Psalms and Verses of the Bible as a Source of Inspiration: The Work of Benn

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.