France Honors Benn

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.