David Aronson was certainly the most influential of Zerbe’s students in Boston. Not only did he attend the Museum School beginning in 1941, he also taught there at Zerbe’s invitation from 1942 to 1955. In that year, when Zerbe left for Florida, Aronson was hired by Boston University to completely restructure the curriculum at its School of Fine and Applied Arts and turn the direction of instruction away from commercial art and toward fine art. In his new position, Aronson adopted Zerbe’s insistence on rigorous technique applied to individual expression, his position on the primacy of the human figure, his attitude of respect for the lessons of the past, and his admiration for European Expressionism. Aronson also hired several Museum School graduates—among them Arthur Polonsky, Reed Kay, Jack Kramer, Conger Metcalf, and John Wilson—to fill out his faculty.32  Thus the stronghold of expressionist pedagogy was transferred from the Museum School to Boston University.

Aronson’s paintings, while distinctly his own, bore important traces of Beckmann and Zerbe’s complex compositions in shallow space, Levine’s stylization of figures, and Bloom’s mysticism. At mid-century, Aronson was producing monumental narratives based on themes from the New Testament. To many, these subjects seemed odd, for like Bloom, Aronson was born in an Eastern European shtetl and was raised in the Jewish neighborhoods of Boston. But like many Jewish immigrants educated and acculturated in America, Aronson had deeply conflicted feelings about his heritage and felt that he must explore forbidden “graven images” and tackle traditionally Christian iconography in order to liberate himself to pursue a humanist agenda. As Aronson eloquently explained it:

Religion and art are two means of seeking ultimate truth. Religion has affinity for a great cross-section of humanity. Art is sympathetic to fewer numbers. A sincere art comes to judgment in unequivocal face value, endowed with effective power to stir a quest for the true. How fitting, therefore, to give expression through the medium of art, for freedom from imposed thinking in religion. Once this freedom is attained, we would say, religion gives peace of mind without premeditated dogma. The initial Scriptures are full of truths. They also abound in unconditional generalities that are open for specification and interpretation. It is just here that teachings have often been twisted, like the faces in some of my pictures. By intentionally employing the gentle and the grotesque in the same picture, I present this play of truth against duplicity.33

The artist also remarked, “I chose to paint Christian themes in order to participate with the Old Masters in themes they had painted.”34

One such work is Aronson’s , an almost Byzantine hieratic stage show of events alluded to in the Gospel of John 2:1-12. But while the scripture is focused upon Jesus’s first public miracle— the changing of water into wine—Aronson is more concerned with the set of human themes that center around a wedding: love, celebration, spectacle, ritual, display, and hierarchies of class and personal relationships. Indeed, no single figure can be confidently identified as Jesus, the story’s traditional protagonist. Aronson conveys the emotions associated with this rich drama with jewel-like colors and active black outlines in musical rhythms, as well as a staggered succession of tight, shifting spaces. The artist’s later work has been, in general, softer, more atmospheric and lyrical, and less compositionally complex, focused on individual figures rather than large casts of characters. Aronson also took up sculpture in 1961, and he continues to create in both media.

Arthur Polonsky’s work also contributed to Boston Expressionism’s legacy of mysticism. He sometimes adopted Biblical subject matter like Aronson, but more often his imagery is as uncanny as Bloom’s. And his work almost always reflects, in feeling, Zerbe’s dreamlike interiority, via Odilon Redon. Marine Samson (1959, plate 18) is a particularly apt example of all these tendencies. What this narrative—with its fey Samson, screeching bird, expiring horrific monster, and seaside setting—has to do with the story related in Judges 13 to 16 is anyone’s guess. Only the jawbone of the ass grounds the image in recognized Biblical iconography. But in true expressionist fashion, Polonsky is not interested in Samson’s tale per se but in sets of feelings, inexpressible with text, that illuminate the human condition. The artist himself has made this quite clear: “In all years, styles and dedications, whatever the utility, command or social assignment, the real work of the artist’s hand, tangent upon heart and mind, has been to symbolize and draw near the multiple possibilities of perception by which we animate with meaning the terrain of our being in the world.”35  What sets Polonsky apart from his immediate milieu is his Symbolist/Surrealist interest in psychological resonances created through irrational juxtapositions of beings and objects, and the ferocious brushwork with which he animates his astonishingly bizarre scenes.

figure 24 Henry Schwartz in his studio, 1982. Courtesy Gallery NAGA, Boston, MA

figure 24
Henry Schwartz in his studio, 1982.
Courtesy Gallery NAGA, Boston, MA

Unlike many of his mid-century Boston Expressionist contemporaries at the Museum School, Henry Schwartz (fig. 24) developed gradually and did not create his truly major paintings until the eighties. His early work, which strongly bore the marks of Beckmann, Zerbe, and Aronson, gave way to a powerful personal style that involved a multifaceted mastery of paint application, lurching scales, seemingly wet surfaces, and a twisted trompe-I’oeil perfectionism bent to expressionist ends. This virtuosity positions Schwartz alongside Hyman Bloom, and Schwartz’s own student Gerry Bergstein, as the greatest masters of painterly technique in Boston since John Singer Sargent.

Schwartz is not a mystic but an intellectual deeply interested in the emotional content of history and culture. Schwartz devoted himself to experiencing and understanding the great nineteenth- and twentieth-century master-works of Northern European Romanticism, Symbolism, and Modernism, and then disgorging his meditations on their meanings and implications onto canvas. His researches went far past the visual arts, and included music and literature. He describes himself as “an avid concert-goer, record collector, and musicologist, and music became the spiritual center—a religion, really—around which my painting took orbit.” Schwartz went on to say: “Much of my art is narrative. The murals I have done are arranged like filmstrips peopled not so much with the events of my own life, although I appear in them, as with those of the minds that made the art I respect, like Joyce, Proust, Mahler, and that are necessary for the life of the mind.”36

may well be Schwartz’s magnum opus. In this ambitious work, the artist combined aspects of history painting and portraiture with expressionist formal distortions to create an image resonant with deeply felt ambivalence about European cultural and political history. Across the bottom of the painting, a row of men appears. From left to right, they are Ludwig Wittgenstein, Adolf Loos, Oskar Kokoschka, Karl Krauss, Alban Berg, Johann Strauss, Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Sigmund Freud. Together, they represent the end-products of nineteenth-century German Romanticism, the pinnacle of philosophy and the arts in fin de siècle Vienna. While Schwartz deeply admires these men and their achievements, he is also painfully aware that the same culture that spawned their creative brilliance also funneled directly into the philosophical underpinnings of Naziism.37   The tiny figure of Adolf Hitler lurks below the intellectual giants, and the register of writhing, tortured female bodies above them is an allegory of the human and cultural rape and murder of the Holocaust. Thus, embedded in Schwartz’s work is a vastly intelligent yet uncomfortable and self-conscious deconstruction of expressionism itself. In psychoanalytic terms, Schwartz can be seen as Zerbe’s Oedipal son.