The Career to Date of a Major Modern Painter

by Sydney J. Freedberg

From Perspectives USA # 6 (Winter 1954),  Published by Intercultural Publications, Inc. Brooklyn, NY

Perspectives USA was a quarterly journal of American arts and letters which circulated in Europe.
Intercultural Publications was founded in 1950 by James Laughlin.

Hyman Bloom was brought to the United States from Latvia in 1920, as a child of seven. He grew up in Boston, in a family environment that remained in part European while at the same time he learned, with the swift adaptability of children, to explore and to become part of the New World. A precocious artistic talent was early recognized and encouraged in the public schools which the boy attended, and it was most sympathetically developed by a teacher of art in a community center in Bloom’s neighborhood. When Bloom was about seventeen his teacher, Harold Zimmerman, and a fellow pupil then equally promising, Jack Levine, were taken under the protection of a professor in Harvard University’s Department of Fine Arts and given a meager subsistence while their education was continued. This education was essentially traditional, at least in the sense of the kind of artistic models to which Bloom was exposed. There were, in these years, no works by important contemporary painters, either European or American, to be seen in Boston. It was the study of reproductions rather than originals that impelled Bloom’s first break with traditional style; between 1935 and 1938 he did a series of paintings in the manner of Rouault, chiefly of circus subjects. The convention of Rouault’s borrowed style turned out to be, in its way, as infertile for the encouragement of Bloom’s own expression as had the more traditional styles. Bloom has sought out and destroyed all but one of these derivative pictures.

The first painting of which Bloom admits that it demonstrates the kernel of his own, rather than a learned and borrowed personality, is the Stove (whereabouts unknown) painted in 1938 at the age of twenty-five. There is an evident derivative quality in the style here too, but the derivation is from artists — Soutincand Kokoschka, again known in reproduction rather than in original — who demonstrate a genuine temperamental affinity with the personality that Bloom was to become and whose style could provide a basis for Bloom’s own development. The Stove is further, unlike the earlier pictures, not based on a borrowed image but on a personal response to a familiar object. The Christmas Tree of 1939 (Boston Museum of Fine Arts) is similarly born of the artist’s own confrontation with a visual and emotional experience, but like the Stove the language of this picture is not yet fully Bloom’s own.

It was in the long course of evolving the Synagogue (Museum of Modern Art, New York), painted mostly during 1940, that Bloom emerged into a wholly personal style. The effect of this large painting, seen in the perspective of Bloom’s previous development, is profound and startling. We are confronted suddenly with the impress of individuality and power that is made by a major work of art. Reminiscences of Soutine or Kokoschka are submerged in a technique of simultaneous new boldness and discipline. The luminosity of the Christmas Tree is here, but it is expressed in sharper and more forceful strokes of color. The figures stand in tight ranks, tier behind tier in a skillfully suggested space, shining and flickering like the chandeliers above them; there are hardly any human identities here but only beings consumed in light. This glittering painting of the figures, with their attenuation and distortion, suggests a Byzantinism infused with a new religious fervor. In this congregation only the cantor has a real existence. The ardor that inspires the picture rises through his dominating form and cries itself through his open mouth. The tremolo, shimmering passion of his cry vibrates through the painting like the light and becomes one with it as it exalts, disembodies, and consumes its listeners.

The realm of experience from which this complete interpenetration of form and content came, and with it Bloom’s first individual expression of style, was profoundly personal to the artist. Despite the rejection of dogma and specific teachings that are usual to the Jewish youth brought up in the American environment, there remained in Bloom the strong sense of the singular meaning and the stubborn force of the religious tradition behind him. The Synagogue embodies Bloom’s realization of that tradition’s intensest spiritual poignancy and power.

The Synagogue contained within its repertory of images more than one motive of sufficient interest to demand separate attention from the artist: hence Bloom’s isolation, from the large picture, of the theme of the Elder of the Congregation who holds the Scroll of the Law. This motive, the Jew with Torah, became the subject of a series of pictures, the first painted in 1941 and three others painted over a span of six succeeding years. Just as these pictures derive and develop from The Synagogue in form so do they develop in idea out of, and in a sense beyond, that painting. Here the Jew is shown not merely in the affirmation of his own faith, but in the revelation of the meaning of that faith to the world. He is the bearer and defender of the Ancient Law which is not only his, but the whole world’s heritage.

The evolution of this series of Jews with Torah through six years forcefully indicates Bloom’s own growing powers; but these pictures arc interesting also for their revelation of a cardinal fact of his art: his complete adjustment of painterly technique and pictorial form, in each picture he creates, to its special character of content. Each of the Jews with Torah is different in personality and in the variant of the idea he is intended to convey, and each picture is painted in a differing mode, wholly integrated to the expression of its subject. Bloom becomes, in these years, a virtuoso with paint but he is a virtuoso without a formula. Each subject must, in patient and profound search, find its completely apposite style. It is this process of intense artistic conscience that makes Bloom’s production so relatively slow and rare, but which also makes each work so meaningful.

Bloom’s last essay in this theme dates from 1947 (collection Earle Ludgin). The Jew here is no longer merely an Elder of the Congregation, but a Rabbi, who communicates neither the fanaticism nor the rugged patience of the earlier, but a serene, radiant wisdom. The picture unfolds itself in this spirit, in broad clear rhythms and high-keyed, singing colors. An effect of heroic dignity is suggested by the singular point of vision: the eye is lifted across the monumental seated form and ascends into the shining space above. The radiant dignity of feeling has transmuted into full accord all the properties of form. The picture expresses to a singular degree Bloom’s ambition to communicate an idea as wholly as possible in terms of visual experience and coherent pictorial form.

Because of the slow process of maturing of each single picture — the painting we finally see is the end result of repeated obliterations and patient reshapings on the same canvas — it is understandable that Bloom should work on more than one picture concurrently. As one theme, like The Jew with Torah, is being carried to an ultimate formulation, another theme may be slowly taking shape on another canvas, and yet another idea may be receiving its initial form in a third painting. Contemporaneously with the earliest of the Torah pictures, in 1941, Bloom evoked a subject from a still more intimate and inward region of his personality. It was an idea which, though more personal, was also more universal; lying in the core of the artist’s being, it lay also in the core of all humanity. The first statement of this subject was The Bride (Museum of Modern Art, New York). The picture is, by the artist’s own valuation, not a wholly clear statement of his purpose, but it is nevertheless deeply moving and it contains a complex of meanings more important by far for the subsequent direction of Bloom’s art than do the religious pictures. Here, for the first time, Bloom turns to the most elementary but also the profoundest concern of man: the mystery, tragedy, and beauty of the vital process, the indissoluble skein of living, loving, becoming, and dying. The bride is the central symbol in this complex for in her, lying at a crossroads of existence, is the nexus of all these processes of being. Her infecundation in love is the essence of life, yet her loving is also a sacrifice of the being she was, and a kind of dying. The bride is at once alive and dead and her nuptial bed is also a bier, strewn with flowers that have been born from the consuming of her flesh.

A second version of The Bride, painted in 1943-45 (collection Mr. and Mrs. Roy R. Neuberger), demonstrates Bloom’s characteristic evolution in the development and transformation of a theme. Here his idea is conveyed in an image less symbolic, and more human and actual than before. This Bride deals not with the whole complex of concepts about the vital process but with its core, the sense of mutation that is the essence of existence. The second Bride is a poetic seizing of the sensation of passage through an acutely poignant and meaningful moment of time. She is a web of feelings, images, and memories that shift and shimmer within her as she wafts, transfixed and spirit­ualized, across the threshold of a new life. Here the painting, drawing its form from the meaning it contains, is the very opposite of the contemporary version of The Jew with Torah; the Bride is as intimate and tender in its web of light and rhythm as the Jew is broad and forceful.

The Child in the Garden (collection Ralph Coburn) is concurrent in execution with the second Bride and is an unfolding in yet another direction of the same basic theme. Bloom had been seeking an image on which to build a painting of birth and regeneration and found it — symptomatic of his tendency to move, with each theme, in­creasingly toward reality — in a newspaper photo of a child at an orphanage party. The little figure that Bloom has transposed into his picture stands very still in his paper party hat and party clothes and looks at us with an undefinable and unforgettable mixture of sad knowledge and of hope. He stands in a latticework arbor that blazes with summer light and brilliant foliage, and beneath him is a shining pool. The image carries a symbolism that emerges almost of itself and which mingles its ideal power with the poetry of the apparent theme. The child in the radiant arbor is the oldest of Christian symbols, the infant in the shining mandorla, and the pool that gives back his image is the ancient symbol of baptism and rebirth. Like the bride, the child in this image of birth, or rebirth, of a being is on the threshold of an existence. Despite his mysterious sad knowledge it is the radiance of hope that emanates from the child and suffuses all his world.

Such a translation of emotional sensation into vibrating light had been almost Bloom’s primary artistic premise: it is the essential device in his first personal pictures, and conspicuously in The Synagogue. From this picture Bloom had experimentally extracted, as early as 1941, one of its motives that dealt wholly with the problem of painting light, The Chandelier. The complete realization of the possibilities of this theme had to wait for the development of the complete virtuosity of technique that distinguishes such pictures as the Child in the Garden. The Chandelier of 1943-44 (collection Jean Deering) is of exceptional force and brilliance in handling; the painter has transmuted the visual actuality into a profound luminous excitement. The style of this picture is consistent with the Child in the Garden, but its artistic genesis is the reverse. In the Child an idea and an emotion not specifically pictorial have been translated into pictorial terms of light; here a purely visual experience becomes the source of an exalted emotion.

A further version of The Chandelier (collection Stanley J. Wolf, 1945) is, in the manner of Bloom’s development on a theme, less passionate than the version of 1943-44; it is brighter, more deliberately articulated and more monumentally composed. The last Chandelier is Bloom’s finest decoration, magnificently controlled in the manipulation of design and color yet, within this discipline, vibrantly alive in every part. This is Bloom’s most “painterly” picture, of unmatchable virtuosity among contemporary works of art.

The approach at the basis of this group of works, in which emotion is derived from visual sensation, led Bloom in 1945 into experiments in the dominant contemporary trend of abstract art. Between 1945 and 1948 Bloom produced, in the slow, deliberate way that is characteristic of him, a series of four abstract pictures. These paintings all start in some experience of vision, induced often by the singular effects of form, light, and color of minerals or antique glass, but these sensations are translated wholly by the artist into a non-representational pictorial scheme. The complex of movement, color, texture, and effects of luminescence is more intricate and various and more carefully calculated than in most contemporary abstractions. The involved pictorial experience in the Treasure Maps is, in a sense, a substitute for the enrichment through emotions and ideas that is usual in Bloom’s representational paintings.

Bloom’s concern with abstraction from 1945 to 1948 may be regarded as an extension to a logical extreme of a possibility inherent in one aspect of his style. The abstractions may also have been a nearly necessary relief from a concurrent development, also to an extreme, of the exactly opposite, humanly expressive, potential of his art. The expressive idea that Bloom began to exploit in 1945 was still part of his concern with the vital process of humanity that he had stated first, four years before, in one interwoven complex in the early Bride. In 1945, in the context of a world then long and wearily at war, it was inevitable that from the complex of the vital processes death should emerge as the dominant fact of man’s experience. It was not only the tragedy of a world at war that made death loom out so large but also, within that tragedy, the now nearly accomplished extermination of the Jews of Europe, among whom Bloom had his own remembered origins. Confronted with a world in which death seemed the most urgent human verity, Bloom turned with profound moral and emotional directness, and with a rare courage, to the representation of death.

Though they were engendered within a specific historical situation, Bloom’s paintings of death are universal in their idea. The first two of these pictures, painted in 1945, are a monumental pair, one of an aged female, the other of a male corpse. The figures lie upright in their frames, naked and decaying, hideous and piteous at once. They are the ugly, common dead, the unclaimed relics of the charity wards whose bodies wait for the dissecting knife. The initial shock these figures make upon the spectator is of almost intolerable violence; there is nothing in our experience of art — not Grosz, Rembrandt, nor Grunewald — that quite prepares us for this.

If we have something like the courage of the artist, and can look again, we begin to see in these images what the artist has seen and knows in them. These dead inspire a fascinated and anguished horror; and they demand at the same time our profoundest pity. They are starkly, mournfully ugly, yet of a singular and terrible dignity. Their decay sickens, but it manifests itself in a perverse coloristic beauty. No other images in art strike so deeply into the basic emotions provoked by the contemplation of death, or exploit in so poignant a way the ambivalences that are at the core not only of this, but of all our most fundamental feelings. None but a wholly modern personality could paint an experience as inward and as complex as this; this is a pictorial counterpart to modern man’s new exploration and knowledge of his inner self — and it is hardly less difficult to digest. Or would be, if it were not that with each re­newed experience of these pictures we become less susceptible to their specifically illustrative matter and more aware of the measure in which idea and visual sensation both have been expressed in terms of sheer painting. More completely even than in the second Bride, or the Child in the Garden, the Corpses become an experience of radiance of color, here more somber, but no less magical in effect, and of alternations of dynamic with intimately complex rhythms. The beauty of the painting in a sense absorbs the subject matter into itself, and it is only then, when we have come to see the content through, and in terms of the painting, that its fullest and final meaning comes clear. That meaning retains all our initial sensations of anguish, horror, and pity at death, but it includes now what is also an exaltation and a triumph over death. Decay is transmuted into a living radiance, and the vital process, the endless mutation of matter, continues with a troubling beauty after death. Here too is a response to the problem of man’s mortality that is possible only to a personality of our time.

As with Bloom’s other themes, variants and developments have emerged from the theme of the Corpses. The Leg (collection Glen-way Westcott), also of 1945, is a concentration into sharper and more limited compass of the idea and style of the two large pictures. The Harpies (collection George Kennedy), painted in 1946-47, explores a tangent concept, more pessimistic than the Corpses. This is an allegory, enacted upon the body, of the psychic situation of man in the modern world: lacerated, devoured, and killed by a multitude of swooping evils—the Prometheus of our tormented times. And, unlike in the death of the body, there is no hint here of hope or of regeneration.

Bloom has shown no new pictures since 1948. The way in which he works precludes swift and facile production. He has been working on a number of canvases which are approaching completion, but none will be seen until he is satisfied that each as nearly as possible fulfills his complex and exacting aims. What Bloom has achieved already, in the first decade of his artistic maturity, marks him as of the first importance among American artists, and as one of those who are making our production in painting of more than only American significance. Bloom’s art is more than American in any case; more than with most Americans his heritage of Europe is close and perceptible. His deep sense of the poetry and the tragedy of human destiny seem the fruit of an older culture than our own. Bloom’s personality and his art make a bridge between two worlds. What we encounter on this bridge is the profound and poignant image of the humanity of our whole contemporary world.

– Sydney J. Freedberg