27 May 2011
Ludwig Blum’s spectacular paintings of Mandate Palestine were last exhibited in London 73 years ago. Happily Londoners now have a last chance to catch a retrospective of his life work, encapsulated in 35 landscapes and panoramic vistas in oil and watercolour, at the Ben Uri Gallery, St Johns Wood, in The Land of Light and Promise, which closes this Sunday (not 24 April as mentioned here).
The works stretch from the 1920s to the 1960s and remain as vivid to the viewer’s eye as the day Ludwig Blum painted them. Fully 15 of them are devoted to his beloved Jerusalem, where he spent most of his life. However the exhibition also shows intriguing peeks into other locations: Tiberias nestling on a sweeping Sea of Galilee coastline; a watercolour of a Purim festival street decoration in Tel Aviv, 1934-5; Ancient Palmyra in Syria, Dolat Gate in Tehran and Women Landering in the Tigris, Mosul, all created during or en route on Blum’s 1930 trip to Iraq with the Austrian anthropologist and Zionist Revisionist, Wolfgang von Weisel.
There is also much work of documentary significance on the early years of Zionist settlement: the building of Tel Aviv, 1925, Jewish neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, and a young “pioneer girl” girl feeding chickens, a dash of red flowers bordering Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin, 1950, and even the odd copper mine, water tower and potash works. Aesthetically one of the most alluring of Blum’s paintings is his “Camels in the Judean Desert,” from 1943, a masterful oil work in light and shade conveyed on an 80cm by 130cm canvas.
A book accompanying the exhibition and published by Ben Uri reveals fascinating background to the man and his work – as well as his era. In her essay, “Portrait of a Country”, London-based Israeli art expert Dr Dalia Manor describes the passion Blum felt for both his native Czechoslovakia and his life in Palestine. ‘Long before travel abroad became easy, Blum travelled back and forth between his two homelands, painting in one, exhibiting in the other and feeling at home in both.’
Ludwig Blum was a quintessential yekke – German and Central European Jew – a man who despite bouts of impecunity and the challenges of Israel’s blazing summers would invariably be seen smartly attired in felt hat, requisite smart jacket, notepad and bowtie. Indeed, Manor’s essay shows photograph of a bare-chested Ludwig with fellow gymnasts in the 1920s, physical fitness being de rigeur with yekkes of that period. Similarly Michael Dak nicely evokes the “European Jerusalem of Ludwig Blum”, replete with its German and Hebrew-speaking cafes and salons, in the Ben Uri book.
Born in 1891 near in Lisen, near Brno, Moravia, in what is now the Czech Republic, Blum studied art in Vienna and then, after serving in the Austrian army, continuing his studies in Prague. Yet Blum also had strong London connections. Before leaving to settle in British Mandate Palestine in 1923, where he married Dina Mayer in 1924, he spent months in London, as well as in Spain, Italy and Paris. He first exhibited in London in 1933, and also lived there for 18 months during 1938-9. During that latter period Blum exhibited at the London Royal Academy, and in the home of Mrs Benzion Halper in Maida Vale, which was opened by Sir Ronald Storrs, former Governor of Jerusalem.
Manor notes the influence on Blum of British artistic predecessors in Palestine, not least the Scottish sketch master, David Roberts (1796-1864) and the London-based American-born John Sargent. She also compares and contrasts his work with the more abstract depictions of the unspoilt deserts and plains of late 1920s Palestine with Blum’s peer, the Anglo-Jewish David Bomberg.
Yet above all Blum had his own distinctive eye for Palestine and Israel’s raw natural beauty. He was above all a naturalistic painter, even an “academic artist” – as his calling card read, reports his granddaughter Mira Chen. “In his style and themes, Blum operated outside modern art movements,” notes Manor. As such his work fell out of favour when cognoscenti favoured the apparently more daring and emotive outpourings of abstract and expressionist and pop art. Others note that his work is distinctly Orientalist, a term which sometimes attracts opprobrium. Yet while other trends wax and wane, Blum’s art seems to have endured better than most.
Perhaps it is the honesty of eye that shines through, and his affection for his subjects whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim. Likewise we see his respect for the cultures that underlay such structures as Jerusalem’s Dome of the Rock, the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al Ha-Ness or a mosque in Tiberias. Addressing the reception of his art today, Manor observes: “Blum was enchanted by the country instantaneously. If his style seemed to belong to a different era, his subjects were often tuned to the ‘here and now’ of his place in Jeruslaem and many other sights around the country… and that gained him the admiration of the general public more than that of the art establishment and his critics.”
Certainly the public of Jerusalem welcomed his craft. Often, reports his granddaughter, he would pay with sketches when short of cash; when lodging by the Sea of Galilee he painted the homeowner’s mother. Yet equally he would defer payment for paintings if the commissioner was financially challenged; in one case, he accepted four sweaters from a knitting shop in exchange for painting of the shopkeeper and her mother. Generally Blum led a fulfilled life, albeit one tinged by tragedy when his only child, Elie, was killed in battle during the 1948 war.
Ludwig Blum died in 1974 and is buried in Jerusalem, where six years earlier he was made an honorary citizen. In a plaque on his native house in the Czech city of Brno, he is commemorated as the “Painter of Jerusalem” – a double honour for an artist whose art so potently evokes a time and place in history.
The Land of Light and Promise
Ben Uri Gallery, The London Jewish Museum of Art
108A Boundary Road, St John’s Wood, London NW8 0RH