The Land of Light and Promise:
50 Years Painting Jerusalem and Beyond, Ludwig Blum
Through April 24, 2011
Ben Uri Gallery: The London Jewish Museum of Art
108A Boundary Road, St. Johns Wood, London
When the spies Moshe sent to scout the land of Canaan returned with their report, they testified (Numbers 13:32) that the land “eats its denizens,” many of whom happen to be giants. In fact the spies, to the extent that their propaganda can be trusted, felt so dwarfed by the Israeli landscape that they claimed they must have resembled grasshoppers to the giants, and even felt like locusts themselves. The description of Canaan in Leviticus 18:28 is no rosier; the land has an allergic reaction to disobedient citizens and literally “spits them out.”
Plenty of ink has been spilled over the theological implications of those two biblical personifications of Canaan (land as devourer of men and as an entity that vomits evildoers out), but it is worth examining the aesthetic implications of a landscape that overshadows its figures.
Ludwig Blum. Jerusalem, View from Mount Scopus Towards the Valley of Jehoshaphat.
1924. Oil on canvas. 49 x 59 cm.
Perhaps like no artist before him, the 19th century American painter Thomas Cole, who founded the Hudson River School, depicted American landscapes as magical, untamed Edenic sanctuaries that rivaled their European counterparts. Conspicuously absent – or at least obscured – from the overwhelming majority of Cole’s nationalistic canvases were figures. Finding people in a Cole painting is often like trying to find Waldo.
Whatever Cole’s motivations – perhaps he wanted to distance himself from prior traditions that required heroic and mythological characters to justify landscapes’ newsworthiness – he was probably not thinking about the biblical descriptions of the land of Canaan’s “anti-social” personality. But Ludwig Blum’s depictions of Israel, though they rarely address biblical narratives, might very well have been conscious of Numbers 13:32.
At age 32, the Czech-born Blum moved to Palestine in 1923, after having served in World War I.
Blum’s work, which last appeared in London in 1938 at the Royal Academy and the Fine Art Society, is on exhibit in The Land of Light and Promise: 50 Years Painting Jerusalem and Beyond, Ludwig Blum (through April 24) at the Ben Uri Gallery: The London Jewish Museum of Art.
A staunch Zionist – whom curator Dalia Manor in the exhibit catalog calls “a self nominated ambassador for Jerusalem” – Blum’s love of Israel comes through in virtually all of his works. But as Manor explains in her excellent essay, “Portrait of a Country: Ludwig Blum Paints the Land of Light and Promise”, the artist remained a citizen of both his native Czechoslovakia and Israel.
Temple Mount and the Western Wall, 1943
“Long before travel abroad became easy and convenient, long before artists would run a career in more than one country, Ludwig Blum travelled back and forth between his two homelands,” Manor writes, “painting in one, exhibiting in the other and feeling at home in both.”
It is impossible to tell from Blum’s 1944 painting Tiberias, Tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness (the miracle worker) to what extent it might have been influenced by references in the Mishnah and the Talmud to Rabi Meir, who was said to have performed miracles (a prominent one thwarted human trafficking). Blum painted many pilgrimage sites and he might or might not have painted the rabbi’s aura into the scene of his tomb.
Ludwig Blum. Tiberias, Tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness.
1944. Oil on canvas. 46.5 x 56 cm.
At first, there do not appear to be any figures in the work at all, but eventually, a boat moving from left to right on the water emerges just below the horizon. Another speck on the water, which casts a long white reflection, could be another boat. A few other white specks on land could be human candidates, but there is no compelling reason to indicate they are either people or rocks.
In some respects, the painting is amateurish. The domes – one of which is supposed to be round and the other a bit more pointed – are not symmetrical, and the only word that comes to mind to describe the messy green and brown treatment of the grass and dirt in the bottom left corner is cholent. But the composition is compelling and Blum captures more of a gestural view of the tomb.
The exhibit catalog finds influences in Blum’s work of John Singer Sargent (who painted The Mountains of Moab in 1905), David Bomberg (who painted Jerusalem, Looking to Mount Scopus in 1925) and David Roberts, whose Fountain of Job, Valley of Hinnom (1842) Blum copied in 1925. But in Tiberias, Tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba’al Haness, one notices other temperaments: Oskar Kokoschka, Winslow Homer or Thomas Eakins.
Timna, Copper Mines (1957), also seemingly devoid of figures (a number of forms are ambiguous, and could be either people or various mechanical objects), shows a lot of busy forms in the bottom two thirds of the landscape, which consists of warm reds and oranges. The mountains on the horizon and the sky are made of much cooler blues and purples, but the overall temperature of the landscape is very hot and consistent with the desert.
Ludwig Blum. Timna, Copper Mines.
1957. Oil on canvas. 73 x 117 cm.
“Blum was the first, perhaps the only Israeli artist to pay attention to industrial projects and landscapes as part of his desire to chronicle the pioneering spirit of the early years of the State of Israel,” according to the catalog, “creating a rare historical document of this project in its initial stages.”
Though many of the works in the Ben Uri exhibit focus on the land rather than people of Israel, Blum could paint figures just fine when he wanted to.
Pioneer Girl (1947), a genre painting that evokes Jean-François Millet’s works of peasants sowing and gleaning, depicts a woman feeding chickens. The catalog notes the pioneer’s skin is deeply tanned from many hours of working in the sun. But even when Blum used a dark outline to emphasize the pioneer, he couldn’t help blurring the contours of the chickens – thus ensuring they would be less fixed in space and time. The effect is one of chaos and disorientation; the viewer can almost smell the chickens and hear them pecking at their food.
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at email@example.com.