A beautiful medal struck by the Paris Mint honors Benn on his fiftieth anniversary as a painter and seventieth birthday. On the obverse of the medal is a self portrait by Benn. On the reverse is the dove representing peace, the inscription “1975 — 50th Anniversary of Painting and 70th Birthday of Benn”, and a quotation from the Book of Psalms (34:14) “seek peace and pursue it.” In addition, the Legion of Honor medal was presented to Benn by His Excellency Alain Poher, President of the French Senate, at festive ceremonies held on October 4, 1974. France thus honored one of its most illustrious adopted sons.
Who is Benn?
A painter in the fullest and most meaningful sense of the term. A man who can live and feel life only when he gives birth to the harmony of light, color and lines through his brush or crayons. Benn was born in Bialystok (then Russia/now Poland) in 1905 into a well established Jewish family that produced a number of Jewish scholars. His father was a prominent and creative architect. He received an intensive Jewish education, typical of the time, and was steeped in Jewish tradition. (that tradition was to sustain him later during the dark years of World War II). Benn’s interest in painting was evident from early childhood: he was barely 10 years old when his drawings were exhibited at his school; at 12, he gave drawing lessons; at 24 as a member of the association of professional artists, he was awarded a scholarship by the city of Bialystok for three years of study in Paris.
Following a farewell exhibition in his native city, Benn went to Paris in 1930. He found his milieu there and rapidly developed an outstanding reputation; his works were exhibited at leading salons and galleries and acquired by major collectors. He married his life partner, Ghera, was naturalized, and remained in France.
The traumatic experiences of World War II introduced a new spiritual dimension into the works of Benn. Sought by the Gestapo, the Benns lived 26 months in the terrible solitude of hiding: inactive, removed from friends, silent, and in constant fear. His parents were massacred in his native Poland. Benn read and reread the Bible. In its pages he found the inspiration and strength to withstand the solitude and fear. The Bible sustained him emotionally and intellectually during those terrible years, and the Bible became a major source of his spiritual and artistic nourishment to this day.
After the war, Benn rapidly resumed the pursuit of his artistic career, capturing on canvas the rhythms of life and of nature, doing portraits, and depicting countrysides. Yet the spiritual fire which was lit within him during the years of terrible solitude did not stop burning. He produced his “62 Psalms of the Bible”, unusually moving spiritual works. These were followed by “the Song of Songs”, which the Art Museum in Paris considers a masterpiece.
Benn, the person, is a sensitive, kind, and gentle intellectual, who tends to understate — to seek the pure, spiritual, delicate. An observant Jew, Benn finds comfort and inspiration in his Jewishness. He delights in the richness of the Yiddish language, which he loves to speak. He is most generous with respect to charitable causes, primarily Jewish causes and Israel.
Note: The medal which prompted this article is described fully in “Club Francais de la Medaille”, Bulletin number 47/48, Deuxieme Trimestre 1975. The 80mm medal, issued in a silver edition of 100, is listed as “Effigies d’hier et d’aujourd’hui” Number 312. The price of issue was 80 Francs. Information about this and other medals of Judaica interest, may be obtained from the Club at 11, Quai de Conti, 75270 Paris, Cedex 06, France. This article is based on information provided by The Committee to Celebrate the 70th birthday of Benn; Dr. Jean Kohn; Mr. J. Gdalia, Director of Centre Rachi, Maison des Universitaires Juifs de Paris; and Mrs. Nathan Markus, of Don Mills, Ontario, Canada. To all of them we are profoundly grateful for their help. The article was translated from the French by Roni Grad.
Judaica Post, Bimonthly Journal of Philatelic and Numismatic Judaica 4:3 (May/June, 1976): 319–321.