"What does it matter if it is or if it is not a Bronfman? What matters is that it is a Bercovitch."
(Alexandre Bercovitch, defending his portrait of Sam Bronfman, 1947)
A painter, set designer and teacher, Alexandre Bercovitch is known for his vibrant, energetic style and Expressionist intensity of colour and form. He created works in pastel, gouache, watercolour and oil. Born in Kherson, now in the Ukraine, Bercovitch brought his experiences of Russian artistic life to Montreal, becoming an important part of its art scene in the 1930s and 1940s.
Bercovitch had his first exposure to art as a child, apprenticing in icon-painting with monks. He studied at Jerusalem's Art School of Bezalel, the Munich Academy of Fine Arts, and briefly at the Bakst-Dobujiinsky school and Stiglitz Academy, both in St. Petersburg. For several years, he worked in Odessa and Moscow painting stage decorations, before moving to Turkestan to teach art. Through this period, Bercovitch came under the influence of German Symbolist Franz von Stuck, as well as David Burliuk, co-founder of the Russian Primitivist movement, Leon Bakst, the celebrated stage designer for the Ballets Russes, and Wassily Kandinsky.
In 1926, Bercovitch moved to Montreal, soon meeting Louis Muhlstock and finding work in decorative painting and set design. Beginning in 1927, he participated in the annual Spring Show of the Art Association of Montreal, and in 1933 held his first solo exhibition at the Sydney Carter Gallery. He was a founding member of The Eastern Group of Painters and the Contemporary Arts Society, associating with John Lyman, Goodridge Roberts and Jori Smith, as well as Marc-Aurèle Fortin, whom he met on one of several painting trips to the Gaspé. For twelve years, Bercovitch was an influential art teacher at the YWHA, Montreal's Jewish community centre.
Bercovitch's childhood experience as an apprentice icon-painter and his later work in set design had lasting influences, marking his style with bright colours and bold forms. This is evident in Petroushka (c.1948) created as a mural for a hotel in Ste-Agathe, Quebec. His landscapes reveal the influence of Impressionism, and his cityscapes are lively and naturalistic. In portrait work, he created dramatic compositions with rounded, weighty figures.
Although widely exhibited and critically acclaimed, Bercovitch lived in constant poverty and frequent estrangement from his family. In Russia and the Soviet republics, his success had been thwarted by social and political upheaval; in Montreal, even after the Depression, he was unable to sell his work in a conservative, slow art market.