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Hyman Bloom exhibition at MFA Boston explores artist's search for inner truth through gripping images of life and death
Hyman Bloom (American (born in Lithuania, now Latvia), 1913–2009), Still Life with Squashes, 1955. Oil on canvas. Stella Bloom Trust © Stella Bloom Trust. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

BOSTON, MASS.- Widely admired in his day but too often overlooked since, Boston-based artist Hyman Bloom (1913–2009) combined the physical and spiritual on canvas. Committed to figurative painting at a moment when abstraction was on the rise, he layered thick paint in jewel-like tones to make bold compositions that directly confront the cyclical nature of life. Bloom’s gripping depictions of the human form, especially those of autopsies and cadavers, are among the bravest statements of his career, at once beautiful and harrowing, captivating and repellent. Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death, the first solo presentation of the artist’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA), considers his unsparing explorations of the body within the context of his career, his philosophical beliefs and his search for deeper meaning. The exhibition features approximately 70 dramatic paintings and drawings, on loan from public and private collections including the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Jewish Museum, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), the Addison Gallery of American Art and the Collection of the Stella Bloom Trust. Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death was organized by Erica Hirshler, Croll Senior Curator of American Paintings, and is on view from July 13, 2019 through February 23, 2020 in the Henry and Lois Foster Gallery.

The exhibition is accompanied by an illustrated book, Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death (MFA Publications, 2019), which offers insightful essays by Hirshler and Naomi Slipp, Assistant Professor of Art History at Auburn University, as well as beautiful full-color reproductions of Bloom’s compelling paintings and drawings. Supported by the MFA Associates / MFA Senior Associates Exhibition Endowment Fund.

“Bloom’s work has been neglected for much too long,” said Hirshler. “As we reassess the histories we tell about 20th-century American art, we need to include those bold figures who, like Bloom, remained committed to the figure and who sought to explore the complex nature of human existence, in which beauty and horror are often inextricably linked.”

Born in the village of Brunoviski, Latvia (now Lithuania) in 1913, Bloom immigrated to the U.S. in 1920 with his parents and older brother, joining family members who had already settled in Boston. His skill and passion for drawing were evident early on, and at age 14, he won a scholarship to take high school art classes at the MFA. Bloom also studied art at the West End Settlement House with painter Howard K. Zimmerman and received encouragement and financial support from the important Boston collector, artist and MFA benefactor Denman Waldo Ross. By the 1930s, Bloom was cobbling together a living as an artist. He received his first critical acclaim in 1942, when his work was featured in an important exhibition at MoMA. Bloom was always interested in the human body, but his exploration of death began soon thereafter. He visited a Boston morgue in 1943, accompanying his friend and fellow painter David Aronson to the Kenmore Hospital to sketch cadavers. Transfixed by that experience, he continued to explore the subject throughout his career. Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death focuses on these captivating works and the painter’s search to understand, in both physical and metaphysical ways, the underlying structure of things.

The exhibition is divided into five sections. It opens with a shocking flayed self-portrait (1948, Collection of Deborah and Ed Shein) that reveals the life force that pulses beneath the skin’s surface. Equally monumental are two drawings of bare tree branches, which show Bloom’s consistent interest in underlying structures. The section Bloom as a Draftsman is devoted to the artist’s skill in drawing, a favorite occupation; he filled sketchbook after sketchbook with images made from both observation and memory. Sometimes his motifs reappear in larger works, but Bloom’s drawings are not necessarily systemic preludes toward a final product. Instead, they capture on paper the practice of his creative mind. His earliest works are fantasies like Man Breaking Bonds on a Wheel (1929, Collection of the Stella Bloom Trust), informed by his studies with Zimmerman, who taught his students to draw from memory or the “visual imagination” rather than merely from life. At Harvard in the early 1930s with Denman Ross, Bloom made many studies of boxers and wrestlers, mastering the representation of male bodies both in movement and at rest. Later he turned to figures past their prime, elderly men and women with wrinkled and sagging flesh that evoke empathy and humility.

The section Beneath the Surface of Things, features paintings that reflect Bloom’s search for inner meaning and his belief in the cyclical nature of life and death. At first glance, the works in this room might seem abstract, but Bloom never gave up figurative subjects—although, in his quest for spiritual significance, he expressed much more than physical form. Chandelier No. 2 (1945), a recent gift to the MFA from the Bloom family, depicts a synagogue chandelier, one of several Jewish motifs that the artist painted throughout his life. Abstracting the lamp from its surroundings, Bloom made his real subject both light and enlightenment. The Harpies (1947, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum) draws from mythology, while Treasure Map (1945, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy) is inspired by archaeology. These paintings attest to Bloom’s far-reaching interests—Jewish scripture, ancient civilizations, Eastern philosophies and the occult—as he sought to reckon with the nature of human existence.

Life and Death, Light and Dark, examines Bloom’s attraction to paradoxes and opposites, juxtaposing his paintings of brides with those of corpses. While seemingly contradictory, to Bloom both subjects symbolized the promise of new life: the bride as a bearer of children and the corpse as a harbinger of regeneration. Bloom’s veiled brides and shrouded corpses share formal similarities as well, connected by composition and color. The newlywed in The Bride (1941, Museum of Modern Art, New York) lies horizontally like a skeleton, and the vibrant flowers or jewels that cover her body evoke the blossoms of decay that decorate the subject in Female Corpse, Back View (1947, MFA). For Bloom, death was not separate from life; both were essential parts of the cycle of existence.

Bloom is among many artists throughout history—including Leonardo, Michelangelo, Rembrandt and Géricault—who have turned to the cadaver and the anatomy lesson in order to understand the structure of the human form. The section entitled The Beauty of All Things explores how Bloom made the dead one of his major motifs. Among the works on view are paintings that were included in his first solo exhibition at New York’s Durlacher Gallery in 1946: Female Corpse (Front View) (1945, The Jewish Museum, New York) and Corpse of Man (1944, The Rose Art Museum of Brandeis University). Corpse of Man in particular was controversial, considered so graphic that Bloom’s dealer R. Kirk Askew decided to show it in a back room of the gallery. Also on view are the colorful and gestural Anatomist and its related drawing Autopsy (both 1953, Whitney Museum of American Art), multi-layered visual puzzles that gradually introduce the viewer to the subject: a human corpse lying on a table, its viscera exposed, with white-sleeved arms passing over the body to conduct postmortem analysis.

Traditionally defined as a work of art that depicts inanimate subject matter, still life has been a genre of painting since ancient times. Still lifes featuring foodstuffs—including images of meat markets, dead game and flayed oxen—have been common since the 16th century. The Still Life section of the exhibition shows how Bloom expanded the definition of the genre to encompass dead people as well as animals. Bloom began a series of images of dissections and autopsies in the early 1950s, witnessing these procedures and then returning to his studio to create from his imagination and memory. In both crayon and oil paint, he rendered the private public by choosing a monumental scale. The masterful drawing Cadaver No. 1 (about 1952, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy) is a life-size sheet depicting an eviscerated body held up by a rope. At this same time, Bloom painted still lifes of vegetables, using equally intense color, explorations of texture and dramatic arrangement of forms. Parallels abound between Female Leg (1951, MFA) and Turban Squash (1959, Collection of Merloyd Ludington), in which the artist employed deep oranges and rich reds for both human limbs and knurled fruits. Bloom expanded the definition of “still life” to express both a composition of static forms and an inquiry into life’s continual processes of birth, death and renewal.

In all of these works, Bloom sought to get beneath the surface of things, using his brush like a scalpel or an archaeological trowel, excavating essential truths through his painting.

In addition to Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death, visitors can also see four other paintings by Bloom installed throughout the Museum. Christmas Tree (1939, MFA) is on view in Collecting Stories: A Mid-Century Experiment, an exhibition that explores the position of contemporary American art at the MFA in the 1940s and 1950s. Older Jew with Torah (1945, Collection of Robert Alimi and Amy D. Kuilema) is on view in Gallery 153, with 20th-century figurative art from Europe. Lubec Sunset (1980, Collection of Herbert P. and Marylou Gray) can be seen in Gallery 236, with historic American landscapes, and Seascape II (1974, Danforth Art Museum at Framingham State University) is displayed in Gallery 251, in juxtaposition with one of Bloom’s favorite seascapes, J. M. W. Turner’s Slave Ship.

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