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Jewish Journal

Arts

by Naomi Pfefferman

August 20, 1998 | 8:00 pm


Left, "The March," a painting by Ida Bernstein, above, now at A Shenere Velt Gallery.

A Life's Work

Ida Bernstein's paintings reveal the tragedy and triumphs of her 90 years

By Naomi Pfefferman, Entertainment Editor

Ida Bernstein's spare, stark paintings reveal all the pain of her life.

Bernstein, 90, began painting 32 years ago to tell her remarkable story, which spans the Ukrainian pogroms to the Chicago sweatshops to the progressive rallies of the late 20th century.

Her retrospective, now at the Workmen's Circle's A Shenere Velt Gallery, is her visual autobiography, she says. "Before I began painting, I always felt this heaviness on my shoulders, a literal heaviness," says the elegant 4-foot-9 artist, whose work is sometimes reminiscent of Holocaust art. "I went to doctors, I had counseling, but only when I started painting did it go away."

One stylized black-and-white etching illustrates the events that destroyed Bernstein's family and placed the weight of the world on her shoulders eight decades ago. Two lonely figures, with heads bowed, stand in a desolate landscape near the abandoned wooden shacks of a shtetl . The aura is one of utter emptiness.

Pausing by the etching, the artist recalls how, on Tisha B'Av 1919, bandits on horseback descended on her village of Dubova. They murdered her father as he prayed in shul and slit the throats of her 2-year-old brother and two sisters.

Bernstein, 9 at the time, dodged bullets and finally hid with a small boy under a haystack, where she remained for two days and nights. As the marauders repeatedly drove swords through the hay, a non-Jewish woman risked her own life to bring the little ones bread and water.

"Haystack," which shows the woman leading the children toward the hiding place, has an atmosphere of subtle foreboding. An ominous mountain looms over the children in the otherwise serene scene.

When Bernstein emerged from hiding, she discovered that her shtetl had been decimated. She witnessed plunderers raping a teen-age girl and forcing a Jewish boy to do the same. "They told him they would spare him if he did that, but, afterward, they killed him in front of us," says Bernstein, who later entered a children's home as her mother lay dying of tuberculosis.

"In the Orphanage" depicts the girls crying on the home's steps, singing songs and peering over a large wooden gate, a reminder of the terrible separation from their families. Outside the gate, famine ravaged the city: "People ate dogs, and children were dying in the streets," says Bernstein, who immigrated with three sisters to the United States in 1923.

"Emigrants at the Railroad Station" recalls the sisters' long, difficult journey -- during which they once slept in a basement on straw and rags and knocked all night to drive off the rats.

All the while, they missed their mother, who had died of TB in Uman. "I never had a picture of my mother, so I painted her," says Bernstein, pointing to a muted portrait of a sad, dark-haired woman, her hands clasped in her lap. "I never saw my mother smile. She lost six of her 11 children, and she suffered all her life. The last time I saw her, I was 10 years old. We were taking her body to the cemetery in a wheelbarrow."

In Chicago, in 1924, 16-year-old Bernstein went to work in the garment industry, joined the union and "learned what it meant to be a human being." After moving to Los Angeles in 1935, she continued rallying for an array of social causes, all of which are reflected in her art.

"The Rosenbergs" depicts the infamous couple with martyrs' expressions; "War" reveals hooded figures with anguished faces; "The March," in which demonstrators carry a coffin, recalls Bernstein's participation in anti-Vietnam War rallies.

"Because of what I went through in my life, I feel for everyone who is downtrodden," says Bernstein, who has studied painting at the Chouinard Institute and the Otis Art Institute. "That is what I am fighting for; that is what I want to convey through my art."

A Shenere Velt Gallery is located at 1525 S. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. A reception with the artist is scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 26, 5 to 7 p.m. (310) 552-2007.

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