August 18, 1913
|Died||August 26, 2009
Nashua, NH, United States
|Spouse(s)||Nina Bohlen (1954-1961)
Stella Caralis (1978-2009)
Hyman Bloom (August 18, 1913–August 26, 2009) was a Latvian-born American painter. His work was influenced by his Jewish heritage and Eastern religions as well as by artists including Altdorfer, Grünewald, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Blake, Bresdin, Ensor and Soutine. Many of his works feature macabre subjects such as corpses and autopsy scenes based on his visits to a morgue as well as influences including Rembrandt's Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632) and Chaim Soutine's Carcass of Beef (1925), and have modern-day comparisons to Damien Hirst's dissected animal sculptures. Bloom's still life paintings featuring 19th-century Amphora pottery can be seen as modern-day vanitas paintings. His drawings and paintings of the Lubec, Maine woods and his underwater seascapes explore the relationship between the natural and spiritual realms.
Bloom was a key figure in the Boston Expressionist school.
Early life and education
Hyman Bloom (né Melamed) was born into an orthodox Jewish family in the tiny Jewish village of Brunavišķi in what is now Latvia, then part of the Russian Empire.[note 1] He was one of six children born to Joseph and Anna Melamed. His father was a leather worker. Brunavišķi was a poor village in an area torn by civil unrest, where Jews lived in fear of persecution. The family emigrated to the United States in 1920, joining the two eldest sons, Samuel and Morris, in Boston. By that time the two brothers had changed their family name to Bloom and started their own leather business. The extended family lived in a three-room tenement apartment in Boston's West End.
At a young age Bloom planned to become a rabbi, but his family could not find a suitable teacher. In the eighth grade he received a scholarship to a program for gifted high school students at the Museum of Fine Arts. He attended the Boston High School of Commerce, which was near the museum. He also took art classes at the West End Community Center, a settlement house. The classes were taught by Harold Zimmerman, a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, who also taught the young Jack Levine at another settlement house in Roxbury. When Bloom was fifteen, he and Levine began studying with a well-known Harvard art professor, Denman Ross, who rented a studio for the purpose and paid the boys a weekly stipend to enable them to continue their studies rather than take jobs to support their families. Ross sponsored Bloom from 1928 to 1933. He also sponsored Harold Zimmerman.[note 2]
Bloom's training under Zimmerman and Ross was rigorous and traditional. Zimmerman focused on drawing and Ross on painting. Zimmerman encouraged his students to create full page compositions rather than partial sketches. To develop their powers of observation, he also insisted that they draw from memory rather than directly from the model. He hung William Blake prints on the walls of the settlement house, and encouraged students to synthesize images from multiple sources. He took Bloom and Levine on a field trip to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where Bloom was impressed by the work of Rouault and Soutine and began experimenting with their expressive painting styles. Ross, whose leanings were more academic,[note 3] taught Bloom how to handle paint in the style of the earlier masters. Thus Zimmerman and Ross fostered respect for artistic tradition while also teaching that art was not merely a matter of copying, but of using one's imagination to create a formal design: ideas that would later influence a school of painting known as Boston Expressionism.
In the 1930s Bloom worked sporadically for the Public Works of Art Project and the Federal Art Project, and for his brothers. He was a slow, methodical painter who liked to work on a piece, then set it aside for a while and come back to it with a fresh perspective. As a result, he had trouble meeting government deadlines. He shared a studio in the South End with Levine and another artist, Betty Chase. It was during this period that he developed a lifelong interest in Eastern philosophy and music, and in Theosophy.
He first received national attention in 1942 when thirteen of his paintings were included in the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) exhibition Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States, curated by Dorothy Miller.[note 4] MoMA purchased two of his paintings from that exhibition, and he was featured in Time magazine. The titles of his paintings in the exhibition reflect some of his recurring themes. Two were titled The Synagogue, another, Jew with the Torah; Bloom was actually criticized by one reviewer for including "stereotypical" Jewish images. He also had two paintings titled The Christmas Tree, and another titled The Chandelier, both subjects he returned to repeatedly. Another, Skeleton (c. 1936), was followed by a series of cadaver paintings in the forties, and The Fish (c. 1936) was one of many paintings and drawings of fish he created over the course of his career.
Bloom was associated at first with the growing Abstract Expressionist movement. Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, who first saw Bloom's work at the MoMA exhibition, considered Bloom "the first Abstract Expressionist artist in America." In 1950 he was chosen, along with the likes of de Kooning, Pollock, and Arshile Gorky, to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale. That same year Elaine de Kooning wrote about Bloom in ARTnews, noting that in paintings such as The Harpies, his work approached total abstraction: "the whole impact is carried in the boiling action of the pigment". In 1951 Thomas B. Hess reproduced Bloom's Archaeological Treasure in his first book, Abstract Painting: Background and American Phase, along with works by Picasso, Pollock, and others. Both de Kooning and Hess remarked on Bloom's expressive paint handling, a key characteristic of Abstract Expressionist painting.
As abstract expressionism dominated the American art world, Bloom became disenchanted with it, calling it "emotional catharsis, with no intellectual basis." In addition, instead of moving to New York to pursue his career, he opted to stay in Boston. As a result he fell out of favor with critics and never achieved the kind of fame that Pollock and others did. He disliked self-promotion and never placed much value on critical acclaim.
Bloom's cadaver images are among his most compelling and controversial. The series began in 1943 when artist David Aronson invited Bloom to accompany him on a trip to a morgue, where he was working on sketches for a painting, Resurrection. Bloom was both repelled by and drawn to the sight of the decomposing bodies, and painted them, he explained later, in hopes of coming to terms with death. In the first group of paintings, which include Corpse of an Elderly Male (1944), Female Corpse, Front View (1945) and Female Corpse, Back View (1947), the supine bodies are displayed vertically, as if viewed from above. The upright posture is reminiscent of Grünewald's crucified Christ in the Isenheim Altarpiece, Bloom's favorite painting. As critic Judith Bookbinder points out, the corpse "rises up" to confront the viewer. Bloom believed that death was a metamorphosis from one form of life to another as the body was consumed by living organisms: a process for which resurrection can be seen as a metaphor.
The paintings were first exhibited in Boston's Stuart Gallery in 1945, to mixed reviews. At the Durlacher Gallery in New York, they were displayed in a back room, available for viewing upon request. Some critics complained that the work was "morbid" and "gruesome" while others were appreciative. Joseph Gibbs wrote, "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." Robert Taylor called him "a painter of extraordinary courage."
In the late forties and early fifties, Bloom produced a second, very different, series of cadaver images. Paintings such as The Hull (1952), The Anatomist (1953), and Butchered Animal (1953) depict dissected corpses and amputated limbs. Some critics have suggested that these images arose from Bloom's exposure to pogroms in his home country, and later, reports of the Holocaust. According to Bloom, his concern "was the complexity and color beauty of the internal works, the curiosity, the wonder, and the feeling of transgressing boundaries, which such curiosity evokes." Whatever else may have motivated him, Bloom had an artist's appreciation for color and surface texture, and admired works by artists such as Soutine (Carcass of Beef, 1924) and Rembrandt (Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, 1632; The Slaughtered Ox, 1655) that explored similar themes. He called the colors of a decaying corpse he had seen in a morgue "harrowing" and yet "beautiful...iridescent and pearly."
Many of Bloom's paintings feature rabbis, usually holding the Torah. According to Bloom, his intentions were more artistic than religious. He began questioning his Jewish faith early in life, and painted rabbis, he claimed, because that was what he knew. Over the course of his career he produced dozens of paintings of rabbis, some of whom bore no small resemblance to himself. When asked if they were self-portraits, he replied cryptically, "When did I ever paint anything else?"
He took an interest in Eastern mysticism and music long before the 1960s, when they became associated with youth culture in the West. He taught himself how to play the sitar, oud, and other instruments, and in 1960 helped James Rubin found the Pan Orient Arts Foundation, a group that organized concerts and collected recordings by Indian artists.
In the 1950s he took LSD under the supervision of doctors who were studying its effects on creativity. While tripping, he produced surreal sketches and unintelligible scribbles, on one page writing the words "Hindu religion".
Much of his work of the 1950s and '60s reflects his preoccupation with theosophy and the spirit world. Paintings such as The Medium (1951) and his Séance series of the mid-50s depict mediums channeling spirits. He considered the artist a kind of channel, one whose reward was "ecstasy from contact with the unknown". For most of the 1960s he concentrated on drawing rather than painting in order to focus his attention on composition and value. On the Astral Plane (1966) is a series of grimly surreal charcoal drawings, inspired by the work of Altdorfer and Bresdin, in which lone figures who have entered the astral plane through death or meditation are surrounded by monsters. Asked why he chose to depict only the first level, filled with frightening creatures, Bloom replied, "You draw your experience."
Bloom continued painting into his nineties. His oil paintings of the Lubec, Maine, woods in the late 1970s exude what critic Holland Cotter called a "disturbed, ecstatic energy". The same could be said of his seascapes, such as Seascape II (1974). He painted vibrant still lifes featuring colorful gourds and iridescent Art Nouveau pottery. He produced at least twenty paintings of rabbis between the mid-80s and 2008. Meanwhile he continued exhibiting, mostly in the Boston area. The Fuller Museum presented a full retrospective of his work in 1996. Another was organized by the National Academy of Design in New York in 2002.
Bloom was a close friend of the composer Alan Hovhaness and the Greek mystic painter Hermon di Giovanno. The three of them often met to discuss various mystical subjects and to listen to Indian classical music. Bloom encouraged di Giovanno in his art, providing him with a set of pastels with which he executed his earliest paintings.
He was married to Nina Bohlen from 1954 to 1961, and to Stella Caralis from 1978 until his death. His last residence was in Nashua, New Hampshire. He died there on August 26, 2009, at the age of 96. He was survived by his wife Stella.
Bloom influenced many artists in the Boston area and elsewhere, and although he was largely indifferent to trends and movements, he is considered a key figure in the Boston Expressionist school. Because he worked slowly, often taking years to complete a painting, he left a relatively small body of work. He said a piece was finished "when the mood is as intense as it can be made."
His work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, the National Academy of Design, and many others. Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things, a film about the artist's life and work, was released in October 2009.
Honors and awards
- Critic's Choice Award from the Cincinnati Museum of Art for Christmas Tree, 1945
- Guggenheim fellowship, 1949
- Academy Award in Art from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1953
- Ford Foundation fellowship, 1959
- Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, 1974
- Elected to the National Academy of Design, 1984
- Thomas R. Proctor Prize for Jew with Torah from the National Academy of Design, 1999
- Brunavišķi is in the Bauska District of the Zemgale region of southern Latvia, near the town of Bauska and about 45 miles south of Riga near the Lithuanian border.
- According to Judith Bookbinder (p. 295), Zimmerman eked out a meager living as an art teacher until his death at the age of 41.
- See Ross's 1907 monograph, A Theory of Pure Design: Harmony, Balance, Rhythm, originally published by Houghton-Mifflin, now in the public domain.
- The 13 paintings were: Skeleton (c. 1936), The Fish (c. 1936), Circus Rider (c. 1937), The Baby (c. 1938), The Stove (1938), The Christmas Tree (c. 1939), The Christmas Tree (1939), The Christmas Tree (1939), The Chandelier (c. 1940), The Synagogue (c. 1940), The Synagogue (c. 1940), Jew with the Torah (c. 1940), The Bride (1941).
- Bookbinder 2005, pp. 58-60.
- French 2006.
- Bookbinder 2005, p. 62.
- Bookbinder 2005, p. 74.
- Alimi Key People.
- Bookbinder 2005, pp. 69-70, 86-87.
- Bookbinder 2005, p. 128.
- Alimi Introduction.
- Miller 1942, p. 123.
- Bookbinder 2005, p. 137.
- Bookbinder 2005, p. 138.
- Chaet 1980, p. 28.
- de Kooning 1950, pp. 30-33, 56.
- Hess 1951, p. 118.
- Cotter 2009.
- Bookbinder 2005, pp. 138-139.
- Bookbinder 2005, pp. 140, 142.
- Bookbinder 2005, p. 147.
- Bookbinder 2005, pp. 156-157.
- Bookbinder 2005, p. 148.
- Bookbinder 2005, p. 142.
- Johnson 2013.
- Alimi Home Page.
- Documentary website.
- Alimi, Bob. "Home Page". HymanBloomInfo.org.
- Alimi, Bob. "Introduction". HymanBloomInfo.org.
- Alimi, Bob. "Key People". HymanBloomInfo.org.
- Bookbinder, Judith (2005). Boston Modern: Figurative Expressionism as Alternative Modernism. Durham, NH: University of New Hampshire Press. ISBN 9781584654889.
- Capasso, Nicholas (2002). "Expressionism: Boston's Claim to Fame". Painting in Boston: 1950-2000. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. pp. 3, 5, 13. ISBN 9781558493643.
- Chaet, Bernard (1980). "The Boston Expressionist School: A Painter's Recollections of the Forties". Archives of American Art Journal (The Smithsonian Institution) 20 (1).
- Cotter, Holland (August 31, 2009). "Hyman Bloom, a Painter of the Mystical, Is Dead at 96". The New York Times. Retrieved August 31, 2009.
- Hess, Thomas B. (1951). Abstract Painting. Viking Press.
- Johnson, Ken (August 29, 2013). "A Walk Along the Boundaries of Faith and Flesh: Hyman Bloom's Rabbi Paintings at White Box". The New York Times.
- Lamm, Kimberly. "Hyman Bloom: Chronology". HymanBloomInfo.org.
- McBee, Richard. "Hyman Bloom's Journey". RichardMcBee.com.
- Miller, Dorothy C. (1942). Americans 1942: 18 Artists from 9 States. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
- "Hyman Bloom: The Beauty of All Things". Documentary Educational Resources.
- Dervaux, Isabelle (2002). Color and Ecstasy: The Art of Hyman Bloom. National Academy of Design. ISBN 9781887149105.
- Morrison, Richard C. "Oral history interview with Richard C. Morrison, 1965 June 8". Archives of American Art.
- Tarlow, Lois (March 1983). "Alternative Space: Hyman Bloom". Art New England 4 (4).
- The Synagogue, c. 1940
- Chandelier and Corpse of a Man, 1940s
- Archaeological Treasure, 1945
- The Harpies, c. 1950
- Séance II, 1955
- Seascape II, 1974
- Woods in Lubec, n.d.
- Gourds, 1990s
- Still Life with Striped Cloth, n.d.
- Hyman Bloom official site
- Hyman Bloom educational site
- Representing the Hyman Bloom estate
- on YouTube
- Hyman Bloom playing a sitar, 1950