Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Through February 23, 2020
Looking could be painful in 1945—those flickering, ghostly newsreels kept snaking their way into comfy postwar theaters where Americans had gathered to take in innocent diversions. The images hissed on their reels: mountains of Jewish humans gassed, dismembered, shot, starved, and burned into ashes. Bodies piled and wheelbarrowed with dangling limbs, or still standing dazed, all but dead, touching chain link fences and staring feebly from hunger-sunken eyes. Innocent people. And Germany—Kantian, Goethean, Beethovian Germany, hope of the Enlightenment—whirring like a sick, slick meat grinder. Who could want to look?
America was eager to move along to shinier things, and so it did: chrome and fins, new appliances, limb-sprawling highways to the suburbs. It was not a tragic time, not a time to sit with our thoughts, size up our mortality, feel the sickness of loss until the sickness ran its course.
More importantly, America was not a tragic country. This untragic gene—the knee-jerk urge to obscure, to change the subject, to whiten the teeth, lift the wrinkled face taut and dream about death-defeating innovation—is part of our world-conquering, pioneer restlessness. In our short existence, America’s simple, stubborn optimism has sometimes served as a useful tonic for older parts of the world. But optimism can be a weakness, too, and hope should be rooted in candor. How are we supposed to know the proper mix when we see it? Who can survey the terrain of our lives and tell us where to look? Who, in short, can teach us the art of hoping well?
We don’t have many such teachers at the moment. But if you can make your way to Boston between now and February 23, for the price of a museum ticket, you can get an elevating, stomach-twisting masterclass in looking at reality with honest, humane hope. The Museum of Fine Arts is playing host to a small, devastating exhibition of Hyman Bloom, the 20th-century Jewish-American painter, leading light of the “Boston Expressionists” and fearless, searching, wide-eyed looker. The show is titled “Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death,” and Bloom announces himself there, from beyond the grave, as one of the greatest American artists of the 20th century and just the kind of seer we need.
The opening wall label of the show announces a guiding mystery, which only deepens as the paintings and drawings make their successive, searing impact on the viewer: “Prolific, admired in his day, and active at the center of the American art world in the 1940s and ’50s, Bloom has since been overlooked. This is the first exhibition at the MFA to highlight this important Boston painter.” It’s no small oversight, no clerical misfiling. The fickle fashions of the art world can be silly and shallow, but in this case, more than mere caprice was at work. The postwar overlooking of Hyman Bloom was an act of evasion by a young country too dynamic, busy, ambitious, and insecure to embrace a hope that can thrive in the sight of death.
Hyman Bloom was born in Latvia in 1913 and emigrated to Boston with his family at the age of seven. He grew up in the scrappy West End and never much cared to adjust himself to the genteel climes of nearby Beacon Hill. He found a series of WASPY patrons and champions who recognized his genius and helped him make a way in the Boston art world. Bloom’s artistic sensibility was mystical, old-world, gritty, Jewish—not a natural fit for the Boston of John Singer Sargent and John Singleton Copley, whose own excellent painterly visions bear the scent of Western European salons. Bloom was never so polite. The art critic Hilton Kramer, himself a Jew, famously wrote that Bloom’s paintings of rabbis and synagogue chandeliers “stimulate the same surprise and dismay one feels on finding gefilte fish at a fashionable cocktail party.”
The strongest work on display in “Hyman Bloom: Matters of Life and Death” clusters around the postwar period, which is also when his art world fate was decided. In 1943, Bloom began visiting morgues, following his muse into an exploration of fleshly disintegration. In his uncommonly virtuosic hands, carcasses and corpses come to shimmer; unspooling intestines and rotting tissue sing. Bloom’s work embodies a visceral joy and fascination at flesh, in whatever state, that suggests that it is possible to love our bodily world at every stage of its formation and disintegration, and that we ought to do so, in the manner he models.
Galleries reacted squeamishly, because their patrons were squeamish. Some of the starker death-concerned work was relegated to secret back rooms, available for viewing only on request. A number of contemporary critics found the work morbid and unhealthy, but a few, like Joseph Gibbs, got it: “After a moment of repugnance,” he wrote, “one becomes aware that within the artist’s seeming absorption in death and decay is contained the resurrection—the relative unimportance of fugitive flesh as opposed to the indestructibility of the spirit.” Fellow artists could see how original and brilliant Bloom was—Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning famously considered him the “first abstract expressionist,” and for a short time he was fêted alongside them. He never became anything like a household name, though, and his prices never vaguely approached those of his famous admirers. But stand in front of his work: It easily equals theirs in terms of power, virtuosity, and originality.
The early pioneer of abstraction Paul Klee wrote during the first World War, “The more horrible this world (as today, for instance), the more abstract our art, whereas a happy world brings forth an art of the here and now.” Abstraction, he wrote, was a realm “where total affirmation is possible” because messy, ambivalent things like history can be excluded. The postwar coronation of Abstract Expressionism (which transformed the figurative school of Boston Expressionism into a provincial footnote) was no isolated accident. First-rate Abstract Expressionists like Willem de Kooning and Joan Mitchell produced genuine masterpieces, works of deep spiritual resonance and raw aesthetic power, but they were works of inward flight, of withdrawal from the world. They mined the inner life of the painter in urgent, arresting color, but they largely did so while eschewing any examination of our “outer,” physical existence with all its limits, liabilities, and pains.
While Bloom’s work can match their introspective depth, it does so while explicitly searching some of the harder, universal facets of our bodily existence, including, most crucially, the transitory stages between being and non-being. The fate of every thing that comes together is to come apart; matter and energy are endlessly cycling through processes of integration and disintegration. The particles composing your body have belonged to untold numbers of organisms in the past, and will belong to many more. You love yourself, of course, and your friends and family, and so you have a stake in this or that particular assemblage of those recycled pieces. This much is natural and good.
What Bloom found so fascinating, and what he makes so vibrant and terrifying in these pieces, is the moment when one organism begins to yield its pieces back up to the ecosystem and new forms of life begin to claim and employ them. He found that moment beautiful and showed it via dazzling chiaroscuro, which calls to mind the explosive luminosity of Carravaggio or Rembrandt. If we’re going to look and make our peace with the cycles that will disperse and reassemble the parts of ourselves and our loved ones, then this kind of art is an invaluable teacher. Bloom’s work is a memento mori that opens into a posture of amazement and mature delight. He is an artist who can train you to see things differently, to comprehend and love things you formerly missed or avoided. When the public decided to follow his New York contemporaries into the world of abstraction, we decided that what he was trying to show us was, for whatever complex of reasons, not something we wanted to see.
In the years that have followed, our avoidance of coming-apart flesh has only gotten more pronounced and puritanical. The refusal to look at death—let’s call it thanatophobia—has had wide, corrosive consequences, some of which are not obvious at first glance. It isn’t just Auschwitz we don’t want to see. We live in flesh insofar as we live, so to obscure its end we will have to employ powerful, civilization-scale modes of avoidance. And so we have; in the past few decades there have been marvelous advances in the cultural and physical technologies of evasion. Our sweet, innocent eyes see less and less of the ways that our bodies end, and the upshot is a growing atmosphere of contempt and alienation—toward ourselves and each other.
It’s important to see how novel this is, and how dangerous. Communal mourning songs are ubiquitous across human civilizations; some ethnomusicologists speculate that the very earliest human music arose as a way to process death as a group. These works of art embody a restorative beauty; they organize disparate sounds into harmony, smoothing out the ragged, torn fabric of our community, allowing us to externalize our interior grief and share it, putting the lie to sensations of isolation. Kept in, guarded and hidden, these interior griefs will manifest as longer lasting maladies like anxiety and depression. Let go into public, they act as glue to bond individuals into community.
In a study recently published in the journal Emotion, UC Berkley researchers Daniel Stancato and Dacher Keltner found that awe, the perception of one’s own smallness, led to “reduced dogmatism and increased perceptions of social cohesion.” After being shown images of the night sky, participants found themselves less certain of their own indomitable rightness, and less interested in establishing separation between themselves and their political opponents. It makes tremendous sense. In the face of cosmic or oceanic vastness, or of the common mortality it highlights, our knowledge, power, and the seemingly massive differences and enmities that exist between political opponents shrink to realistic size. Without that shrinking, an almost unlimited metastasis is possible, building every disagreement into a break, every break into an urgent, titanic clash between good and evil, with decreasing attention paid to the concrete realities and actors at play.
In the spring of 2019, the nation was transfixed by video of a brief, tense, ambiguous encounter between a teenage boy in a red MAGA hat, visiting Washington, DC with a group from his private Kentucky high school, and an elderly native American activist playing a traditional drum on the national mall. Nothing much happened between them; the boy was possibly smirking in the older man’s face, or possibly he was smiling uncomfortably. The man was possibly engaged in innocent celebration of his heritage, or possibly antagonizing a naive white kid on school vacation.
We don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. It was one of the least consequential confrontations one could imagine, and yet it dominated cable news and social media for weeks. In the feverish minds of our commentariat, this man and boy absolutely, unquestionably embodied vast, black-and-white moral realities—racism, power, harassment, privilege, innocence, persecution, the Good people vs. the Bad. The simple, finite actors, most likely confused and somewhat ambivalent, melted almost instantly and completely into the richer stew of rights and wrongs, enemies and friends that define our politics in the digital, thanatophobic age.
This fearsome turn to stark, polarizing symbols, this flight from messy, complicated reality to a world of simple good and evil, is bad enough on its own. But in this particular example, it was framed by a perfect chiaroscuric contrast. As the Covington furor burned bright, a small news item slipped by virtually unnoticed: the striking down in March of 2019 of an Executive Order requiring our government to issue “an unclassified summary of the number of strikes undertaken by the United States Government against terrorist targets outside areas of active hostilities, as well as assessments of combatant and non-combatant deaths resulting from those strikes, among other information.” Our leaders had been required, in other words, to tell us how many people, innocent or guilty, our military had incinerated. We know, for instance, that Barack Obama’s Administration dropped more than 26,000 bombs in the final year of his presidency (presumably a record for Nobel Peace Prize laureates), but we do not know how many the Trump Administration dropped in 2019, or how many it will drop in 2020, because he laid waste to the modest suggestion that we at least publicly register the deaths we cause. They remain, to us, comfortably hidden and unremarked upon. Almost no one protested this decision at the time. If anything, it was a relief to be so shielded, liberated to focus our common energies on the parsing of world-historical smirk/smiles and identity symbols. It takes a truly national tragedy like September 11 to quiet the interpretive din, even for a moment.
Self-conscious, death-destined beings like us need to negotiate and renegotiate our relationships with our own bodies, and the bodies of those around us. Living in a material world is not so simple for us. In a moment when death is the destiny we dare not contemplate, these negotiations take on a sick, frantic character. Customs of corporeal candor have changed a great deal in the years since Bloom’s work faded from the national scene. Pornography—footage of the most extreme enjoyments and exploitations of flesh—is now ubiquitous. Porn would have been popular at any time and place; we’re fascinated and attracted for reasons pre-cultural. But now, in our thanatophobic moment, the attraction becomes more intense, the horizon of our body-awareness almost fully occupied by images of nubile flesh.
This is not the flesh of Auschwitz, Hyman Bloom’s paintings, or even your own body. Bodies presented erotically are presented in a very particular light—their life-making and pleasure-giving capacities are highlighted, their full reality obscured. Death looks dodgeable forever through the lens of a pornographer; a sexed-up image or video is one in which the wrinkles, flaws, and textures of aging have been airbrushed away. As we draw further into this fantasy, we draw further away from each other, and the scope of beauty we can see becomes narrower and narrower. There is, it is almost now true, no human beauty for us but young beauty. That our bodies might be good and beautiful as they display their passage towards disintegration doesn’t begin to register. The idea that your grandmother might be beautiful (sans transformative surgery) rings like treacly Hallmark tripe.
In a thanatophobic culture, those of us who aren’t young and sexy just aren’t the beautiful, good kinds of persons. Women have it worse than men in this regard, but men are making steady gains in both eating and body image disorders. So what should we do if we haven’t won the genetic or financial lottery, or if we’re pushing past our reproductive prime? We can give up and despair, or do our best to assimilate via spin class, scalpel, implant, and injection. Or we can indulge in the recent innovation of body positivity, demanding that we be found sexually attractive, however unattractive we may actually be, judged in the harsh light of reproductive fitness. If sexual allure is the only form of beauty available, then of course there will be a feverish competition for it. Of course there will be Instagram filters, fad diets, a ballooning cosmetic surgery industry, widespread self-loathing, shame, self-seclusion, and damaged romantic relationships. It’s a cruel, unnecessary arrangement; there are many ways to be good and beautiful without looking like a Jenner or Hadid.
The dynamics of social cohesion are intricate, and many millennia in the making—it’s hard enough to love oneself or another person, never mind a nation. The dynamics that aid us in this venture were developed within tribes of fragile, mortal, interdependent creatures, who dealt with death as a community. We ought not treat these dynamics as if they were unbreakable, or infinitely mutable. So our imperative is simple enough, initially—we need to stop hiding ourselves, looking away, tucking our elderly in “homes” to languish away their final days alone. We need to have the courage to look directly at what we are, what we do, what is done in our name. We need to make room for sadness and tragedy, become more patient, attentive lookers.
But it’s even more complicated than this. The physician and Columbia University bioethicist Lydia Dugdale writes movingly of the rootlessness that patients, doctors, and families feel as death approaches. No one seems to know what to make of it. For more and more people, there are no lessons or preparations, no narratives or poetry or scriptures to ease the passage from life to death, to make us able to look. Each person goes it alone, even if they are lucky enough to die surrounded by a throng of numb, sad loved ones who are each also privately processing the proceedings. It was not always the case. Dugdale points to a medieval text called the Ars moriendi, or Art of dying, which coached all the involved about what it takes to make a beautiful death. She writes that we need an Ars moreiendi of our own: “The deathbed must again become a place of community, a place for the dying to forgive and to receive forgiveness, to bless and to receive blessing, and a place for the attendants to anticipate and prepare for their own deaths.”
It’s a wonderful situation she describes, and may it come soon. But Dugdale acknowledges that there are myriad forces arrayed against its realization, most crucially the decline of religion. It’s one thing to pray for a good death, a soft and noble waypoint on your sojourn to beatitude, and quite another to relish the total, forever annihilation of one’s self or loved one. Could Bloom have made death so lovely without the mystical strains in his thought, without a transcendent spiritual vision of what life and death are? It’s fair to suspect not. Can death be beautiful without some even gauzy sense that annihilation might not be the final word?
Perhaps, and it could certainly be better than it currently is. But in regards to Dugdale’s truly good deaths, we can say one more thing: The causality likely runs more than one direction. If our existential posture impacts our experience of death, our experience of death likely impacts our existential posture. Deaths, funerals, and illnesses are cardinal moments for examining in all honesty what we are—just being there for them slices open a raft of questions that we’ve become too adept at considering closed. History isn’t over, as we are now often reminded. If we look closer, we could discover that there’s more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of in the sick, restless aftermath of Auschwitz. Hyman Bloom’s artwork—in all its grotesque beauty—can help us develop eyes to see.