Gershon Iskowitz

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Gershon Iskowitz

1921 - 1988
CSGA RCA

Gershon Iskowitz wanted to be an artist from the age of six, and was so persistent in his drawing that his father built a studio for him by the time he was nine. Born in Kielce, Poland, Iskowitz was about to enter the Academy of Arts in nearby Warsaw, to which he had been accepted on the strength of his portfolio, when the Nazis invaded Poland. He was forced into labour at a factory and his parents into the Kielce Ghetto. After the ghetto was burned, his parents, one of his brothers and his sister were sent to Treblinka, where they died. Gershon and his remaining brother Yosel were sent to Auschwitz, where Yosel was killed. From there Gershon was sent to Buchenwald, where he was shot in the leg in an attempt to escape and left for dead by the guards; he was so emaciated that when he fell that he fractured his hip. Rescued by his fellow prisoners, he was nursed back to life. Remarkably, throughout these horrific experiences Iskowitz continued to create art - volunteering to clean up after bombing raids in the hopes of finding not only food, but scraps of paper in the rubble. At night with stubs of pencils he chronicled the brutality of the camps, stating later that he felt that drawing was necessary to his survival. In total he would spend six years interned, and when Buchenwald was liberated in 1945 he spent a further nine months in hospital recuperating. After this he resumed his education, entering the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, where he excelled and won a scholarship to study in France and Italy, He studied privately with Austrian figurative painter Oskar Kokoschka, whose bold use of colour and expressionist brushwork strongly influenced Iskowitz's work.

In 1948 Iskowitz immigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto. For a decade his work, then largely figurative, was filled with memories of his brutal experiences. The drawings that he had created in the camps had miraculously survived the war, and were reproduced in a 1966 Saturday Night article by Kildare Dobbs titled From the Ranks of Death. Iskowitz's work was shown at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Vancouver Art Gallery, as well as several commercial galleries including the Here and Now Gallery and Greenwich Gallery in Toronto. Gradually, Iskowitz turned from the figure to the Canadian landscape for inspiration, and his work underwent a transformation from grief to beauty, with the act of painting itself as the main catalyst. In 1967 he was given a Canada Council grant, which he used to take a helicopter ride over the vast, lake-strewn landscape of Churchill, Manitoba. The views of the land from above delighted him - there were hundreds of little lakes all glittering in the sun, which he would depict in watercolour and oil as brilliant topographical dances of light and colour. This northern landscape would inspire his art for the rest of his life, and thus his vividly coloured works, which he stressed were not abstract, but paintings of what he saw, are the works he is widely known for. He taught at the New School in Toronto from 1967 to 1970, and together with Walter Redinger, represented Canada at the Venice Biennale in 1972. Before his death Iskowitz established a foundation in his name and created a prize to support the work of a mature Canadian artist, acknowledging the importance of his own 1967 Canada Council grant and the opportunity that it had given him to formalize his mature style. In 2007, the Gershon Iskowitz Foundation partnered with the Art Gallery of Ontario to continue to award this prize. Recipients have included Michael Snow, Paterson Ewen and Jack Shadbolt.