TOCUMWAL CAMP, c.1942- 43

Important Australian + International Fine Art
29 April 2009

Yosl Bergner

born 1920
TOCUMWAL CAMP, c.1942- 43

oil on composition board

54.0 x 42.5 cm

signed lower right: Y.Bergner

$40,000 - 60,000
Sold for $48,000 (inc. BP) in Auction 8 - 29 April 2009, Melbourne

Vic O'Connor, Melbourne
Australian Galleries, Melbourne
Mr and Mrs Douglas Carnegie, Holbrook, N.S.W.
Allen D. Christensen Collection, California
On loan to the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth from September 1979 (label attached verso)
Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne 1997
The Hicks Family Collection, Melbourne


The Carnegie Collection, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 27 October – 30 November 1966, cat. 4
Modern Australian Painting 1920s – 1980s, Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne, 9 – 20 September 1997, cat. 15

Catalogue text

In 1942, when Yosl Bergner volunteered for military service, he was sent with the 6th Employment Company to Tocumwal on the Murray River. The 6th consisted of friendly aliens, as well as those from Axis and allied countries, over one hundred of whom were Jewish. Some eighteen nationalities were represented. Tocumwal's location on the border of New South Wales and Victoria with their then different railway gauges required a large labour force to tranship the goods carried by train. The daily unloading and reloading of military supplies was undertaken by the 6th.

Of Viennese Jewish parents, Bergner grew up in Poland, where he showed an early interest in art. With the rise of Nazism and anti-Semitism in Europe, he joined his family in Australia. Living in the Parkville-Carlton area and working in factories, his painting was strongly social realist, subjects being the poverty-stricken street life of inner Melbourne and Aboriginal Australians. A vital influence within contemporary art circles, in 1941 he exhibited with Noel Counihan and Arthur Boyd at the University of Melbourne. Interviewed about the exhibition, Counihan described Bergner as 'a son of the people'. His world is a plebeian one. He is interested in the poor people and to a certain extent in the people on the fringe of the world he knows.'1 Later, undeterred by the hard work at Tocumwal, Bergner painted every day, especially his unique series on Aboriginal people. The masterly Tocumwal Camp dates from this time, linking it to the plight of the dispossessed and oppressed, of Aborigines, European Jews under Nazism and as refugees. Despite displacement, discrimination, and humiliation, Bergner's Tocumwal Camp, in parallel with his Aboriginal works, speaks of human triumph over crushing adversity, the bulk of the two figures on the very edge of the picture plane dominating the composition. Its haunting though compassionate imagery shows the empathy among the disadvantaged, a vigorous visualisation of camaraderie in misfortune. A related painting, End of a Day's work, Tocumwal, 1942 - 43, is in the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. The stigma of 'alien refugee' reflected the climate of the time. There had been a military enquiry into unrest in the 6th. Responding to a hunger strike, Bergner wrote 'we had home-cooking in our tents and ate more than ever'.2 He added, 'We were a unique unit though at the time we didn't know it. Such a mixture of different nationalities. If only the world would realize that people with different cultures and habits and languages can live together as we did... But for that, I suppose, the world needs different gauges and a specially strong Lashing Gang.'

1. Farrago, Melbourne, 7 August 1941, quoted in Smith, B., Noel Counihan: Artist and Revolutionary, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1993, p. 168
2. Letter to 6th Employment Company reunion, 16th February 1994, quoted in Forgotten Soldiers: Aliens in the Australian Army's Employment Companies During World War II , a work currently in progress by Dr June Factor, The University of Melbourne, who has allowed me to quote from her work and was most generous in her advice about Bergner.