Listening to an elderly artist’s life of stories can leave a person feeling sort of like they’ve been painted on. Especially if the artist isn’t speaking in their first language, broader brushstroke oral history gets privileged a little bit over defined storylines.
Comrade Gershon Knispel dresses in shades of white, including a short-billed hat, and appears to carry everything with him in plastic bags – a canvas purse and four sturdy plastic bags, reliable but disposable. They may be a statement on semi-permanence. Gershon’s fiercely white facial hair suggests that he may be permanent. It was likely around back when he met Castro.
The whiteness of Gershon’s beard and eyebrows follows that of his clothes but the beard and eyebrows do not fall in line in any other way. They stand up and out, physically. Politically. Socially. “Artistically” probably goes without saying on the facial hair of a painter and sculptor.
In one of Gershon’s semi-permanent bags is a crisp, hardcover copy of a fifty-year retrospective of his work as a globe-trotting artist. Gershon was born in Haifa but followed painting, communism, coups and sculpture to Brazil, the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
The tri-lingual Knispel retrospective – Portuguese, Hebrew and English – is filled with sprawling, coffee table-worthy photos. It’s also filled with essays by artists and writers who are not Gershon.
“It is good to read what they write, because you don’t always remember this or that and what they meant, the things that I did.”
Sitting with the more-than trilingual Gershon, he offered an accompanying retrospective, mostly of his career as a member of the communist party.
Gershon and I didn’t play chess but he spoke like he would play chess slowly, unhurriedly, playing mostly with his pawns. He worked with Brazilian Architect Oscar Niemeyer and speaks like he would benefit from working with an architect. Those broad brushstroke stories.
The meeting with Castro happened in Brazil. Gershon first lived in Brazil in the early sixties and before. He cut his work short and flew back to Haifa just before a U.S.-backed military coup against President João Goulart. Arriving in Israel, he had to tell a friend who’d returned from Brazil by boat that most of their friends were jailed, dead or gone underground.
Decades later – “in the 90s,” Gershon thinks (a few brushstrokes away on our conversation’s wobbling timeline) – Gershon was back in Sao Paulo, sharing a hotel suite with Niemeyer. The two used it as a studio. One night, after they covered the easel and capped the pens, a comrade-friend calls to tell them someone is coming to meet them and to wait up for a bit.
After midnight, Gershon recalls buzzing someone in. A wide figure with a wide beard stooped into the suite. He strode up to Gershon and Niemeyer with two bodyguards in tow. Without pause, Castro grabbed the two men around the shoulders, embracing them. Niemeyer was an elderly man by now.
Castro looked from one to the other: “I think, my friends, that we are the only communists left,” he said.
Gershon smiles and raises his eyebrows as he waits for me to get it. I try my best, across hectares of culture, experience and history, to give him the look he’s hoping to see.
Much of Gershon’s art has been honored by both the State of São Paulo and the Government of Israel. Recently, he produced a four-piece sculpture on Jewish history, Inquisição, Assentamento, Holocausto and Rebelião, for a repurposed Sao Paulo synagogue. He figures that with this piece, he’s finally made something of meaning.
In favor of permanence, he keeps the phone numbers of the people he hopes to see on this visit home in thick spiral-bound notebooks. I find myself wondering if they chronicle enough of the history of the revolucíon to find Castro’s number in there.