Hyman Bloom, a Painter of the Mystical

Fascinating. One would give something to know this man’s life from the inside. From the New York Times — http://www.nytimes.com/2009/08/31/arts/design/31bloom.html?_r=1&emc=eta1 —  via a friend.

Hyman Bloom, a Painter of the Mystical, Is Dead at 96


Published: August 31, 2009

Hyman Bloom, a mystical and reclusive painter who for a brief time in the 1940s and ’50s was regarded as a precursor to the Abstract Expressionists and one of the most significant American artists of the post-World War II era, died on Wednesday in Nashua, N.H. He was 96 and lived in Nashua.

Mr. Bloom’s art mixed a baroque exuberance and jewel-like colors. His historical influences ranged from Grünewald andRembrandt, to Redon and Rouault, to Indian tantric art and Chinese painting. His images often fell on the hallucinatory side of visionary and could be confrontational, even repellent: synagogue lamps scintillating with light, translucent spirits evoked in séances, disemboweled bodies on autopsy tables. His paintings were hard to love, but they are not easily forgotten.

He was born in Latvia in 1913, a time when Eastern European Jews, caught in the clashes between competing German, Russian and Cossack forces, lived in constant fear of pogroms. In 1920 his parents left for the United States and settled in Boston, where they changed their name from Melamed to Bloom and joined thousands of other immigrants in the slums of the city’s West End.

Quiet and dreamy, at 14 Mr. Bloom was given a scholarship to study drawing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. He simultaneously enrolled in art classes at a settlement house where his teacher, Harold K. Zimmerman, taught him to work from memory rather than directly from models and to use art as a vehicle for intense emotion. Zimmerman introduced him to the work of William Blake and, through Blake, to the idea that it was possible to paint the metaphysical, to depict spiritual truths visually.

In the 1930s, when Mr. Bloom was working for the Federal Arts Project in Boston, his virtuosic painting caught the eye of project’s director, Holger Cahill, whose wife, Dorothy C. Miller, was a curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. She put 13 of Mr. Bloom’s pictures in “Americans 1942,” the museum’s prestigious periodic survey of new art. It was his first exhibition anywhere.

Others quickly followed, at galleries in New York and Boston. He was included in the 1949 Carnegie International and then in the 1950 Venice Biennale, along with Arshile Gorky, William de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. When a traveling retrospective of his work appeared at the Whitney Museum of America Art, the influential critic and curator Thomas Hess wrote in Art News that “Bloom at 40 is one of the outstanding painters of his generation.” De Kooning and Pollock identified him as the first Abstract Expressionist in America.

Yet by no means all responses were favorable. Some critics had strong negative reactions to his graphic autopsy scenes and deplored the general theme of disintegration in his art. Others were dismissive of his religious content, which Hilton Kramer, writing for Commentary, compared to “finding gefilte fish at a fashionable party.” No one knew quite what to make of his exotic, Symbolist-style depictions of ghostly visitations.

Mr. Bloom’s response, quoted in a 1996 catalog essay by the art historian Dorothy Abbott Thompson, was that he wanted to make the meaning of death “more understandable, even more acceptable, more familiar, more knowable.”

“I thought of it as a very positive effort,” he added. He defined the “Jewish feeling” in his art as “a weeping from the heart.”

Well before his career started he had been intrigued by various forms of occult thinking. He claimed to have had, in 1939, a single, traumatic, life-changing experience of cosmic consciousness, a sudden “conviction of immortality, of being part of something permanent and ever-changing, of metamorphosis as the nature of being.”

“Everything was intensely beautiful,” he was quoted in the essay as saying, “and I had a sense of love that was greater than I had ever had before.”

He attended meetings at the Psychical Research Society in Boston and sat in on séances, though he claimed no psychic powers and never actually witnessed a materialization. He immersed himself in theosophy and Vedanta, attracted to their Asian associations.

His investment in Jewish mysticism, while non-Orthodox, was deep, counterbalancing his impulse to see life as brutalizing Darwinian contest. Some critics have taken his autopsy paintings as a personal response to World War II.

All of these elements, emphatically manifested in his art, shaped and limited his audience. And two specific factors led to a rapid drop from favor. By the 1950s, abstraction had been embraced as the progressive mode, and Mr. Bloom never made completely abstract work. And at a time when New York was developing into a major international power base for art, he stayed in Boston.

There he saw few visitors. He immersed himself in Indian classical music, began long-term psychoanalysis and experimented, under medical supervision, with psychedelic drugs. He married twice. He is survived by his second wife, Stella.

From 1962 to 1972, inspired by the reductive palette of the Song dynasty art of China, Mr. Bloom gave up painting in favor of charcoal drawing. His oil paintings of dense New England forests, from the later 1970s, are charged with the kind of disturbed, ecstatic energy found in the work of Samuel Palmer and the eccentric French printmaker Rodolphe Bresdin. In the 1980s came large, luxuriant still lifes of iridescent Art Nouveau pots and vases that appear to be merging with the palpitating space around them.

Mr. Bloom continued to exhibit – regularly in Boston, more fitfully elsewhere. In 1996 the Fuller Museum of Art in Brockton, Mass., organized a full retrospective. The National Academy of Design in Manhattan organized another in 2002. A traveling exhibition, “Hyman Bloom: A Spiritual Embrace,” opens at Yeshiva University in Manhattan on Sept. 13. His work is in many American museum collections.

Mr. Bloom, who acknowledged that his paintings of rabbis were, intentionally or not, self-portraits, rarely admitted visitors to his studio, and when he did he turned any paintings in progress to the wall, as if unwilling to let imperfect work be seen. Although he worked almost until his death, he was self-demanding and left a relatively small body of work that is collectively distinctive and insistently communicative piece by piece.

He said that a painting was finished “when the mood is as intense as it can be made.”

“When a day’s work has been successful, and you have a feeling of intensity and unity with the work,” he said, “that’s the work you want to keep.”

One thought on “Hyman Bloom, a Painter of the Mystical

  1. Being attracted to Expressionism, I admired Bloom’s work from some time ago (over 50 years). Unfortunately, there has not been much opportunity to keep up with Bloom since then, so it is good to see this summation of his career.

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