Hyman Bloom

American Painter

Born: March 29, 1913
Bauska District, Latvia
Died: August 26, 2009
Nashua, New Hampshire
I had a conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful, and I had a sense of love for all living things that was greater than I had ever had before.
Hyman Bloom

Summary of Hyman Bloom

Bloom was the great outlier of the mid-twentieth century American avant-garde. The rebelliousness and originality of his vision was a match for his contemporaries, but Bloom kept his distance from the burgeoning New York scene, preferring to stay true to his Boston roots. Although he would not touch the heights of fame reached by New York School superstars like Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, Bloom still left an indelible stamp on the contemporary American art scene. His paintings certainly carried something of the voguish gestural style, but his work, which explored such themes as his Judaism, Eastern religion, and the occult, retained an element of control and a consistent thematic and figurative quality. His images of decaying human flesh, gaping cadavers, and wraithlike apparitions certainly caused a stir, but were perhaps a little too "difficult" for the tastes of the general American public. Bloom complemented his paintings with an expansive series of landscape drawings that recalled woodland engravings of the famous German renaissance master, Albrecht Dürer; an artist Bloom had admired from school age.

Accomplishments

The Life of Hyman Bloom

On becoming an artist, Bloom said, "I had a conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being. Everything was intensely beautiful, and I had a sense of love for all living things that was greater than I had ever had before."

Progression of Art

c. 1940

The Synagogue

Throughout his childhood and early adolescence, Bloom had rabbinical aspirations. However, after his bar mitzvah he stopped attending synagogue. He ceased to formally practice Judaism, but his religious roots and spiritual interests were simply transferred to his art. The backdrop for this spiritual scene is a traditional Orthodox Jewish synagogue packed with intergenerational worshipers. There are three bearded men of varying ages in the center of the middle ground holding torah scrolls. These are likely rabbis or senior members of the shul. The rabbinical figures are flanked by adolescent boys or young men whose heads are skewed and mouths wide open as if they are engages in loud communal prayer. The largest figure in the foreground is the cantor, also portrayed with his head skewed and mouth agape, who is leading the congregation in a spiritual hymn.

Although Bloom created this composition entirely from his imagination, the setting is based on the synagogue that Bloom and his family attended in Boston. Curator Isabelle Dervaux explains that the paint handling and forms that Bloom used in this composition created a stylistic and symbolic interpretation of the energy that pulsated within the synagogue. She notes that "Bloom remembered the feeling of ecstasy aroused in him by the cantoral music he heard at the synagogue. To give this feeling visual expression, he used formal distortions and an animated paint handling that suggest the transport of the singers. The heads turned ninety degrees upward and the swinging of the chandeliers under the ceiling materialize the sound of the music filling the space of the synagogue. Such an emphasis on physical expression corresponds to the theatricality and emotionalism that characterizes Eastern European synagogal music".

Bloom's Judaic paintings were a way for the young artist to assert his new American identity while acknowledging his familial roots. Art curator, Katherine French, explains that around the time he made these liturgical paintings, Bloom had "begun calling himself a secularist, yet his first mature work was deeply engaged with religious subject matter. Like so many artists before them, these men needed to find their own voice - to grow beyond the past, while still embracing it". In fact, Bloom never abandoned the subject of Judaism. However, after the 1940s he also incorporated symbols and themes from other religions and the occult within his paintings and drawings.

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York

1945

Female Corpse, Front View

In 1941, Bloom had to identify the body of his friend, Betty Chase, who had tragically committed suicide. He would visit a morgue again in 1942, this time with friend and fellow painter David Aronson, who was working on a painting titled Resurrection and wanted to reference the figure of Christ in the painting from observational studies of human corpses. Bloom continued to frequent the morgue at Boston's Kenmore Hospital to sketch cadavers.

Female Corpse, Front View shows a naked cadaver of a woman as if we were looking down at her from above. Bloom uses a spectrum of earth tones such as tints and shades of ochres, oranges, yellows, greens, to give the illusion of the body in a state of decomposition. The thick layering of paint also signifies scarring and degradation of flesh and tissue. It has been suggested that the pus marks might be blisters from burns. The date of the painting, and the artist's heritage, invite us to read the figure as representing a victim of the Holocaust. The rising orange shapes surrounding her, perhaps representing flames from the concentration camp ovens.

Not surprisingly, the painting (and others in the series) caused controversy when first shown in 1945 at the Stuart Gallery in Boston. Some critics did, however, acknowledge the success of the work's formal qualities such as the marbling effect Bloom created through color combinations and textural application of the paint, which rendered the decaying flesh grotesque and beautiful at once. As art critic Joseph Gibbs said of the work in a review for an issue of Art Digest, "After a moment of repugnance, one becomes aware that within the artist's seeming absorption in death and decay is contained the resurrection - the relative unimportance of fugitive flesh as opposed to the indestructibility of the spirit".

Oil on canvas - Collection of the Jewish Museum, New York

1948

Self Portrait

We would only know that this is a self-portrait based on its title. The painting itself has no discernible features that identify the artist. Instead, he has portrayed himself as an anatomical display of flesh, muscle, and bone; it is as if he is revealing himself from the inside out. One can easily see the compositional similarities to his animal cadaver paintings. The parallel between a self-portrait and still lifes of dead bodies is a large part of the symbolic meaning behind the work.

As art historian Judith Bookbinder put it, "For Bloom the only hope for humanity is metamorphosis". Bloom expounded upon this in a rare interview with journalist Dorothy Thompson, stating that these images represent a cycle of life both in the physical and metaphysical state, in his words, "as the living organisms which inhabit the body in death transform it into life in another form".

There are clear parallels to be drawn here between Bloom's cadaver paintings and those of the Russian/French Expressionist painter Chaim Soutine whose preoccupation with food, and its significance to Jewish religious rituals, saw him focus on the bodies of butchered animals. In his search for authenticity, Bloom became a frequent visitor to a Boston morgue, whereas Soutine had fresh buckets of blood delivered daily to his studio which he then poured over his carcases in order the capture the blood red texture of flesh. Moreover, Soutine's work has often been likened to the tortured human figures of the British painter Francis Bacon. And, although Bloom's work has a more optimistic dimension (when one takes on board his stated interest in the theme of metamorphosis), we might imagine some sort of notional triptych between the three artists when we consider that curator Frederick S, Wight paired Bloom and Bacon at an exhibition at the Art Galleries of the University of California at Los Angeles in 1960.

Oil on canvas

c. 1950

Seance

Bloom's fascination with Helena Blavatsky's theosophical teachings, as well as esoteric practices like séances, tarot-card reading, and fortune telling, inspired him to paint a series of works depicting the occult and other such metaphysical phenomena. Bloom's view was that "The artist's reward is pleasure, ecstasy from contact with the unknown". French even suggests that "In his séance drawings and paintings, it is possible that Bloom considered himself a skillful medium, able to reach an essential truth through art".

Blended into the background is the profile of a woman, her ghostly face being the most defined of her features. She appears as an apparition and is likely a spirit that is being summoned by the medium performing the séance (Bloom himself, perhaps). The dominant form in the painting is however the head of Baphomet, a symbol of balance in many modern and ancient mystical traditions that takes the physical form of a human with the head of a goat. Bloom's palette, meanwhile, is full of translucent gray hues which suggests a type of ectoplasm. The background is abstract, rendered through light and opaque colors, while the gestural brush marks add to the supernatural mood and atmosphere of the piece.

Oil on canvas

1956

Law of the Fishes

Law of the Fishes is a monochromatic ink drawing that is part of Bloom's series of seascapes, which he began towards the end of the 1950s during his summer vacations in Lubec, Maine. Bloom's seascapes are unique insofar as they depict clusters of dead fish rather than the lively and vibrant portrayals of marine life that are more typical of the genre. Bloom's seascapes address symbolically the theme of the cruel hierarchies of modern life; a type of memento mori that reminds us of our own mortality through the vulnerability of the natural environment. In Law of the Fishes, Bloom used white ink on a dark background to provide stark visual contrast and the illusion of three-dimensional texture. The title itself comes from the ancient Indian philosophy of Matsya Nyaya ("The Law of the Fish") which refers to the idea that the big fish will always devour the smaller fish. In Bloom's own words, "It's a euphemism for free enterprise, a predatory competition. Life is a contest".

Artist Sigmund Abeles said of The Law of the Fishes, "The forceful movement drives one's eye toward a central vortex close in form to much of the compositional devices of Abstract Expressionism, but in this dense work, it was also consciously created to express emotional subject matter. The viewer becomes awestruck by the consummate structure of precisely drawn fish devouring other fish. The anatomy and expression of the individual morphology of the many different fish add and build up to this swirling ensemble. Clearly, this is Bloom's metaphor for both evolution and humankind's endless warring on his neighbor, if for no more reason than the need to eat and to survive. Violence becomes a way of life, a necessity".

White ink on blue paper

1963

Landscape #14

Bloom devoted the best part of the late 1950s and 1960s to large-scale drawings. They featured recurring themes (Jewish identity, seances, human cadavers) but Bloom also ventured into the theme of nature. Amongst this collection was a series on trees and other forestations from the woods surrounding Lubec (where he vacationed annually). Bloom took photographs of the woods which provided the source for his drawings, although he did not copy the photographs, but rather processed them through his own imagination.

He merges tightly entangled branches with mangled roots and knotted tree trunks that recall the fantastical prints and drawings (much admired by the Surrealists) of the nineteenth century draftsmen Rodolphe Bresdin and Odilon Redon (the former's pupil) which Bloom collected. "I wanted to explore charcoal tone as Redon had done, and pursue ideas I had developed from studying the drawings and prints of [Albrecht] Altdorfer and Bresdin". Historian Isabelle Dervaux writes, "Bloom's landscapes belong to the romantic tradition that sees in natural phenomena the mirror of the human condition. In this empathy with nature, a tree can become, in the words of Robert Rosenblum, 'the protagonist of some drama more human than botanical, and the conveyor of sensations more emotional than physical'".

As artist Sigmund Abeles writes, "It helps one to know that hanging on the wall of Bloom's sixth-grade classroom was a copy of Albrecht Durer's engraving Knight, Death and the Devil (1513). It was at this time that Bloom was recognized as the class artist, and the strong, moving effect of Durer's work has remained important in Bloom's visual memory bank to this day. The distant landscape, which is far from the central theme of this profound image, is indeed harsh and spiky. Bloom's landscape drawings are built up mark by mark, slowly describing forms and volumes as well as light and shadow. In the darkest of Rembrandt's etchings, once one's eyes adjust, it is possible to see into his darks. They never become flat blacks. This, too, is the case of the amazingly dense markings in Bloom's mysterious Lubec landscapes".

Biography of Hyman Bloom

Childhood and Adolescence

Hyman Melameds was born in the village of Brunavišķi, Latvia, which was at that time part of the Russian Empire. The youngest of six children, he was raised by parents Joseph and Anna Melamed in a strict Orthodox Jewish household. Brunavišķi was made up of a largely Jewish population that lived under the day-to-day threat of antisemitic aggression. In 1920, Bloom's parents and his older brother Bernard decided to join two other brothers already settled in the United States. The Melameds changed their surname to Bloom and made their home in Boston where they establishing a leather business (Joseph's profession in Brunavišķi). Bloom graduated from the Boston High School of Commerce in 1930.

Early Training and Work

Bloom was initially focused on studying theology and prepared to become a rabbi. But when he was unable to find a desirable rabbinical mentor, he found a way to channel his spirituality through art. Bloom's attention turned towards visual art after his eighth-grade art teacher recommended that he take lessons at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts' after school enrichment program in 1926. Bloom also took art classes at the West End Community Center where he was taught by Harold Zimmerman.

Zimmerman, who Bloom later referred to as "spiritual father", had adopted a method of teaching he dubbed "visual imagination". It was a precursor to the Abstract Expressionist movement and methodologies like Hans Hofmann's "push-and-pull" mode of spatial arrangement. Zimmerman's method sought to strengthen his students' observational skills, but to also harness their memory, subconscious, and innovative imagination (rather than reinterpreting scenes from everyday life). As artist Sigmund Abeles writes, Zimmerman's students "were encouraged to remember an event or situation recently seen. Then, with no visual references except one's sheet of paper, they struggled to make complete, convincing drawings, not isolated parts, but whole ensemble compositions, possessing rhythm, structure, proportion, anatomy, and content. [...] Using always the same HB pencil but applying different pressure, they would start with extremely light lines and gradually add marks all over the paper, creating the whole picture at once".

Among Zimmerman's other students was a young artist named Jack Levine. Bloom and Levine were introduced in 1927 and remained close friends and co-exhibitors throughout their lives. The pair gained the attention of Denman Waldo Ross, a Harvard professor and trustee at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Ross provided Levine and Bloom with their own studio space, materials, and a weekly stipend allowing them to focus solely on producing art. Trips to museums with Zimmerman and Ross exposed Bloom to paintings by Chaim Soutine and Georges Henri Rouault. Their Expressionist art would become an early and reliable vehicle for Bloom to communicate his own visions and experiences. With the financial and institutional support from Ross, and Zimmerman's formidable pedagogical prowess, Bloom already had a promising art career ahead, even before graduating high school. (His first known oil painting is Portrait of a Young Girl was made in 1929).

Bloom's early artistic renderings were drawings of wrestling and boxing bouts, reflecting his own athletic interests as well as his older brothers' (Samuel and Morris) engagement with bodybuilding. In 1933, The Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University organized the exhibition An Experiment in Art Teaching featuring work by Zimmerman and some of his students. Bloom displayed several sketches in the show. That same year, Bloom and Levine parted company with Ross and Zimmerman.

Mature Period

In 1935, Bloom began a five-year tenure making artworks for the Massachusetts Works Progress Administration (WPA). He shared a studio in Boston's South End neighbourhood with Levine and another artist the pair befriended, named Betty Chase. But during the summer of 1939, Bloom experienced a bout of depression and withdrew to a small, isolated cabin on the beach near Provincetown, Massachusetts. During this time he painted and began to explore the mystical philosophy of Helena Blavatsky and her 1888 treatise on theosophy, The Secret Doctrine. Blavatsky was cofounder of the Theosophical Society, which acted as a bridge between Eastern and Western theology, which has chapters throughout the world. Her spiritual teachings are noted for influencing many modern artists and when Bloom returned to Boston, he frequented the city's Theosophical Society.

Art historian Debra Bricker Balken notes that it was around this time that Bloom also became acquainted with Jackson Pollock's painting. She writes, Bloom thought that Pollock's painting "'lacked 'emotional control,' that Pollock's febrile compositions of lines, splatters, and drips issued from solipsism rather than an interior life that wrestled with big questions relating to mortality and fate, the subjects that Bloom felt befit the mid-century". Indeed, Bloom also became interested in Indian mysticism and other metaphysical teachings at his time. His mature paintings reflect a symbolic yearning for a spiritual connection. In the late 1930s and into the early 1940s, he painted several portraits of Rabbis, but also focused on spiritual musings about life, death, and humanity's connection with nature and the cosmos.

In 1942, Bloom's work was included in an important group exhibition at MoMA, organized by the influential curator, Dorothy C. Miller. The exhibition titled, Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States, included thirteen oil paintings by Bloom, including The Synagogue (c.1940) and The Bride (1941), both of which were purchased by the museum. Other paintings in the exhibition included several stylized Christmas trees and chandeliers, as well as paintings symbolizing the cycle of life (including The Baby (c.1938); Skeleton (c.1936); and Fish, (c.1936)). In its review, Time magazine singled Bloom out as the exhibition's most "striking discovery".

Balken tells us that "Within a few years of the MoMA project, Bloom had secured [the services of the] Durlacher Bros. [gallery] to represent his work in New York. The relationship was ostensibly a good fit: Kirk Askew, who directed the gallery, not only had trained in art history at Harvard, and hence knew Boston, but also had a keen interest in modernist art. He was known for his lively parties that drew on a cross section of avant-garde writers, composers, artists, and collectors". Askew had strongly encouraged Bloom to move from Boston to New York to "become a fixture or player". But Bloom scoffed at that idea: "I didn't like openings, I didn't like the crowds of people", he later recalled, "I avoided all of that stuff". However, his relationship with Askew was fully tested when the dealer hid from public view (in what Bloom called "a concession to vulgarity") one of Bloom's nude corpses for fear of repelling visitors to the gallery.

Elaine de Kooning noted in her essay, "Hyman Bloom Paints a Picture", that the artist "seems to think with his brush; complex philosophical implications are conveyed in the action of painting". In fact, during the 1940s Bloom was considered one of the most important Action Painters. His influence on the first major American modern art movement, Abstract Expressionism, was confirmed through quotes by Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and the influential art critic Clement Greenberg (who, nevertheless, challenged Bloom's paintings for being "too literal"). In a 1945 interview with artist and art educator Bernard Chaet, de Kooning cited Bloom as the first Abstract Expressionist painter although Bloom himself refused to identify with the movement, or indeed, any of the artists associated with it, and claimed (in a pointed barb at Greenberg) that he "never cared" what others said about his art.

Paintings such as Skeleton and Fish were precursors to one of Bloom's aesthetic preoccupations, namely fantastical renderings of decay and metamorphosis of organic matter. During the 1940s and 1950s Bloom created many large paintings featuring depictions of butchered meat, dissected animals, and autopsies of human cadavers. He was selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale in 1950 next to Pollock, de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Rico Lebrun, Lee Gatch, and John Marin. Bloom's growing reputation led to him being appointed to several prominent positions within the field of art education (despite never attended art school himself). In 1949, he taught at Wellesley College, then, in 1951, he took up a post teaching painting at Harvard University. At Harvard he tutored his future wife, Nina Bohlen (they were married in 1954).

Although Josef Albers also offered Bloom the prestigious role of visiting artist at Yale University, he turned the offer down to prepare for an important upcoming exhibition. As Balken explains, "in 1954, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston mounted a solo show of Bloom's work, which traveled nationally, ending at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York". She adds that in his catalogue essay, curator Frederick S. Wight, "took up this issue of morality again [the trustees of the Albright Gallery in Buffalo, New York, demanded that Bloom's "obscene" paintings be removed from display] more forthrightly linking Bloom's preoccupation with mortality to a 'universal Buchenwald [Nazi concentration camp],' a comparison that vivified the relevance of his themes post - World War II".

Later Years and Death

In 1960, Bloom and James Rubin, a scholar in Indian music, established the PanOrient Arts Foundation. The foundation collected, recorded, and researched South Indian classical music. Balken notes that in 1960, curator Frederick S, Wight (following the 1954 Boston exhibition) paired Bloom with the British artist Francis Bacon in an exhibition at the Art Galleries of the University of California at Los Angeles. She writes, "Both artists wrestled with horror and despair; but whereas Bacon's bleary portraits of popes and friends scream in existential terror behind caged armatures, Bloom's flayed torsos are the corporeal residue of a life that has become otherworldly". But Bloom's art was starting to shift focus as he concentrated almost exclusively on large scale drawings and works on paper. Drawing in dark ink and charcoal allowed him to explore compositional elements of art and design such as texture and tone.

In his 1966 series of chalk and charcoal drawings, On the Astral Plane, Bloom offered his interpretation of Theosophy's concept of the afterlife. As art historian Marvin S. Sadik, explains, "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".

Drawing occupied Bloom for the best part of the 1960s before he took up oil painting again in the 1970s. In 1978 Bloom married Stella Caralis (he was divorced from Bohlen in 1957, though the couple remained on good terms). The couple set up home in Nashua, New Hampshire in 1983 and Bloom turned to landscapes and seascapes of New England (he spent many summer vacations in the small coastal town of Lubec, Maine) and still lifes of gourds and pottery objects. He still continued to paint more familiar themes, however, and produced a series of rabbinical portraits that stretched from the late 1980s through the first decade of the new millennium. Although he had by now effectively withdrawn from the commercial art scene, Bloom continued to draw and paint well into his nineties. He died on August 26, 2009, at the age of 96 in Nashua.

The Legacy of Hyman Bloom

Most personal anecdotes of Bloom speak of an introverted individual. Artist, educator, and writer, Lois Tarlow, recalled, for instance, that he "was unique among us [...] He guarded his privacy and his time. He seldom went to openings, even his own, or hung around with other artists for mutual support and admiration". Indeed, Bloom's decision to remain based in Boston allowed him to avoid the intense media rush that accompanied the birth of the New York School. It is true that he fell into relative obscurity during his later years (notwithstanding two celebrated retrospectives at the Fuller Museum in Brockton, Massachusetts, in 1996, and National Academy of Design in New York in 2002) but Bloom regained recognition posthumously, especially as a precursor to the contemporary figurative movements, East Coast Figurative Expressionism, and Bay Area Figurative Expressionism. He is also considered a pioneer within the Boston Expressionist faction along with Jack Levine, David Aronson, Lawrence Kupferman, and Karl Zerbe.

Art historian Judith Bookbinder grouped the above-named artists together in the book, Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism as Alternative Modernism, and positioned the movement as an integral part in the development of American modernism. In 2010, Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things (2005), a documentary film by Angélica Brisk, which was released and screened at various museums (including the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) was a fitting addition to his legacy. Balken writes finally, "About [his] string of successes, Bloom aloofly stated, 'Yes, I was famous but what is that to enjoy?' The art world, with its fast pace, ongoing turnover of interests, and voguish audiences, never held him. He always knew he was an anomaly. His only satisfaction was to mine the possibility for an art that could transcend temporal boundaries by alluding to a world beyond the material".

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