GERSHON ISKOWITZ, R.C.A.
SUMMER PAINTING #2, 1972
acrylic on canvas
signed and titled on the reverse
44 ins x 32 ins; 111.8 cms x 81.3 cms
When asked why he painted, Gershon Iskowitz replied simply “I needed it for my sanity;” a necessity that was precipitated by his experience in the Nazi concentration camps at Dachau during the Second World War. Liberated by the Americans in 1944, Iskowitz managed to survive internment and in 1949 emigrated to Toronto. The rest of his family were killed however, and the horrors of this and other painful Holocaust memories continued to haunt his work and life after his move to Canada. Iskowitz gradually turned to landscape painting in the early 1950s and after receiving a Canada Council travel grant in 1967, he organized a helicopter ride from Winnipeg to Churchill, Manitoba. This is often cited as a seminal moment in Iskowitz’s career, as after this trip new colour arrangements and spatial patterns began to emerge in his work.
The last remaining signs of representational form can be seen in his works from 1972, with subsequent paintings being purely abstract in form and content. The Summer Painting from 1972 is indicative of this transitional period in his career. The bright blue background both grounds the piece with a sense of lightheartedness and serves to balance the fervor of the irregular shapes which accent the painting. When combined, the abstract forms conjure the dreamy qualities of summer, with the lush possibilities of summer nights being hinted at by the touches of grey.
The German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno’s oft-quoted phrase that “to write lyric poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” is salient in the ongoing critique of Iskowitz’s work. A common interpretation of his work follows that his use of bright, electric colours and abstracted landscape imagery is his method of psychological and emotional healing. Yet his response to the controversy surrounding a Holocaust film complicates this reading. He stated that “if you showed it the way it really was, you wouldn’t be able to watch it for a second.” His work can thus be understood as an attempt at confronting the paradox of artistic representation: that is the tense negotiation that exists between aesthetic pleasure and the reality of the events being depicted.
Chosen to represent Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1972, his paintings illustrate a colourful and jubilant Canada. Portraying an image in which dread and darkness have been subsumed by brightness and hope; a radical idea considering the grim political climate of the time. Summer Painting is a painting of summer, a painting of Iskowitz’s tragic past, a painting of the wars, strife and conflict that coloured the year of 1972, it is a painting that reminds viewers that while it celebrates the art of painting, it also celebrates the promise of life.
Roald Nasgaard, “Toronto: The Second Generation, 1960s,” in Abstract Painting in Canada, Douglas & McIntyre and Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Vancouver and Halifax, 2007, page 244.
Roald Nasgaard, “Gershon Iskowitz,” in The Gershon Iskowitz Prize 1986 to 2006, Laurel MacMillan, (ed.), Library and Archives Canada and The Gershon Iskowitz Foundation, Toronto and Ottawa, 2009, pages 9 and 12.
Gallery Moos Ltd., Toronto
Private Collection, Toronto