The beginning of an artist

One thing eluded me: I never managed to be the best artist in my class. There was always a boy that drew better pictures than me.

I could not bear being second, but there was nothing I could do about it. One day, however, during the summer holidays I saw a poster offering painting and drawing classes. If I could study drawing and painting, this would be my salvation! I asked my parents to enrol me at least for the summer holidays. They did. I went to a few classes, made some drawings and thought that this was it. I stopped going to the art classes and waited impatiently for the new school term. A week or so later, still before the new term had started, I was walking happily in the street when a hand of a grown up caught my wrist. I looked up, and here was my art teacher, Avraham Avni. “Hi, Shimon", he said, “why don't we see you any more?" Surprised, confused and embarrassed, I didn't know what to say. “I have no money" came out of my mouth. “Why didn't you tell me?" said Avni. “Come with me and I'll arrange a scholarship for you."

Avni dragged me towards the office of the art school, still holding my wrist tightly. He held me tight until we got to the office. He ordered me to sit in a chair and filled up an application form for a scholarship that was available to poor students. I had to sign there and then and was told to come next day for a lesson.
I felt obliged and came the next day. Here in the middle of the room on a table was an arrangement of a still life: a plate, a jar and some fruit. I sat down like all the other students and drew. While I was drawing, some adult students went around to see at what the other students were doing. Two of these adults stood behind me and I heard one of them saying to the other: “This boy is very talented." The sound of this sentence was music to my ears. After that I came to the art class every day after school, and continued even after I had finished school.

Many years later, a few months before I left Israel to come to Britain, I was sitting in a cafe having my usual cup of coffee. A high- ranking officer with a lot of brass on his shoulder was sitting next to me at another table. He turned around and asked me: “Is your name Shimon Hercberg?" When I answered in the affirmative, he continued: “Do you remember me, I am Avraham Grinberg". “Sorry." I answered. “I don't remember and your name does not ring a bell." “We were in the same class in Bilu." he answered. “I was the best painter in the class." When he said this I jumped from my chair. This is the man who changed my life. “Do you still paint?" I asked him. “No," he answered calmly." As you can see, I am in the army, responsible for supplies. I have not drawn or painted since I left school."

[……….] I happened to be lucky to be born in a place and at a time when all the niches were open. The Jewish population in the early Israel was small, about half a million, and new immigrants were continuously flowing in. The country was expanding. It was the land of opportunities.

Although I did some political cartoons and some writing, my first commitment was to painting and drawing. The teaching and the atmosphere in my art school was different from what I see today in the art schools in London. No GCSEs were required, nor A levels. No essays had to be written and no diplomas were handed out. The only thing that was required from an art student was the talent to draw and paint. Our attitude to painting was that a picture does not represent anything. A painting was nothing less and nothing more than the argument in a discourse of what was beautiful. Although I liked to draw and paint social scenes, this was only the subject; it had nothing to do with art.

It was still the early ‘Fifties and we, the art students, regarded art sacred. We were all immersed in drawing, discussing paintings and visiting exhibitions. Nothing else interested us. As students, we had been involved in all the debates fashionable at the time. It was natural that we acquired and used the styles of the period. We had among us realist painters, semi-abstract and abstract painters. One of the students, Meirke Lazar, was a primitivist of the Henri Rousseau School. He refused to read books or newspapers because he was afraid that they would install in him sophistication which would rob him of his primitive credentials.