The Drawings of Hyman Bloom (U. of CT)

by Marvin Sadik

© 1968, The William Benton Museum of Art, School of Fine Arts, University of
Connecticut, Storrs.   Reproduced with permission.


INTRODUCTION TO THE EXHIBITION

Hyman Bloom was born on April 18, 1913 in the town of Brunoviski in Lithuania close to the Latvian border. In 1920 the family moved to America, settling in Boston’s West End, where they had been preceded in the year of Hyman’s birth by his two much older brothers, who during the intervening period had established a leather goods business.

When he was about thirteen, Hyman, who already had been drawing for some years, was first seriously encouraged to continue in this pursuit by one of his teachers at Washington Junior High School, Miss Mary Cullen. She helped him get a scholarship in the Boston school system’s High School Art Classes, which were conducted in the Museum of Fine Arts, where, for three years, the young artist was to be involved in the traditional academic method of studying drawing, which consisted mainly of copying from plaster casts. At the same time, Miss Cullen suggested that he also attend art classes at the West End Community Center on North Russell Street, and it was here at the age of fourteen in 1927 that Bloom first met and studied drawing with Harold Zimmerman, an instructor in his early twenties, whose method of teaching was to have a lasting effect on his work. Zimmerman already had been teaching at the Center for a year, and one of his prize pupils was a young boy a year and a half Bloom’s junior, named Jack Levine.

The essence of Zimmerman’s instructional procedure was not to permit his students to work directly from the model or from Nature, but to make them rely upon their memories in drawing as a means of strengthening their imaginative powers. Zimmerman also insisted that his students make their exercises as pictorially complete as possible, and not to isolate elements upon the page in the manner of studies but to integrate them within a totally detailed environment. These principles were very evident in Bloom’s own instructional approach when he himself taught later in his career (Wellesley, 1949-51 and Harvard, 1951-53). As Zimmerman’s student, Bloom’s drawings, soon influenced by those of Michelangelo and Blake, whose work he particularly loved, were extremely precocious both in their imaginative conception and in the brilliance of their execution.

In 1929 Bloom began to study painting at the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard under Denman Ross, whose protege Zimmerman had become. Ross, by then a Professor Emeritus, had developed a palette system based upon that of the Impressionists, which he taught to young pupils like Bloom and Levine (who had also come to study under him). Particularly impressed with the talents of these two young boys, Ross, in addition to giving them free instruction, provided them as well with weekly stipends of twelve dollars so that they could continue their studies without having to take jobs. He also made it possible for Zimmerman to hire a studio, first on Brattle Street in Cambridge and later on Dartmouth Street in Boston, where the two boys painted according to Zimmerman’s imaginative approach, while continuing at the same time to paint from the model under Ross. Bloom’s first contact with important contemporary European artists took place when he was eighteen on a trip with Zimmerman to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. While Rouault was to have an immediate effect on Bloom’s painting, it was Expressionists like Soutine who were to have a more permanent influence on his work in both painting and drawing.

Bloom’s studies with Ross came to an end in 1932 and with Zimmerman during the following year. It was about this time that, owing to the Depression, the Federal Government came to the assistance (to the tune of about thirty-five dollars a week) of the artist, and Bloom went on the payroll of the program which eventually fell under the purview of the WPA. For about three years during this period, Bloom shared a studio with Levine on Kirkland Street in Boston’s South End. Towards the end of the Federal Arts Project, its Director, Holger Cahill, came to Boston with his wife, Dorothy Miller of the Museum of Modern Art. Impressed with Bloom’s work, Miss Miller selected thirteen of his paintings for inclusion in a significant Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Americans 1942: 18 Artists from g States. Two of Bloom’s paintings were purchased for the Museum’s permanent collection.

During the past quarter of a century, Bloom’s work has been shown at the following commercial galleries: initially, by the Stuart Gallery in Boston, and subsequently, over a period of many years, by Durlacher in New York and Hyman Swetzoff in Boston. An important exhibition of Bloom’s work was also held at the Boris Mirski Gallery in Boston in 1949. More recently, Bloom has been represented by the Tragos Gallery in Boston. In addition, Bloom has had four major museum exhibitions. The first was held in 1954 and circulated to five institutions: the Albright Art Gallery, Buffalo; the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; the Lowe Gallery, Coral Gables; the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, San Francisco; and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. The second, like the present endeavor, devoted entirely to drawings, was shared in 1957-58 by the Currier Gallery of Art, Manchester; the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; and the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. In 1959, the Jewett Arts Center, Wellesley College and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, collaborated on an exhibition entitled 4 Boston Masters, in which Bloom represented his generation, with Copley, Allston, and Prendergast representing theirs. Lastly, the Art Galleries of the University of California at Los Angeles held a two-man Francis Bacon-Hyman Bloom exhibition in 1960.

The present exhibition, though not a retrospective of the whole of Bloom’s activity thus far as a draughtsman, nevertheless docs deal with that portion of his career, approximately the last dozen years, during which drawing has come to occupy an increasingly more important place in his work. Indeed, during the past half decade, Bloom has devoted himself exclusively to drawing.

Among the earliest drawings shown here are those of cadavers, an image which first appears as a major theme in Bloom’s work in paintings done in 1945. While this date would seem to suggest that the emergence of such subject matter in Bloom’s art was occasioned by the first public exposure of the atrocities of the Nazi death camps, it would be a mistake to associate these images in a finite way with such a specific source. Of course, it can (and has) been said that because of his Eastern European Jewish background, Bloom was acutely attuned to the sufferings, corporeal and spiritual, of his people, not only within the time limit of his own memory and experience, but throughout most of their history. But if Bloom’s cadavers were incited by such events, his real cue for passion was the larger theme of man’s animalistic brutalizing of himself since the beginning of time. Even so, these pictures are not, at their highest level of significance, moral polemics against the incessantly traveled path of man’s inhumanity to man—a cause which has ever proved impervious to the attack of art. Instead, like certain other artists of both the past and the present, Bloom has cast an unflinching eye on the spectacle of man’s physical mortality at its absolute and irrevocable nadir, to make this dread sunset radiant with Nature’s yet unextinguished flame.

In Bloom’s drawings of old people, while there can be little doubt that the frequently grotesque enfeeblements of great age attract him in part sheerly for the richness of their pictorial possibilities, and even though he is not lacking in compassion for the suffering and terror of these figures or sympathy for their senility and resignation—again, his real interest lies on a higher level. Just as in the case of the cadavers, although emotions having to do with conventional morality are not without issue, they are short of the mark. For Bloom, the gnarled and wrinkled figures he has drawn with such passionate attention are not merely aged, but ancient; they transcend mortality, imbued with a wisdom beyond the experience of a single earthly life, suffused with the aura of a Power outside man that has neither ending nor beginning.

In his drawings of Rabbis, Bloom has striven to personify his Ideal Man. Garbed in and surrounded by all the regalia of religious ritual, these Rabbis are not only involved in the world of Hebrew orthodoxy, but, seemingly saturated with immense learning and profound wisdom, they have risen above it, and are, ultimately, mystics. And it is this mysticism which interests Bloom most, an ecstatic state, which, though it has been arrived at here through the medium of a specific religious tradition, in the final analysis, has nothing to do with it.

Bloom’s seance drawings deal with manifestations of the spirit world as materialized through a psychic medium. Through an initial acquaintance with Hebrew mysticism, Bloom has turned farther to the East, to India and the Orient, where the Occult occupies a position closer to the center of philosophical attempts to understand the nature of human existence and man’s place in the universe. Admittedly, the average Westerner, particularly in this Age of Science, finds this approach to such issues beyond consideration. There exist, however, scholarly treatises, like Mircea Eliade’s Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy (Princeton University Press, 1964), which makes it less easy to dismiss the world of psychic phenomena. This is not said, nor are Bloom’s seances drawn, to make converts to Occultism. It is nevertheless important to have some notion of the artist’s intention in these drawings to be aware of the meaning beyond their aesthetic reward as dazzling exercises in the exotic.

Bloom’s drawings of fish skeletons must surely stem in part from the artist’s fascination with a visual phenomenon in which an enormous complexity of infinitesimal detail is yet governed by an ineluctable natural order. (Only one of the drawings [no. 16], the earliest, shows the fish still mostly fleshed.) The key to the meaning of these drawings is to be found in the title of one, The Law of the Fishes (no. 19), which is the same title used in Indian philosophy to apply to the category dealing with man’s predatory nature. Indeed, the skeletal forms in this drawing appear to be the remnants of fish, writhing like automatons from the shock of just having been devoured by the monster of the deep lurking at the lower right. Yet, these fish, part flesh, part skeleton, do not swim in any terrestrial ocean, but are all predatory creatures, inhabiting a metaphysical sea in which beginnings and endings seem to form an indissoluble and eternal continuum.

The large group of landscape drawings in this exhibition constitutes a major segment of Bloom’s work over the past half decade, a period during which, as already has been observed, he had done no painting. In part, at least, these landscapes seem to owe something in their conception to Bloom’s experience in recent years of the wild and untrammeled Maine woods. In addition, in certain ways, they are not altogether unlike the fantastic landscapes of the sixteenth century German artist, Albrecht Altdorfer; and, more particularly, closer to our own time, the bizarre visions of Rodolphe Bresdin. Bloom has a great admiration for Bresdin’s work, especially in terms of the intensity with which Bresdin approached even the minutest detail in Nature as a means of revealing his personal sense of the magic of the Universe. But Bresdin’s landscapes have a static quality which is very different from what we find in Bloom’s work. Bloom sees Nature as existing in a state of ceaseless activity and, in order to evoke the rhythmic movement of these forces in his landscapes, he seeks to achieve the highest possible sense of the harmonious interrelationship and interpenetration of all details within the total composition.

It is difficult to orient oneself physically before one of Bloom’s landscapes, to seek out the very spot where one should stand in relation to it, for they are not segments sliced out of any larger earthly landscape, but worlds of their own, entire to themselves. It was not Bloom’s objective to invite any thought of physical involvement in these landscapes, but to evoke something of the mysterious forces of Nature before which the viewer might experience a sense of spiritual identity.

It is in Bloom’s drawings from the series entitled On The Astral Plane that we find the most personal expression of his unique vision. An aspect of Theosophy, the Astral World is far too complex for a thorough discussion here. In brief, however, it is a state which encompasses both Heaven and Hell, with various Purgatorial levels between, which the Theosophists believe is usually attained after physical death, but which can also be entered into by man’s Astral Body during his earthly life through the medium of certain appropriate, self-induced, or involuntary meditative processes. According to Theosophical thought, the Astral World is also inhabited by creatures other than the Astral bodies of human beings. Man’s Astral Body is conceived of as the instrument of his passions, emotions, and desires; and Bloom has chosen to depict it in blackest reflection of the temporal world on the Astral Plane of Hell, all but submerged in the midst of, demonic phantoms.

Although the range of Bloom’s subject matter is contained within a compass which revolves within the terrestrial world, its point touches upon another sphere. If the mysteries of this realm are ultimately too personal to share, Bloom’s consummate craft, wielded with an ecstatic intensity to match his psychic vision, has produced a body of drawings which can only be assigned to the highest level of artistic achievement.

– Marvin S. Sadik, Director Museum of Art, The University of Connecticut

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I should like to express my sincere appreciation to the following persons (or their assistance in the preparation of this exhibition. I am deeply indebted to Hyman Swetzoff for making available to me all the material in the extensive Hies he kept during the period when he was Bloom’s dealer. Mr. George E. Dix of Durlacher Bros, was very helpful in a similar way several years ago when this exhibition was first conceived. I am also grateful to Stuart Denenberg of the Tragos Gallery for his efforts over a span of many months in locating drawings and owners. I cannot sufficiently thank the two dozen lenders to this exhibition for so kindly consenting to part with their drawings for such an extended time. Finally, I am profoundly grateful to the artist himself for his limitlessly generous cooperation and for his friendship. M.S.S.