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Ludwig Blum’s Israel

Ludwig Blum (1891-1974) was a deeply complex artist who walked the fine line between pure aesthetics and a radical artistic view of the Zionist enterprise. He clearly loved to paint, make beautiful images and provide aesthetic pleasure.  As a committed Zionist and part of the Third Aliyah, he celebrated his newfound homeland with a visual passion exploring all of Palestine’s unique riches.

Much of his work offers well-known views of Israel’s Jewish and Christian tourist sites, expertly painted over a prolific 50-year career.  And yet he also repeatedly painted the most mundane and banal scenes of the unfolding Zionist development.  Tel Aviv under construction, a Kibbutz girl feeding chickens, a kibbutz water tower, the Elat airport and the Timna copper mines are but a few decidedly non-picturesque scenes that flowed from his skillful brush. We see both kinds of paintings in Jerusalem and the Holy Land: The Paintings of Ludwig Blum, imported from the Ben Uri Gallery in London and curated by Dr. Dalia Manor. In many ways this current exhibition at the Museum of Biblical Art is an examination of his bifurcated vision of the emerging Jewish state.

Jerusalem, Temple Mount (1928) oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum Courtesy Museum of Biblical Art
Jerusalem, Temple Mount, 1928, oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum, courtesy Museum of Biblical Art

Witness the wonderful Blum painting from 1928, Temple Mount.  It is suffused with the kind of reflective light and Mediterranean sensibility found in the best of 19th century French painting, immediately bringing the early works of Corot to mind.  It is a quickly painted gem, filled with agile brushstrokes and precise recording of the special Jerusalem light.  It immediately convinces the viewer of its visual veracity without the burden of a surfeit of details.  The tower on the left, the Mosque and the cluster of Cyprus trees on the right establish an ordered compositional structure in conjunction with the distant horizon behind them to allow the gradations of color and light below to delight the viewer’s sensibility.  The artist has transported us to the Old City in the waning hours of a beautiful day.  Blum became so famous for these lyrically factual renderings of this and other popular tourist views of Jerusalem that he was dubbed “Painter of Jerusalem” in his Czech hometown of Brno – Lisen.

Blum, born in Moravia, was deeply “rooted in the European classical tradition” from his private studies in Vienna in 1910 and his later training at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts until 1920.  These were exactly the years of explosive development of Central European modernism, evidenced by Czech Cubism in painting and architecture. It was a time of dramatic change throughout European society.  There was a World War raging, new artistic and cultural movements were overthrowing 19th century pieties.  Freud, Marx and Herzl (among many others) vied for the attention of young creative minds.  Ultimately for Blum, Herzl won out along with the artistic certainties of “realism” as Blum moved to Jerusalem in 1923.

Once he settled in he did his best to relate to the emerging artistic environment, then dominated by the Bezalel School and such Eretz Israel artists as Reuben Rubin and Abel Pann.  By and large these artists were determined to fashion a unique Palestinian Jewish visual culture, deeply influenced by aspects of European modernism, including Art Nouveau and Symbolism.  Unfortunately this was clearly not the artistic vision Blum had come to Palestine to pursue.

He quickly became a specialist in views of Jerusalem, panoramas, holy sites, portraits of “Oriental types” and Christian devotional sites.  All of these themes were essentially painted as tourist paintings, souvenirs from the Holy Land.  Since at this time tourists were few and far between, Blum frequently had to market his work abroad; Berlin, Amsterdam, London and especially his native Czechoslovakia.

Much of these works are lovely, straightforward documents of very specific places.  The catalogue calls Blum a “topographical artist” and while that is true, it is also incomplete.  A close look at the works frequently betrays an agitated brushwork and considerable invention, at times an almost expressionistic painterly gesture. Blum’s work is clear-eyed and optimistic, always bright and colorful with an unerring emphasis on dramatic natural light.  It is clear he painted because he loved the very act of painting and making images.  It is also clear he painted because he had to make a living and support his family.

Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim (1932) oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum Courtesy Museum of Biblical Art
Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, 1932, oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum, courtesy Museum of Biblical Art

In light of all of the above history, Blum’s documenting of many aspects of the Zionist pioneering efforts are all the more remarkable.  Yes, it could be argued that these works were also “tourist” works easily saleable to Zionist supporters, albeit even rarer than his other customers.  But I sense something fundamentally different in both their message and motivation. They are paintings of Blum’s conviction of the necessity of building a Jewish state, the fundamental belief of Zionism.  Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim (1932) was the first kibbutz settled in the Judean Hills, relatively close to Jerusalem.  The handful of buildings set at the base of a hill are framed by a lively brushwork of pine trees as three figures establish the foreground; a worker and two children.  It is dashed off in the most unheroic manner, representing a most heroic determination to make Palestine a Jewish land.

Kibbutz Degania (1934) oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum Courtesy Museum of Biblical Art
Kibbutz Degania, 1934, oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum, courtesy Museum of Biblical Art

The same sentiment is expressed in Kibbutz Degania (1934), the very first of all kibbutz settlements, just south of the Kinnereth.  Again the buildings seem secondary whereas the fact that it is landscaped and populated with quickly sketched people, here accompanied by a dog, seems to be the artist’s main statement.  The wonderful verticals of the Cyprus and palm trees establish an elegant setting for Jewish possession of the land.

Timna, Copper Mines (1957) oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum Courtesy Museum of Biblical Art
Timna, Copper Mines, 1957, oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum, courtesy Museum of Biblical Art

Of all the paintings I have dubbed “Zionist,” the relatively late 1957 Timna, Copper Mines is the most startling.  The mere act of making art out of an industrial project such as this in the Negev desert contradicts almost all normal sensitivities of a highly proficient and traditional landscape artist.  And yet it is clear he was driven to do the work out of his passionate belief in the constant building of his country, Israel.  He combines a clear, honest depiction of an industrial site proudly set within awesome natural beauty.

Jerusalem in Snow (1927) oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum Courtesy Museum of Biblical Art
Jerusalem in Snow, 1927, oil on canvas by Ludwig Blum, courtesy Museum of Biblical Art

It is perhaps Blum’s unrelenting artist’s eye and sense of poetry that drove him to some of his most extraordinary images.  Jerusalem in the Snow (1927) captures the holy city in a way almost no other image has.  The relatively exceptional nature of snow itself, blurring distinctions and the fact that Blum went out doors to capture it combines to set the stage for a revealing image of Jerusalem.  In Blum’s image the city seems to float, isolated and alone in an alien world, barely tethered to the rest of the country. That isolation and specialness sums up a great deal about the reality of Jerusalem, here captured in a singular landscape.

Ludwig Blum dedicated himself to the land of Israel with the best tools in his possession; his artist’s vision and the skill of his brush.  He spent a 50-year career on one long love song to his Zionist vision.  We are fortunate to be able to see it.

Ludwig Blum’s Israel
Museum of Biblical Art
1865 Broadway @ 61st Street
New York, NY

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