by Roberta Markus and Edith S. Klein
Paper presented at the Sixth International Seminar on Jewish Art: Scripture and Picture: The Bible in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Art, Jerusalem, June 13–17, 1999.
The artist Benn was a renowned Jewish painter who drew inspiration from the Bible and expressed his spiritual connection to it in a body of self-contained and highly integrated work, which was published under the title “62 Psaumes et versets de la Bible.” The significance of this work lies in both its profound spiritual qualities and its stylistic idiom. Indeed, this body of work stands quite apart from most of the rest of Benn’s oeuvre.
The artist was born Ben-Zion Rabinovich in Bialystok, (then Russia, now Poland) in 1906. Benn’s father, Shlomo Rabinovich, had himself aspired to become an artist as a young man, but was discouraged by his orthodox parents who saw the fine arts as an inappropriate career choice for the son of a shtetl rabbi. Shlomo Rabinovich was encouraged to study Torah; eventually he left his shtetl for Bialystok where he became a self-taught architect and builder.
When his son Ben-Zion showed an early talent for drawing, Shlomo encouraged and nurtured that talent, perhaps lamenting his own lost dreams. Shlomo became his son’s tutor, assuming responsibility for his religious and artistic education. Father and son spent hours together studying the Torah, painting, and sketching. Benn maintained a life-long reverence, respect, and admiration for his father, and always carried with him the religious teachings that were his father’s legacy.
Benn’s childhood talent as a painter led him to the full-time study of art, and then to an early stint as a set-painter in the theatre. His first major exhibit was held in Vilnius in 1927, and in 1930 his home town of Bialystok awarded him a three-year stipend to study art in Paris. Benn held a farewell exhibition in Bialystok before his departure.
In Paris, the city that was to become his permanent home, he was rapidly caught up in the local art scene and exposed to the current experimentation of the times. Benn’s contemporaries were exploring the styles of cubism, constructivism, and various types of abstraction. There are a few examples of Benn’s very early work that reflect his exposure to these movements, but Benn chose to remain outside the avant-garde, rejecting the main “isms” of the day. Benn was known to be quite critical of his contemporaries, including Chagall, whom he regarded as having only a superficial connection to the spiritual sources of his work.
While Benn remained fiercely committed to his own style, his work was widely exhibited in Paris almost from the time he arrived there until the beginning of World War II. His work was shown in Paris at, among other venues, Galerie L’Époque, Galerie Charpentier, Galerie Billiet, Salon des Independants, Salon d’Automne, and abroad at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. His work of the pre-war period was figurative and his subjects were portraits, still life, and figures—mainly women, all of whom bore an uncanny resemblance to Ghera, the woman he married in 1938.
As Benn was maturing as an artist, he did not look to biblical narratives for subject matter—and this body of work does not contain a single biblical subject. But in 1938 Benn’s hopes and optimism for the future were overshadowed by news coming out of Germany. As a child, Benn had experienced pogroms, and he was terrified by what he saw happening in Germany and by the threat of war. Benn’s feelings of anguish, fear, and despair found expression in a series of macabre, surrealistic drawings which he entitled Dessins premonitoires. (This collection now resides in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.) In these sketches men are shown being hunted by vicious dogs, beasts devour the innocent, and the earth is littered with corpses. The mood these drawings convey is a combination of terror, cruelty, and human anguish.
When the Nazis entered Paris, Benn’s worst premonitions were realized. He was rounded up together with other East European Jews and interned in a holding camp, whose inmates were ultimately destined for a concentration camp in Germany. He was held in that camp for a month, and during that time he sketched the faces of his co-internees and their surroundings. He fell into a deep depression, lost weight, and would probably have died had it not been for the efforts of his wife and friends who managed to smuggle him out of the camp. Arrangements were made to hide the couple in the basement of an apartment house in Paris. Benn and his wife remained there in hiding for the duration of the war.
Benn’s drawings from the internment camp were published after the war under the title, Carnet du camp. These drawings remain a historical document of that time and place. In most cases the individuals who were Benn’s subjects perished in the concentration camp, and the drawings are the last recollections of their existence. The original drawings were given by Benn to the families of those who perished.
During the two years in hiding, Benn survived psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually by mobilizing all his creative resources. To understand fully his struggle, one needs to keep in mind that for two years he lived in a cave-like cellar—a windowless space. The basic necessities of life were provided to him and his wife Ghera by their Gentile friends. Otherwise, he was isolated from the outside world, deprived of natural light, without intellectual or visual stimulation. He became inwardly directed and spent hours contemplating, reflecting, soul-searching, and tapping the inner depths of his being. Increasingly his thoughts turned to his childhood in Bialystok and to his father, Shlomo Rabinovich. In the cellar, Benn relived the happy childhood moments he spent with his father studying the scriptures. Passages and verses he had memorized in his youth began to flood into his consciousness, and inspired him to transform them into images. The Torah, and especially the Psalms, became a source of inspiration and a vehicle for personal expression. The scriptures became a means through which he expressed his loneliness, anguish, fears, and revulsion for man’s inhumanity to mankind.
During his twenty-six months of confinement, Benn completed a series of sixty-two drawings, based on selected psalms and verses of the Bible. The remarkable feature of this body of work is that it represents a radical departure in style from of his other work, and that style, while continuing to evolve after the war, remained exclusively associated with biblical themes. He continued to use biblical themes as subject matter (e.g., Song of Songs), and this particular style sets these works quite apart from the other figurative and representational work he did simultaneously.
The series is noteworthy for the deeply meditative and spiritual mood that is evoked by the artist’s lyrical and almost abstract style. Of course, certain elements do bridge the biblical works with his other work — Benn was noted, and much admired, for his depiction of animals , especially birds. But these commonalities concern only coincidence of motif. Benn’s use of colour, light, shape, and form in the biblical series is distinctive and unique to the group of paintings. The images have a private, meditative quality. Benn left no diary or notes concerning his work or his life, we have no clues about what he was thinking at the time. We do not now if the artist ever visualized a public audience for his work.
The sixty-two images can be grouped into broad categories defined as “sadness,” “anger/despair,” and “hope/light.” All of the images share a style and use of imagery that give them an outward simplicity but an inner complexity involving the deepest human emotions and spirituality. Benn used a lyrical style in both the drawings and the later oils, making use of movement, light, texture, and colour to portray a particular connection between the specific psalm or verse and his feelings about what was going on in the world around him.
After the war, Benn offered the sixty-two drawings to his friends who had helped save his life. Although deeply touched by the offer, his friends declined to accept them, and suggested to Benn that he use the sketches as the basis for a series of oil paintings for future exhibits in Europe and around the world. Benn, who had been left penniless after the war, was assisted financially in order to achieve this goal, and he spent ten years completing the paintings of the sixty-two oils. Once the paintings were completed, Benn and his supporters insisted that they never be sold commercially. In time they were donated to museums in Israel and France.
The drawings and the canvasses were critically acclaimed, and the artist was urged to make the works more accessible. In order to accommodate the demand for his biblically inspired work Benn agreed to have the sixty-two drawings and paintings reproduced in the form of an album, which was published in 1960 under the title, 62 psaumes et versets de la Bible. The publication was issued in a limited edition of 2,000 copies. The album was prefaced by the French writer Jules Roman, of the Academie française.
Benn died in Paris in 1989. His biblical works can be seen today in Israel at the Ben Gurion Museum, and the House of the Bible, both in Tel-Aviv, and in various museums in France, including Musée de l’art juif, and Musée de Nogent-sur-Marne, outside of Paris. Benn’s murals, along with Picasso’s, can also be seen in the UNESCO building in Paris.