Light in shadow of death Art: Intense realism fires onetime Maryland Institute teacher Israel Hershberg's studies on the transience of life.

December 02, 1997|By Ann LoLordo | Ann LoLordo,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Israel Hershberg's self-portrait shows a face, bearded and brooding. A shard of a broken mirror frames narrow eyes, a strong nose, a head of black hair crowned by the skullcap of religious Jews. His is a face of light and shadows.

Rendered with alarming clarity, the piece captures a flash of awareness. Or uncertainty. The intensity of the artist's stare implies that this is a face forever framed. And yet, the mirrored visage set against a drab, stained wall suggests life's impermanence. This face would vanish if the painter simply stepped away from the mirror.

This duality characterizes an exhibition of the painter's work now at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. "As a Passing Shadow -- Israel Hershberg: Paintings" reveals the artist's affinity for the great masters, a classical tradition of paint- ing he promoted during the 10 years he taught at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and one he will emphasize in a new exchange program between Maryland and Israeli art students next year.

Hershberg is a figurative painter and Israel's most accomplished. The show represents important works from the past 10 years, including a painting of a cow's tongue that led to Hershberg's nine-year association with the prestigious Marlboro Gallery in New York. Hershberg's realism can be brutal and sublime, evocative and stark.

"Major collectors are buying his work. There's almost nothing he's ever painted that's available," said Fred Lazarus, president of the Maryland Institute.

"There is a very complex feeling in his paintings. On the one hand it looks like they are eternal, like they were here forever," said Yigal Zalmona, chief curator at the Israel Museum. "On the other hand, they deal with a passing life."

In "Cow's Tongue No. 74," the tongue is tattooed with a number, as is the custom in kosher butchering. Lying on a small wooden table, the tongue evokes the figure of a man, naked and fetus-like. In Jewish symbolism, Hershberg notes, a table is an altar.

"That number," Hershberg says of the painting, "reminded me of my father's arm."

The son of Holocaust survivors, Israel Hershberg was born in a displaced-persons camp in Austria in 1948. He lived in Israel until he was 8, when his family emigrated to the United States. He was educated in New York, and has been drawing since he was 16. He taught at the Maryland Institute from 1974-83.

In 1984, Hershberg returned to Israel with his artist wife, Yael, the former Jane Scalia of Baltimore, because he wanted to raise his children there, he says. The father of six sons, Hershberg lives in downtown Jerusalem. He is a religious Jew who observes the Sabbath and kosher dietary laws. "Observant in an American way," he explains.

A corduroy baseball hat -- not a skullcap -- crowns his head these days. He wears khaki pants, a cotton sweater and sneakers. His once bushy beard is trimmed.

"I went through a lot of transmutations," he says, referring to an earlier time in his life when he was a follower of a sect of Judaism founded by an 18th century rabbi. "I decided art is art and spirituality is spirituality."

Hershberg paints in a small studio at the top of two long flights of steps. His apartment is on the other side of the stair landing.

The north light -- Hershberg's preference -- enters from the studio's only two windows. The room is as cluttered as Hershberg's paintings are spare. A metal bed-frame and rolled-up mattress stand in one corner, beside an easel. A piece of canvas tacked to a wall serves as a palette. Cans and jars of paintbrushes are scattered about the floor. A large drawing of a reclining nude man -- a sketch for one of the paintings in the show -- is taped to a wall. There is a computer, a phone and postcards of favorite paintings pinned up: Giovanni Bellini's "St. Francis in the Desert," a self-portrait of Jean Pierre Ingres.

Hershberg pulls from the wall a pencil drawing of two faces done on a piece of computer paper. He holds the drawing up to the light, revealing a series of pinpricks.

"This is a demonstration I gave my students at the institute," Hershberg says, recalling his teaching days in Baltimore. "It was a demonstration of how to make a fresco, to transfer a drawing onto wet plaster.

"I have a lot of good feelings about Baltimore," he adds. "I really miss it."

Sitting in his studio, Hershberg reminisces about his 10 years in the city. He and Yael married in B'nai Israel Synagogue on Lloyd Street in downtown Baltimore. They lived in a loft on Franklin Street before moving to the northwest section of the city.

He is affable, chatty and, by his own admission, hyper. And yet, in this room, he works slowly, methodically, and in vivid detail.

"I'm in this room -- all the time," Hershberg says. "For months on end. I make just a few paintings a year."

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