Hyman Bloom and the Uses of the Past

by Joseph Ablow

Originally printed in the  New Boston Review,  Spring 1976.
© The Estate of Joseph Ablow.  Reproduced with permission.

When Blake wrote of having to invent his own world or be enslaved by another man’s, he not only defined a Romantic need, he described the dilemma of history for modern art as well. From Constable to Marinetti and after, there has been a need to be rid of the past. “Je ne veux meme pas savoir s’il y a eu des hommes avant moi” was the frightened cry of the Dadaists; and Marinetti demanded the destruction of the museums to do away with the burden they housed. “Graveyards,” he called them.

Hyman Bloom,’s response to the past has demonstrated no such fear. He has chosen to confront history head on, to embrace the past in a manner almost unique in the twentieth century. But as Bloom has pursued this course during the last two decades, his art has receded from view. For almost ten years his work has not been exhibited in Boston, and for even longer it has been increasingly unavailable. The result has been a diminished concern for what is an important artistic achievement. It is frustrating to have a major artist in our midst and to find his art so often out of reach. This is all the more regrettable because Bloom’s career and work suggest issues and problems that deserve to be considered.

Bloom’s public situation has also been effected by the special nature of his early career. With Jack Levine and Karl Zerbe, Bloom had begun by the late 1930s to establish a distinct artistic character for Boston that broke with the academically stylish earlier tradition of the city. These young painters had their origins in middle Europe and in modern art, and during the decade of the 1940s they caused a great stir.

But by the 1960s Bloom was the only one of that early group remaining in Boston, and although his work had grown and shifted its course, his early public personality and success had locked him into a persona, an identity, that appeared to have continued unchanged. And as the main stream of American modernism moved to other centers, response to his art became a bit parochial, slightly vague, somewhat soft and undemanding.

Bloom’s fascinating personal aura had its effect as well: an immigrant Jew become artist, become mystic, Rosicrucian and Theosophist, who studied astrology, and who withdrew from the art life of Boston and chose to move independently in his world and in his work. This is a life and career that has tended to inspire curiosity rather than criticism; an established and unquestioned identity that has not stimulated the serious discussion that his work, especially his recent work, requires.

Bloom’s 1954-1955 retrospective was probably the high point of his public career. Shown in major museums across the United States the exhibition made it possible to review Bloom’s remarkable early work: the Synagogues, his paintings of Jews with Torahs, the Chandeliers, the Christmas Trees, the Brides, and the smaller, surprisingly abstract Treasure paintings. The artist’s allegiance to the Expressionist tradition of the previous generation, particularly to the work of Soutine, Rouault, and Kokoschka, was much in evidence. But there could be no doubt that Bloom was working out of these artists, not through them, and that he was extending and developing his own areas of inquiry. The distortions were intense, the paint almost flamboyantly rich and slashing. Yet all this immediacy of emotion was kept firmly under control by a sophisticated sense of design and color. The brilliance of the paintings, their invention and emotional commitment made it clear that Bloom was becoming a major artist.

The most impressive aspects of the retrospective were the gravity of Bloom’s enterprise — his insistence on grappling with only the largest themes — and the evidence in the paintings that he was fully equal to his ambitions.  Religion and ritual were contemplated in the paintings of the rabbis and chandeliers; death and mysteries, in the paintings and drawings of corpses, brides, and seances.  Nowhere was this seriousness of purpose more clearly seen than in his paintings of corpses and cadavers. These are some of Bloom’s most important paintings and are major achievements. They also mark an important, even critical, turning point in Bloom’s career. They were the most astonishing works in the retrospective. Nothing like them had been seen before, certainly not in Boston.

When Hyman Bloom’s paintings of corpses were first shown at the Stuart Gallery in the late 1940s, one had to find ways of looking at them. They were painfully difficult to face.  Life-size paintings of nude corpses confronted the viewer as simply as does Holbein’s Christina of Denmark, but Christina now old, dead, naked, bloated, and decaying. The single figures were lying on slabs, surrounded by sheets or shrouds; but set within a vertical format, they appeared to be standing, awkward and upright, against the wall. The shallow spatial backgrounds of the paintings contrasted strongly with the figures and tended to thrust them forward.  The designing was simple and offered no obvious structural complexities.  There were no secondary elements or devices, nowhere for the eye to wander, no way to avoid a direct confrontation with those dead men and women standing/lying in front of us.

To make matters more difficult, the paintings were seductively beautiful, their physical presence, the color, and the paint itself extraordinarily sensuous.   The overt emotionalism of Bloom’s earlier work, with its intense color and Soutine-like flailing brushwork, had given way to a more complex and lavish application of paint and a color atmosphere that had relaxed into a gentle luminosity reminiscent of Bonnard.  Bloom’s sweetly colored and affectionately burnished inch-by-inch rendering of decaying flesh in the Corpse of Elderly Male or the Female Corpse, Back View has an energy and toughness that avoids any hint of either sensationalism or sentimentality. These are images that continue to disturb even in memory.   Grunewald and Goya have often been mentioned as Bloom’s spiritual ancestors because of their similar concern with the theme of human death and decay.  But Bloom’s attitude as well as his stylistic response are strikingly different. Grunewald’s death is a transcendent one. The sores on Christ’s body are described lovingly as a celebration of His passion. Goya’s death is the result of war, poverty and superstition. He rails against the follies of man. Bloom’s death is simply the corpse, the dead body, painted as Bloom had earlier painted chandeliers and Christmas trees. And although Bloom; has warned that the images should not be taken too literally and has referred us to the Tibetan idea of “wrathful aspects,” the bodies are too much flesh to take easy symbolic flight. There is no anger, no open moral attitude. Not even the message of carpe diem. There are no promises and no warnings. It was this nonhomiletic celebration of the jewel-like putrefaction of the corpse even more than the subject of the corpse itself, that most disturbed the audiences.

Understandably, these painfully direct and unflinching images seem to have been difficult for the artist as well.  Bloom, in the paintings that followed, retreated from his extraordinary confrontation. He turned the corpses into cadavers, bodies become objects, and, in a sense, returned, to the original source of his theme.  When these paintings were first exhibited, so close to the end of the war, it was difficult not to associate them with the, then fresh, shock of the death camps. But, Bloom has said that it was, in fact, a visit to a dissecting room that triggered his use of the image. The paintings of the Cadaver series are remarkably different from the earlier paintings of corpses. The bodies are no longer set parallel to the picture plane, pressing close to the surface, pushing into the viewer’s world. They are removed to a deeper space and are seen in various complex foreshortenings. And now that they have become cadavers, carcasses in dissecting rooms, they are fragmented, often hacked into parts.  In many of the paintings and drawings the dead have lost their identities, sexual or even human. No longer are they paintings of a Corpse of Elderly Female.; they have now become a Torso with Limbs or specimens for study in The Autopsy.  Bloom’s stylistic thinking has changed just as radically. The forms of the corpses had been set in a diffuse and generalized light, the color broken in the manner of the Impressionists. The light in the Cadaver paintings is clear and intense, the color simpler. Long smooth strokes firmly define the forms. The earlier restrained and limited poses of the bodies have given way to a far more varied manipulation of the cadavers. They are set in all manner of strange positions. Bloom has obviously been influenced by the tortured, frozen motion and airless atmosphere of the sixteenth-century Italian Mannerists. The attenuated limbs and forced poses, and the strident and dissonant use of local color emphasize the influence of painters such as Pontormo and Parmigianino, There is also in these paintings a grotesque humor, an Arcimboldo-like use of visual puns and ambiguities. The Hull stresses the resemblance of a gaping chest cavity to a wrecked boat; the Cadaver on a Table appears in the process of getting up, headless as it is; and the Conquest with piled up dead limbs suggests a battle.

The Cadaver series manifested a strategy of indirection in which the subjects have been made less demanding, less insistent. Bloom has distanced his dead, set them back in space, fractured them through a complex manipulation of light and form and has separated himself and the viewer from them physically.  In a similar manner his harsh and troubled wit acts as an emotional defense. And Bloom’s assumption of a past style and mode of visual thought, his turning away from the modernist tradition in which he had been working for almost twenty years, appears.

-Joseph Ablow