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Gershon Iskowitz

(1921-1988)

Painter, Lithographer, Etcher

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Biography

Gershon Iskowitz (November 21, 1921 – January 26, 1988) was a Canadian artist of Jewish background originally from Poland. Iskowitz was a Holocaust survivor of the Kielce Ghetto, who was liberated at Buchenwald. The circumstances of his early life—the trauma of the Holocaust and the uncertainty of the immediate postwar period, followed by immigration and adaptation to Canada—provide a lens through which to understand and appreciate his work.[1] His early figurative images represent his tragic observed and remembered experiences while his later luminous abstract works represent his own unique vision of the world.[2] Iskowitz's work does not easily fit into contemporary schools and movements, but it has been characterized as hard-edge, minimalist, abstract expressionist, and action painting.

Iskowitz was born in Kielce, in the Second Polish Republic.[4] His father was Shmiel Yankl, generally referred to as Jankel; his mother was Zisla Lewis. Gershon was the third of four children; he had two brothers, Itchen and Yosl, and a younger sister, Devorah.[5] At the age of four he was sent to the Chachmei Lublin Yeshiva. He became bored and began drawing. After a year and a half he begged his father to be allowed to return home and was given permission to do so. He was tutored in Polish and placed in a public school. After two and a half years his father set up a small studio area for him in their home and allowed him to spend his time drawing and painting. At the age of nine he exchanged original art posters for free admission to a local cinema.

He was accepted at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in 1939 and arranged to live with an uncle in the city, but a few days later, the German Army invaded the city and Iskowitz returned to Kielce. The Nazi persecution of the country’s Jewish population began almost immediately. On March 31, 1941, the occupying forces established the Kielce Ghetto, a few square blocks surrounded by barbed-wire-topped walls and locked gates. The Iskowitz family and all the other Jews in the city were forced to live there. They were soon joined by Jews transported from elsewhere in Poland for “containment,” and by August 1942, more than 25,000 people were jammed into this squalid area.[7] In September 1943 the Kielce Ghetto was burned. Gershon and his brother, Yosl, were sent to Auschwitz.[8]

Gershon painted or drew at night only after every one else was asleep. He said "Why did I do it? I think it kept me alive. There was nothing to do. I had to do something in order to forget the hunger. It's very hard to explain, but in the camp painting was a necessity for survival."[9] He was transferred to Buchenwald in the fall of 1944. Near the end of the war he tried to escape but was seriously wounded. After the April 11 liberation of Buchenwald he was sent to recuperate in hospitals for about nine months.

From January to May 1947 he attended the Academy of Fine Arts Munich and had private study with Oskar Kokoschka who painted in an intense expressionistic style.

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