The Eye of Man: Form and Content in Western Painting (excerpt)
by Selden Rodman
Excerpt from The Eye of Man, pgs 157-159
© Selden Rodman, Devin-Adair, New York, 1955
Bloom and the Burning Bush
Originating like Berenson and Shahn in the religiously saturated Jewish community of the Baltic States (he emigrated from Latvia to Boston at the age of seven), Hyman Bloom gravitated neither to the salons of Beacon Hill with their aura of aestheticism, nor to the revolutionary underworld of a class-conscious proletariat whose symbols could be drawn from the sidewalks, hiring halls and newspaper morgues. Introvert, mystic, moralist, and one of the great expressive artists of this age, Bloom takes his place in the company of Gruenewald, Van Gogh and Orozco by virtue of his capacity to feel within himself the most painful experiences of the human race and to personalize them in image and paint.
The pictures on which Bloom has been working for the past five years, a series of very large canvases of figures and nature morte, brazenly designed, dramatically presented and painted in lurid flame-reds and raw purples against a deliberately academic mat brown, have a certain resemblance to some of Lebrun’s baroque slaughter-house and agricultural implement pictures of a decade ago. But technically they bear no resemblance at all to Bloom’s earlier work with its Rembrandtesque portraits of patriarchs, its resplendence of detail and its low-keyed, luminous color. They seem rather to represent, as among the four artists who have affected Bloom most persistently, a turn to the defiant flesh-poems of Michelangelo and Blake as against the smouldering compassion of the early Rouault and the wild agonizing of Soutine. It is not a turn that puts to use Bloom’s background and philosophic resources. For despite their subject matter, these gaudily fluorescent and arbitrarily simplified pictures seem to be a denial of both reality and death.
The “unpleasant” pictures for which Bloom is best known, the decomposing corpses and detached limbs of 1945-47, represent an entirely different approach—undramatic, spiritually involved and deeply moving. They were painted under the impact of the War and the extermination of the Jews, and while they may fail to communicate at first glance the love that is as much their emotional component as the revulsion, they may be interpreted as modern man’s shockingly new insight into his pitiful and defenseless mortality:
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 becomes 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. (Freedberg, Perspectives 6)
The superficially “decorative” paintings of Christmas Trees and Chandeliers, images isolated from larger representational pictures which Bloom worked on during the War, have led Hess and some of the other Non-objectivist critics to claim Bloom as their own—but with even less justification than in the case of de Kooning. While it is true, as Freedberg says, that this abstract phase, this translation of emotional sensation into vibrating light, may be regarded as “an extension to a logical extreme of a possibility inherent in one aspect of his style,” neither symbol—the once life-bearing spruce, evanescently loaded with baubles of promise, and the inverted tree of light brandishing its daggers of glass so precariously over the heads of the disenchanted—is ever lost sight of.
The series of symbolic pictures that Bloom painted between 1943 and 1938, “The Synagogue,” the “Child in the Garden,” “The Jew with Torah” and “The Bride” (each in at least two versions) are more representational than the paintings just discussed but less so than the “Rabbi” of 1947—testifying to Bloom’s habit of working on a number of pictures simultaneously, and to the homogeneity of his art. The second “Bride,” less symbolic and more human than the first, is, as Freedberg points out, “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 . . . the painting drawing its forms from the meaning it contains” (My italics.)
Being thus rooted in reality is the beginning, but only the beginning, of Bloom’s secret. The “Child in the Garden” is actually based on a newspaper photograph of a child at an orphanage party; but its universality may be traced to its suggestion of the Christ Child and to the symbolism of baptism and rebirth indicated by the foreground pool. Its affirmation flows from the blazing foliage of spring in the background. Going back still further, “The Synagogue” of 1940, Bloom’s first major picture, inevitably calls to mind Yeats’ “Byzantium,” and one is not surprised to learn that Bloom has been at various times a follower of Ouspensky, a Rosicrucian and believer in astrology. Like the poem, the picture is an extraordinarily rich reconciliation of conflicting elements, a salvaging of the past, a translation of ritual into the heritage of the world, and a hymn to origins.