Gershon Iskowitz

“My paintings are not abstract. They are real – they are very, very much real. I see those things . . . I paint what I see.”

Gershon Iskowitz was a painter and draftsman. He was born in the city of Kielce, Poland, in 1919. A temperamental child, Iskowitz had a strong interest in art, which his family supported. One of his favourite childhood pastimes was watching films. In order to afford the tickets, Iskowitz developed a barter system with the local movie-house manager, exchanging drawings of matinee idols for free admission. School records from 1929–1931, in the Kielce State Archives, indicate that he studied drawing and received good marks.

When the Kielce Ghetto, created by the Nazis, was liquidated in August 1942, Iskowitz was sent to the Henryków labour camp, followed by labour camps at Auschwitz and Buchenwald.

While a prisoner, Iskowitz used his ingenuity to find drawing materials – including the materials he used to create Condemned – when assigned to clear rubble after Allied bombing attacks. He often sketched late into the night, always taking care to hide his drawings before morning.

Iskowitz spent two and a half years interned in Nazi camps, and was the only member of his family to survive. Following his liberation on April 11, 1945, he was sent to recuperate at a hospital. On October 31, 1945, he was admitted to the Feldafing Displaced Persons camp near Munich, where he continued to draw and paint. In 1948, Iskowitz would emigrate to Canada, settling in Toronto.

Iskowitz’ early post-war work was heavy on memories of his camp experiences – such as Moon: Buchenwald – but also reflected pre-War Kielce, in works such as Market. This was followed by a period during which he painted portraits and still lifes. From the early 1950s on, however, Iskowitz’ main inspiration was the Canadian landscape, and he began taking annual trips to painter Bert Weir’s McKellar Lodge Summer Studio near Parry Sound, Ontario. A 1967 trip to Churchill, Manitoba, became a turning point in his mature period, resulting in abstract paintings such as Seasons, No. 1.

To support his artistic practice, Iskowitz taught evening art classes at Toronto’s Holy Blossom Temple in 1953. In 1972, he and sculptor Walter Redinger represented Canada at the Venice Biennale. Two years later, he was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and in 1977 was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal. He would go on to establish the Gershon Iskowitz Foundation and the Gershon Iskowitz Prize. The Prize was administered by the Canada Council for the Arts for the first three years and, since 2006, has been awarded in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario.