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April 20, 2014 / 20 Nisan, 5774
At a Glance

Posts Tagged ‘Hyman Bloom’

Hyman Bloom’s Unreal Rabbis

Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

Hyman Bloom: A Spiritual Embrace

Through January 24, 2010

Yeshiva University Museum at the Center for Jewish History

15 West 16th Street, New York



It is only appropriate to begin a Hyman Bloom review with a Chassidic tale. A young man left his village to train as a menorah maker says Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, and returned years later as a master designer. His father invited the local lamp makers to see his son’s talents but grew angry when each guest found a different fault in his son’s alleged masterpiece. The son then explained he had created the worst work imaginable. If the locals found just one fault each in his work, it was due to their blindness to their own aesthetic errors.


The rabbis in Hyman Bloom’s paintings look like rabbis, dress like rabbis, and come with all the usual rabbinic accessories: beards, hats, kippas and Torah scrolls. But don’t let that fool you. Like the Dada lamp of Rebbe Nachman’s story, they aren’t real. 


I have nothing against the late Hyman Bloom, who passed away in August. On the contrary, I love his works, which are expertly shown at the Yeshiva University Museum in “Hyman Bloom: A Spiritual Embrace,” an exhibit which originated at the Danforth Museum of Art. I think art history textbooks would be far better if they swapped Francis Bacon’s “Study after Velázquez’s Portrait of Pope Innocent X” (1953) for any of the dozen versions Bloom painted of “Rabbi with Torah.” Bloom’s works are more respectful to religion and, in my opinion, better painted than Bacon’s controversial portrait.



Detail of “Rabbi with Torah.” C. 1955.  72 x 54 inches. (Cat. 31)


But Bloom’s rabbis are made of the same stuff as Chagall’s shtetlach – dreams, nostalgia and stylization – rather than reality and substance. The rabbis of Bloom’s works lounge around holding Torah scrolls with expressions on their faces that evoke Rembrandt’s “Jeremiah Mourning the Temple” (1630). Though they currently possess the scrolls, the rabbis appear to clutch the Torahs too dearly as if aware they will soon have to relinquish them. It’s almost as if the rabbis know Bloom is asking them to pose for a nostalgic motif dedicated to memorializing their passing rather than celebrating their presence.


In the synagogues I grew up in, the rabbis could hardly be found without a tractate of the Talmud in their clutches. But the Torah scrolls mostly remained safely locked up in the ark. In the few instances that they were removed from the ark – always during prayer, or to be rolled to the correct place for an upcoming prayer – the Torahs were in the hands of the person leading the services, or a strongman who lifted them up during hagbah for all to see that day’s portion (and point at with their little finger, which they kissed), before being safely restored to the ark.


Detail of “Rabbi with Torah.” C. 1955. 72 x 54 inches. (Cat. 32)


The rabbis certainly didn’t sit around studying or praying while holding the Torah scrolls. It’s uncomfortable to hold a scroll while you study; even if the Torah isn’t a particularly heavy one, it is still bulky and awkwardly shaped for coddling. The configuration of rabbi and Torah seems to promise a quintessentially Jewish blend, but it makes as much sense as a latke and matzoh sandwich.


In her essay in the catalog, Katherine French, director of the Danforth Museum of Art, quotes Bloom on his imagined rabbi portraits: “I decided to paint what I knew It was a good subject to paint. I don’t think anyone else has painted this subject from the imagination. As far as I know, nobody has painted them from memory.”


The 19th century French painter, Delacroix, sketched sleeping lions and tigers at the French zoo – where he was rumored to have shown up for every feeding – and turned them into dramatic scenes of ferocious animals attacking horses and people. Bloom’s rabbis are similarly imaginary constructs, and just as Delacroix’s carnivores often look stiff, Bloom’s rabbis betray their idealized origins.


“Rabbi with Torah.” C. 1995. 55 x 37 inches. (Cat. 39)


“Rabbi with Torah” (c. 1995, cat. 39) shows a rabbi in three-quarter view holding a Torah scroll with a green cover over his right shoulder. In his left hand, the rabbi holds a book, perhaps a prayer book. The rabbi’s eyes are closed, and he wears a tallit. A warm light floods the rabbi from the top right corner, and mingles with the bold green, black, brown and white palette Bloom used to depict the rabbi. Something about the light recalls Caravaggio’s famous 1599/1600 painting, “The Calling of Saint Matthew.” Bloom’s rabbi is not only carrying the scroll of the law and praying or studying; he is undergoing a revelatory experience. But unlike Caravaggio’s Matthew, Bloom’s rabbi, by turning to the light, is turning his head away from the Torah scroll he holds.


Detail of “Rabbi with Torah.” Undated. 47 x 43 inches. (Cat. 48)


The rabbi in cat. 48 also pours over a book, following along in the text with his left hand. His right hand embraces a small Torah scroll with a purple cover that bears a stitched representation of the 10 Commandments and a crown. The wooden handles at the top of the scroll are adorned with silver decorations with bells. The rabbi seems to draw the Torah scroll and the book close together, but an ominous purple, white and black form hovers over his left shoulder, invading the soft, pastel-colored background. It would be easy to dismiss the form in the right corner as part of the ark, or as a chandelier, as Bloom depicted in a 1945 painting (cat. 29). But there is more to Bloom’s repertoire than just rabbi portraits.


Like Georgia O’Keefe, who painted either flowers or skulls, and James Ensor, who depicted nightmares in festive palettes, Bloom has skeletons in his aesthetic closet. At the exhibit at the YU Museum, the entire right side of the room is stuffed with rabbis and Torahs, but the left side features self portraits with rats devouring Bloom’s head, demons with horns, skeletons, and séance scenes.


Bloom’s rabbinic superheroes would hardly be heroic if there weren’t evil spirits and skeletons to tempt them. Katherine French’s essay records that in Lithuania, where Bloom grew up, his mother kept him inside one day for fear that Cossacks would shoot the young boy for target practice. As a child, Bloom also dreamt of the devil peering into his room through the window, French notes. Bloom’s childhood fears may have worn off on his imagined rabbis, whose faces are often smeared with greens and jagged lines. There is violence inherent in expression painting, and in visiting his expressionist strokes on his rabbinic subjects, Bloom afflicts his Jews of the Old World.


But in their boldness, the rabbis also become powerful. The Torah scrolls weigh down the old rabbis, but perhaps the scrolls function like the Ark of the Covenant, which was said (Sotah 35A) to be nosei et nos’av (“carry its bearers”). Bloom’s rabbis are inextricably tied to their Torahs. Even if most rabbis today don’t look like Bloom’s rabbis (just as most Jews don’t resemble Tevye the milkman), and even if they don’t tend to carry Torahs, Bloom’s rabbis will live on because the Torah scrolls they clutch continue to live on. In that sense, Bloom’s Torahs realize his rabbis.


Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.

The Jewish Gallery

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

The Jewish Gallery

147 Front Street, unit 305, Brooklyn, New York

Sunday to Thursday, 2 – 7 p.m. or by appointment

718 852 5100, Lionsgallery.com



        Something is blooming in Brooklyn that promises a dramatic revitalization of Jewish visual culture. While it has been a long time coming, nonetheless it is cause for heartfelt celebration, and, most importantly, your support. On May 9th Aryeh L. Wuensch and Isaac Gross opened The Jewish Gallery, an art gallery in Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) totally devoted to Jewish Art. This relatively modest space is located on the third floor of 147 Front Street in a trendy upscale building smack in the heart of the cutting edge gallery district. Considering its location, the gallery clearly looks forward to attracting a sophisticated clientele imbued with an interest and openness to Jewish art in all its myriad forms. These facts alone begin to fulfill some of my wildest dreams for a resurgent Jewish visual art.


         While it is true that metropolitan New York has three museums devoted to Jewish culture, the actual opportunities for the exhibition and sale of contemporary Jewish art are distinctly limited. Additionally, these museums have tended to be rather conservative in their exhibition choices and are unfortunately chronically under funded. The only other commercial Jewish gallery, the Chassidic Art Institute in Crown Heights, limits its exhibitions to Chassidic themed art. The Jewish Gallery in Dumbo, Brooklyn intends to explore a much broader spectrum of Jewish pictorial experience.


         Aryeh Wuensch is a curator/gallerist based in Miami, Florida and this new gallery is his first foray into the New York gallery scene. His private gallery, Lionsgallery.com, is well stocked with both Jewish and non-Jewish works of art in all media; there are over a thousand works in all. Additionally, he has a wide range of connections in the art world with access to many different kinds of artworks. He is well poised to cater to a diverse variety of tastes. This new venture may also be the first to be undertaken by a gallerist who also happens to be a rabbi. From his initial selections, it is clear that he sees Jewish Art from the inside.


         The opening exhibition represents a middle of the road survey of 20th century Israeli, American, Russian and post-Soviet Jewish art. The 40 works, mostly paintings, range in subject from Israeli landscapes and street scenes, Jewish weddings, Hasidim, family portraits and lots of portraits of rabbis.


         The majority of the artists are not internationally well-known names. A good example is Yitzchak Frenkel (1899-1981), born in Odessa, Ukraine, and considered an important Israeli artist. He was a great-grandson of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. After making aliyah he traveled to France and became part of the Jewish School of Paris that included Chagall, Soutine, Modigliani, Mane-Katz and Pascin.


         Back in Israel, he founded an art school in Tel Aviv and, in addition to his extensive landscape painting, worked in set design at HaBimah, worked in stained glass and did portraits of the 120 members of the first Knesset. His expressionist painting of “Safed Sunset” is a gem of passionate impasto brushwork that seethes with emotion. Not surprising, considering that he made his home there from 1934 (well before it became a famed artist’s colony) until he died in 1981.


         Even more obscure is William Samuel Schwartz (1896-1997) who created “Shabbat Dinner” (1958). He is a mostly unknown painter who Wuensch nonetheless chose simply because he was drawn to the work’s singular view of a typical Shabbos experience. An electric table lamp supplements the Shabbos candles, already lit on the table. The challah is ready, as is the bright-eyed fish, and even the wife’s wine glass is filled.


Shabbat Dinner (1958), oil on canvas, by William Samuel Schwartz, Courtesy of The Jewish Gallery.



         What strikes one is that the master of the house, almost certainly having just made Kiddush, is staring out at the viewer with a most quizzical expression, surprised at what seems to be a photographic intrusion. His wife looks dutifully at her husband, as we seem to have intruded on a moment of domestic bliss.


         Their faces are sharply detailed photographic portraits, in contrast to the simpler rendering of the objects in the room, and are echoed in the ancestor portraits prominently displayed on the wall behind them. This painting reveals Shabbos as a deeply individual experience that reverberates through the generations through the fabric of a couple’s intimate relationship.


         “Rabbi in Prayer with Torah” by Jankel Adler (1895-1949) is another example of the profoundly eclectic approach of the gallery. While the artist is not immediately known, the image is easily etched into ones imagination as combination of mystery and rock solid composition. The triangular form of the rabbi in profile dominates the two smaller figures behind him who are sitting and learning at shtenders. But what is this figure actually doing with the Torah? We don’t normally prance around with the holy Torah, therefore this painting shifts into a symbolic mode, expressing our emotions not normally acted out in the physical world.


Rabbi in Prayer with Torah, oil on canvas, by Jankel Adler, Courtesy of The Jewish Gallery.



         At the well-attended opening the room was filled with Orthodox singles and couples chatting animatedly in front of the international array of paintings. Artists from Russia, Israel, Poland, Lithuania, Germany, France, Italy, Argentina, and America were represented on the walls. Two large paintings that hung near the door demanded my immediate attention. They set the tone for rest of the exhibition. Probably done within the last decade, these Hyman Bloom paintings, both titled Rabbi with Torah, dominated the room.


         Bloom, at 94 years of age, is a living legend. His early Jewish paintings of the late 1930′s including “The Bride and Rabbi” combined an expressionistic technique with a probing examination of their subjects. “The Synagogue,” representing a crowded bimah in shul during the prayer of Kol Nidre, was purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in 1943. Jackson Pollack and Willem de Kooning considered Bloom “the first Abstract Expressionist in America” and after his 1954 retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, his career was assured.



Rabbi with Torah, oil on canvas, by Hyman Bloom, Courtesy of The Jewish Gallery.



         But Bloom was determined to follow his own path and withdrew from the New York art world, instead pursuing paintings of séances, autopsies, lurid still lifes, fish and landscapes. In the late 1990′s he began painting rabbis in large-scale compositions that questions the very nature of the religious experience he had grown up with in Latvia in 1913. And how did these two paintings find their way to The Jewish Gallery? Aryeh Wuensch and Itchie Gross made a pilgrimage a few months ago to Nashua, New Hampshire to visit the reclusive Bloom to discuss exhibiting his work.


         They were successful and returned with a number of his late paintings of rabbis. This one, 48″ by 40,” explores the relationship between the Torah, central in its rich green mantle, the ancient seated Jew clasping it, and a sefer open on the shtender next to him. It’s a very special moment filled with wistfulness, a unity between a Jew and his holy Law that nonetheless is mediated by other texts that stem from the hand of man.


         Creating a gallery of Jewish Art means making critical choices. The quality of the artwork must relate equally with the quality of images and their meanings. The inaugural exhibition at the Jewish Gallery shows sensitivity to both quality and content, happily marking an auspicious beginning.


         Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/the-jewish-gallery/2007/06/13/

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