for ceremonies and parties.” At the same time as the storm in the press was going on, Gershuni petitioned the High Court to allow him to accept the Israel Prize without being required to attend the awards ceremony, but the High Court rejected his petition and made receiving the prize conditional on participation in the awards ceremony. In a later interview Gershuni referred to this incident and claimed that his refusal to participate in the ceremony was a result of his artistic reaction. “I had no choice,” Gershuni said, “I once did a work against Arik Sharon; how can I make a mockery of my art and shake his hand now? My art is more important to me than my life. It was a symbolic refusal, an expression of opposition to all the policies of this country.”
On March 27, 2006, at Bet Gabriel on the Sea of Galilee, the exhibition “Sham-Mayim,” curated by Gideon Ofrat, opened. In this exhibition Gershuni returned to the image of wreaths. He used watercolors and acrylic paint in shades of blue. In some of the paintings the expression “Field of Sacred Apples,” a kabbalistic expression from the liturgical poem by Isaac Luria, “Azmir le-Shabahim” (I Sing Psalms in Honor of Shabbat), chanted at the Friday night meal, appears. Ofrat described the use of the old motif of the wreaths not only as a symbol of victory and of mourning, but also as an expression of sexuality, of the desire to mate, and of Eros, all of which symbolize the attempt to reach transcendental union.
On June 24, 2006 an exhibition opened at the Givon Art Gallery in which Gershuni displayed a series of paintings on fabric, done in the technique of Impasto [paint applied thickly] using oil paints and thickening gel, with a spray dripping water on the damp gel layer. These paintings, which he had begun to create at the beginning of the decade, had the look of “fields of paint,” in the style of the “New York School.” The works strove, in Gershuni’s words, to be “a transparent screen of shadows that come from the black place.” In this way Gershuni sought to make the viewer look at and thus become aware of how a painting creates an artistic illusion. In the exhibition that he mounted at the Givon Art Gallery, Gershuni even directed groups of lights on the paintings in a way that created different focuses of light on the surfaces of the paintings. A similar exhibition,“ "Whoever Sheds the Blood of Man in Man his Blood be Shed,” [An Eye for an Eye] from Pirkei Avot, took place in March 2008 in the Kfar Saba Municipal Art Gallery. At the same time Gershuni began to create a series of medium-sized bronze sculptures. These sculptures were produced using bronze casting methods from different sculptures, probably figurative, made by amateur sculptors.
In 2002 Gershuni was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. In spite of the effects of the disease, Gershuni continued with his artistic output. A series of works that aroused great interest in the press in this regard was a group of drawings called “Summer 2009” that was displayed in 2009 in the Givon Art Gallery. The exhibition displayed a large series of papers, both small and medium in size, with images of light blue patches of color. A group of these drawings was later exhibited at the Museum of Art, Ein Harod, within the framework of the Collection of Gaby and Ami Brown.
In November 2010, a retrospective exhibition of Gershuni’s works opened in the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, curated by Sarah Breitberg-Semel. Another exhibition of his works from the 1980s onward opened in November 2014 in the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin.
Awards & Recognition