The Danforth Museum of Art has become recognized for its commitment to Boston Expressionism, a school that embraced a distinctive blend of visionary painting, dark humor, religious mysticism, and social commentary. Historical roots of this movement can be traced to European Symbolism and German Expressionism, but artists living and working in the Boston area from the 1930’s through the 1950’s, were particularly inspired by Chaim Soutine and Max Beckman. Many studied under the direction of Karl Zerbe at the Museum School. Because most painted realistically at a time when abstraction was the trend, these painterly expressionists have long existed outside the mainstream of contemporary art. Yet these artists explored human emotion and spirituality with color and imagination, pushing paint across the surface of the canvas in a way that influenced Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and were important to the development of Abstract Expressionism – and significant to the history of twentieth century American art.
Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine were in the first generation of the group that came to be known as Boston Expressionists. Having grown up in the Jewish immigrant communities of Boston, both artists drew on their Eastern European heritage. Levine’s work tended toward the political, Bloom’s towards an exploration of the spiritual. Working from memory rather than directly from nature, both depicted scenes inspired by the Hebrew Talmud, classical music, or the human condition.
A second generation of Boston Expressionist artists included David Aronson, Jason Berger, Francesco Carbone, Esther Geller, Kahlil Gibran, Arthur Polonsky, Henry Schwartz, Barbara Swan, Lois Tarlow, Stephen Trefonides and numerous others. Most studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts under the direction of Karl Zerbe, and remained committed to representational figuration at a time when the contemporary art world embraced abstraction, pop and minimalism. Photographer Jules Aarons documented the West End neighborhood where Hyman Bloom grew up and, like his contemporary Morton Bartlett, was interested in the emotional narrative of everyday life observed on the streets of Boston during the mid-twentieth century.
A third generation of Boston Expressionists were active in the 1970’s and 80’s, and continue working today. These include such diverse artists as Aaron Fink, Gerry Bergstein, Sidney Hurwitz, Jon Imber, Michael Mazur, Katherine Porter, Jane Smaldone and many others who have employed expressive, sometimes visionary approaches. Considered together, all allow viewers to trace the presence of an “expressive voice” in contemporary art. While all are unique, their work continues a tradition of painterly expressionism, expanding our consideration of painting in a digital age.