Sometimes an artist is more popular with the public than with critics and fellow artists because the artist appeals to a popular taste that is simply unrefined. Sometimes, though, the public is on to something that the cultural elites miss because they're too sophisticated for their own good. The career of Israeli painter Ludwig Blum (1891–1974) is an example of the latter. Blum was extremely popular with the Israeli public during his lifetime; he was recognized as "Yakir Yerushalayim," an honored citizen of Jerusalem, in 1968. While his critics and fellow painters were less impressed, Blum just did his own thing, never joining any of the numerous artistic movements that characterize the Israeli art scene, and painting what he liked instead of what the critics wanted.
The critics, however, finally seem to be coming around: A critical reassessment of Blum's career is underway. When The Land of Light and Promise, an exhibit of his paintings, took place in Tel Aviv a couple of years ago, Smadar Shefi wrote that Blum's work was a legitimate "alternative to the local art tradition." After a tour in London, the exhibit is now on display at New York's Museum of Biblical Art.
Ludwig Blum was born in the central European town of Lisen, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and now located in the Czech Republic. He had a European artistic education that embraced both a realism rooted in concentrated observation and an emotionally restrained expressionism. That last phrase might sound like an oxymoron, but it effectively captures Blum's focus on the harmony of colors that he perceived and portrayed between earth and sky, the man-made world and nature.
Blum served in the Austrian army in WWI, a war in which his older brother was killed. A fervent Zionist, he moved to Israel in 1923. His eldest son was killed in a military operation in 1946; Blum himself served in the civil guard in 1947–48, remaining in Jerusalem throughout the War of Independence. During the war, Blum made a series of portraits of Jewish freedom fighters, all wearing the firm but emotionally restrained expression that Blum projected onto his canvases.
Even after moving to Israel, Blum retained his central European decorum and his Czechoslovakian passport; during the 1920's and 1930's, he built an artistic career by showing his paintings in Europe. His international activities set him apart from his artistic peers in Israel, and both the trajectory of his career and his artistic style would follow their own course, independent of the Israeli scene.
Blum's paintings reflect the deceptively simple pleasure that he took in seeing. Land of Light and Promise features a series of exquisitely delicate panoramas of Jerusalem's old city as seen from the north, east, and south; it also shows desert landscapes, depictions of rural life, street scenes, and portraits of holy sites throughout the Middle East. Blum painted the land of Israel with great sensitivity to light and careful attention to color; the viewer can see this sensitivity in the gentle gradations of hue that mark his 1943 painting Camels in the Judean Desert.
The delicate harmony that Blum loved to portray between the earth and sky is also on display in Water Tower in Kibbutz Negba, which sets a battle-scarred gray-white water tower against the blue-gray of a lowering sky.
Blum was not simply painting what he saw, of course. A more sustained investigation into Water Tower and its context helps us better appreciate the special virtue of Blum's art, which was deeply connected to its popular appeal. Not so long ago, strange as it now sounds, water towers were to the Israeli imagination what skyscrapers are to Americans: symbols of modernity and progress. The water tower as icon of progress now seems quaint: Israel, after all, is today a hub of hi-tech innovation. But during the early period of Zionist settlement, water towers were austere symbols of the modern Jewish triumph over the harsh elements encountered by the first pioneers who returned to the land.
Today, the water towers that still dot the Israeli landscape serve two functions. They are war memorials, from Israel's War of Independence; and they stand as reminders of a more innocent age, when Zionist commitment was seemingly all-pervasive. The real-life water tower at Kibbutz Negba, an agricultural settlement founded in Israel's south in 1939, is one of the most iconic of these structures. In 1948, the kibbutz was the scene of intense Israeli-Egyptian fighting that badly damaged the water tower. In 1949 the kibbutz, after debating whether or not to repair the structure, decided to make minor repairs that would prevent its collapse but preserve its character as a war memorial.
Blum decided to paint the water tower in 1948, a year before the kibbutz's decision. Like many of his countrymen, he instinctively responded to the force of the tower's image. While Blum was always sensitive to light, in this painting light becomes a primal force more fundamental than the water whose vessel, the tower, has been destroyed. Light reflects, amid the ruin, a new-born existence. Destruction has seldom appeared so life-giving.
One can only speculate about whether the peace at the center of Blum's vision was earned, at least in part, through his pain at the loss of a brother and a son to war—and whether the stoicism in his vision reflected the ethos of first-generation Israelis, shot through with a commitment to order and the active life amid monumental sacrifice. Whatever the source, elite critics misinterpreted Blum's calm and stoic sense, manifest in his restrained portrayal of cosmic harmonies, as overly technical and conservative. But in the larger Israeli audience Blum touched a deep chord.
Blum's perspective is, of course, far away from the emotionally confessional tenor of our times, not to mention the uber-urban geometric space of Manhattan, where his exhibition is now being shown. Going against the grain of its place and time, however, only makes The Land of Light and Promise doubly enriching.
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