Age-Old Truths

Text by Christine Temin Photography by Mark Alcarez

Nature in all its phases, but particularly its later stages, interests him, and he interprets it freely. In one recent, tiny sketch, a voluptuous woman gestures toward two men with rounded, open arms that could well be the sheltering limbs of a tree. “I don’t know who she is,” the artist says, adding, on second thought, “she might be Mother Nature.”

Hyman Bloom loves trees. “I have a wooded lot with several trees that have rotted away, with animals living inside them,” he says of his property in Nashua, New Hampshire. “But I won’t cut a single one down.”

Age, death and decay—whether in people or in trees—have been among the primary subjects in Bloom’s art for well over half a century. Now ninety-three, he makes what sounds like gruesome imagery into something downright gorgeous, through lush color and free, gestural brushstrokes. In his congested canvases it is often difficult to separate background from subject, but when you do, you discover severed limbs and cadavers that have been sliced open, as well as less grim fare: the ornate glass and pottery he collects, chandeliers, pumpkins, fish. And hanging in his house at the moment is a huge charcoal drawing depicting the midsection of a tree trunk at virtually life-size.

His spacious home, a converted barn more than a century old with dark, rugged beams and a dramatic three-story entry, is a virtual museum of Bloom’s work from all phases of his long career. He and his wife, Stella, have lived here since 1983, when Bloom outgrew his Cambridge studio and couldn’t find a bigger one he could afford in the Boston area.

The landscape around his house is gentle compared with his most famous series of landscape drawings and paintings, those he made in the 1950s and ’60s, based on the woods in the coastal town of Lubec, Maine. He turns these scenes into fairy-tale forests where anthropomorphic trees, their branches pirouetting wildly from their trunks, look ready to capture anyone who dares enter their midst. “All they are is fantasies,” the artist says. “I was trained to work from the imagination. I’d view something closely and then go back to the studio. I start with a plan, but it never works out precisely. You discover as you work. That’s where the fun is.”

The training he refers to was in settlement houses and at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. He and his family fled their native Latvia and immigrated to Boston’s West End when he was seven. The precocity he demonstrated starting in junior high school won him a patron, Harvard professor Denman Ross, who supported him in the depths of the Depression with a $12-a-week stipend. Bloom was a prodigy, as attested by a highly finished, masterful drawing called Man Breaking Bonds on a Wheel that hangs in his living room. He made the drawing when he was sixteen. “I was always interested in virtuosity,” he says.

He soon broke the bonds of realism, moving into far more adventurous territory. His figures became more inventive, even though many were based on his observations of corpses. “At the Boston City Hospital it used to be easy to get into the morgue,” he recalls. “It was a revelation. How many people have seen the inside of a human being?” Unlike anatomy lesson paintings by artists from Rembrandt to Eakins, Bloom’s go far beyond accuracy. In The Hull, the title refers to the ribcage a surgeon has just cut out of a body. It does indeed look like the hull of a ship, ready to cross the River Styx.

Nature in all its phases, but particularly its later stages, interests him, and he interprets it freely. In one recent, tiny sketch, a voluptuous woman gestures toward two men with rounded, open arms that could well be the sheltering limbs of a tree. “I don’t know who she is,” the artist says, adding, on second thought, “she might be Mother Nature.”

Women in Bloom’s oeuvre are few, though. The subject matter for which he is best known is sad-eyed Jewish men—rabbis, many of them—clutching at Torah covers. There are several such covers in his studio among the dozens of props and images that include everything from lutes to a reproduction of Matthias Grunewald’s early sixteenth-century altarpiece panels Crucifixion and Entombment.

Bloom paints Christmas trees, too: gaudy, ornament-laden, luminous ones. “They’re also Jewish,” he says. “It’s nonsense, the separation between religions. Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism.”

Nor does he see much of a philosophical divide between the Judeo-Christian tradition and Buddhism, which he’s also studied, along with Theosophy. “Buddhists and the early Theosophists,” he says, “all saw the human being as a complex form, partly visible, partly not.”

Among religious subjects, he’s particularly fond of painting devils who frequently don’t look all that evil. “I like devils,” he says, looking at a drawing of an elegant example who appears to be dancing a minuet.

The porosity of the human body that drove him to the morgue also led him on a quest for spiritual porosity. He went through a period of attending seances. “I haven’t been to a seance where anything happened,” he acknowledges. “But this visible world is just a fraction of things. There’s an invisible side.”

Labeled early on as a member of the Boston Expressionist school that also included Jack Levine, David Aronson and Karl Zerbe, Bloom has by now gone in and out of fashion several times. He’s had major New York dealers who have handled his work. No longer. Now Stella acts as his agent, selling from their New Hampshire home a variety of works, from tiny $200 sketches to large charcoal drawings for $25,000 to $30,000 to major oil paintings that range between $60,000 and $150,000.

His work hangs in museums nationwide, including New York’s Whitney Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

He still draws in the evenings, in sketchbooks. “I have to pay Stella with a drawing a week,” he says jokingly. “She doesn’t let me off scot-free.”

Often the drawings are in red because that color “is more alive than black,” he explains. Most of the recent sketches are of Jewish men, some engaged in heavy debate. “They’re arguing about God, and about definitions,” he says.

A recent painting shows the destruction of a city, a city in flames, a maelstrom of fire, an Armageddon.

“You might call it a prophecy,” he says, then, recanting a bit lest this sound too authoritative, adds “or, in my case, a pseudo-prophecy.”

Editor’s Note: Hyman Bloom died in August 2009, aged 96. For an appointment to see his work, call (603) 886-1710 or email [email protected]. Some work can also be seen at www.hymanbloom.com.

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