The Polish-born Yosl Bergner arrived in Melbourne in 1937 aged 17. He had early ambitions to be a painter, but it was in Australia that he established his practice, at a time when he connected to a wider group of politically informed, progressive painters. Bergner had fled Europe with his family, as a result of the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe. In Australia, the themes of oppression and human resilience formed the foundation of his art.
In the 1940s, Bergner became an important proponent of the Social Realist group of painters. This loose coalition of politically motivated artists, including Noel Counihan and Danila Vassilief were committed to painting the experiences and struggles of the everyday. They drew on subjects from their inner-city surrounds, painting workers and the urban poor and creating images that reflected the ongoing impact of the Depression and wartime despair. While Bergner drew on the humanity of his immediate surrounds (the plight of Aboriginal people living in Fitzroy for example, was a recurring subject of his art) his work also maintained a sense of his experiences of the ghettos of Warsaw from his youth. He connected his memories of Europe with the realities of Melbourne’s inner-city, expanding on his notion of greater human connections and the shared struggles of the marginalised.
In 1939, as Bergner was developing a style that could express his social concerns, he experimented with reflections of his image and produced the exceptional Self-portrait (1939). The work reveals his study in modern form through reference to the work of Cezanne, which is reflected in the overarching attention to organisation and underlying structure. Despite this composure, the portrait, conveys great depth of mood and expression. The simplified, rounded features draw attention to the evocatively weighted eyes, a feature which speaks of the subject’s burdened past, while projecting a strong sense of a vital present. Distinct with its sombre, green-inflected earthy palette; its bold forms and binding contours, Bergner projects a defiant statement of identity.
oil on canvas on composition board
57.2 x 47.1 cm
Signature & date
Signed l.l. 'W. BERGNER'. Not dated.
Acquired with the support of the Art Gallery Society of NSW through the Dagmar Halas Bequest 2020
© Estate of Yosl Bergner