Rebecca Forgasz was the Director & CEO of the Jewish Museum of Australia for nearly ten years. This extract of her recent farewell lecture, Ten tantalising tales: stories from our collection, is part of a series published here to mark the High Holidays. In each instalment Rebecca reflects on the personal, collective and cultural significance of objects and the collections that house them.
Ten Tantalising Tales #8 Yosl Bergner’s The Impresario
This painting shows an impresario – the organiser or possibly financer of a theatre production – floating over the red soil of the Australian outback holding up a sign in Yiddish promoting the Yiddish Theatre in the Kimberley. What a strange and unlikely collision of cultural activity and geography?
The historical context for this painting can be found in the little known proposal to create a Jewish homeland in the Kimberly – the northernmost region of Western Australia, an option that was seriously considered in the early 20th century by the Zionist movement. Some Zionists, including Herzl himself, were happy to consider options for a Jewish state outside of the land of Israel. They considered it the highest priority to find a territory that could provide Jews with a safe haven and political autonomy; they weren’t as concerned about the religious and cultural significance of the land. One of the most famous alternative proposals for a Jewish homeland was Uganda, but few know about the Kimberly!
So how did Yosl Bergner come to be painting this scene? Yosl Bergner was born in 1920, in Vienna, Austria. He spent his childhood in Warsaw, Poland from 1921 to 1937, when he emigrated to Australia with his father, a Yiddish poet known by the pen name Melech Ravitch.
Ravitch had first come to Australia in 1933. Earlier that year, he had been in Germany and see first-hand the rise of Hitler. Supported by Jewish businessmen and intellectuals, he came seeking a site for a Jewish homeland in the Kimberley. Ravitch kept a diary of his journey, and years later, his son, Yosl, who had studied painting at the National Gallery in Melbourne and joined the Society for Contemporary Art, together with Arthur Boyd, Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and John Percival, created a series of screen prints based on his account.
This is a quote from the introduction to the folio of prints – “He [my father] was armed with official permission from the Federal Government in Canberra, a letter from Einstein and an antique Kodak camera. He set out from Alice Springs with an Aboriginal boy who was his assistant and an Italian truck driver. They travelled slowly and laboriously across the desert to the Kimberley and slowly and laboriously back again. The plan for a homeland was never carried out. No Jew wanted to settle in this distant and strange region.” (Whether or not Jews would have wanted to settle there, I’m not not sure. But the scheme did have support from some senior officials in Australia. It was actually considered by the Commonwealth Government, but was rejected in 1944!)
One of the images in the series is the Impresario, which was based on the painting Bergner had done some years earlier. Interestingly, something we see in the painting but not in the screen print is the Aboriginal people who lived in the Kimberley. Bergner was actually very concerned about the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia, and was one of the first non-Indigenous Australians to depict the humanity of Aboriginal people in his art.
The Arts journalist Deborah Stone wrote the following about his work on the subject in a tribute to him after his death in 2017 (click titles to see the images she refers to):
“The painting, Father and Sons, was painted in 1943 as the Holocaust was unfolding in Europe, killing many of the people Bergner had left behind when he escaped to Australia. It shows starving Jewish man and his children as victims of persecution and attempted genocide. The painting, Aborigines, was painted in 1946 after Bergner read a newspaper article in the Sydney Morning Herald headed ‘Chained Abos to Tree in Dead Heart’. The article reported a court hearing in Oodnadatta over a station manager who had chained his Aboriginal workers to a tree. Aborigines was Bergner’s last painting in Australia of the subject, and the echoes of Nazi concentration camps in his portrayal of dispossessed Aborigines was completely intentional.
Aborigines was exhibited in 1946 with old photographs of Aboriginal prisoners alongside Bergner’s Ghetto series, images of the destruction of the European Jews. The juxtaposition was particularly powerful a year after the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps and the flood of news photographs of starving survivors.”
So not only does this painting open a window on a little known episode in Australian Jewish history – or an Australian Jewish history that could have been – but it is also part of a wider story of the relationship between Jewish and Indigenous Australians.