People get into creative areas of life for all sorts of reasons. Naturally, it helps to have some talent, and they also need to apply themselves in order to hone their skills. Aviva Blum certainly had the desire and drive to become a painter and the requisite gifts, but she also had an ulterior motive.
Blum who, after half a century in her beloved Jerusalem recently moved to Tel Aviv to be near her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren, currently has a retrospective exhibition showing at the Biennale Gallery in the old Shaare Zedek Hospital building on Jaffa Road. The show goes by the picturesque title of A Life Lived Through Landscape, and there are plenty of works there that justify the scenic moniker. But there is a lot more to the spread and to Blum herself.
Blum, who was a torch lighter at the Holocaust Day ceremony in 2020, was born to secular parents in Warsaw in 1932. She survived and escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto, together with her mother and younger brother, and subsequently went through a series of hiding places with non-Jewish Poles. As a small child, her busy parents entrusted her to a Christian governess. As a result, Blum spoke good Polish and was conversant with church rituals and prayers. That, she says, helped her and her brother to survive.
All of that, naturally, informs who Blum is today and the way she has lived and worked throughout her long life. However, she strenuously rejects any attempt to label her as a Holocaust artist. Indeed, the paintings and engravings on display at the Biennale Gallery reveal almost no traces of the trials she endured as a child in Poland. “You can’t live with these memories [of the Holocaust],” she declares. “It is not good to nurture the memories. I try to forget them.”
“You can’t live with these memories [of the Holocaust],” she declares. “It is not good to nurture the memories. I try to forget them.”Aviva Blum
Painting to forget
She says she painted to forget. That may be her way of dealing with her painful baggage, but she observes that others find it harder to let go and to allow her to let go. “Some people see the Holocaust in my work. I don’t know why,” she chuckles. “A lot of people who have been to the exhibition, mostly people from Poland, find something there that reminds them of the Holocaust.”
Then again, you can’t keep things under wraps forever. As much as we would like to ignore or actively suppress certain events or actions from our past, at some stage we must accept they did actually occur. We don’t have to wallow in self-recrimination or anguish but, presumably, as most psychologists believe, we have to come to terms with our personal history in order to ply our way forward.
Blum does, however, concede some inferences to the backdrop she tries to leave behind. “There are some engravings that are really reminiscent of the Polish landscape or some pain or memory of the Holocaust,” she notes.
She points me in the direction of one of the exhibits she says is a direct result of her childhood experiences during World War II. “I was hidden away in a room, with the door concealed from the outside by a cupboard. I was told not to go to the window and that no one should be aware there was a room there.”
Luckily, the youngster was able to use her artistic bent to keep herself occupied and creatively engaged. “I would weave baskets all day long. I had a special knot I used. I had a board, and I would tie strands of rope to it in sets of four, and then I would tie them together in a sort of knot.”
DECADES LATER, that childhood pursuit resurfaced in her art. “I made the knot – a flat two-dimensional knot, not for a basket – and then I printed it. There is a print which, in fact, is a collagraph,” she says, referencing the method of creating a collage of materials of various textures affixed to a thin wooden or cardboard printing plate. The exhibit in question is called White Tie, which dates back to 1997. “It is a print of rope on paper,” she explains. “That is a print of the actual type of knot I used.”
Blum may be determined to let painful bygones be bygones, but she accepts that they will filter through her consciousness and seep into her work. “I did that print without really being aware of where it came from. I wasn’t aware of thinking about what I experienced in that room as a child. I remembered the knot, but I didn’t make the connection.”
Clearly, Blum has been through the mill and back over the years. After the war, she became enthused with Zionist ideology and despite her mother’s misgivings, made aliyah in 1950 at the age of 17. She says she and her fellow Holocaust survivors were met with disinterest and even downright hostility from Sabras who stonewalled any attempt to talk about the recent fate of European Jewry. She married young and gave birth to her daughter, Dafna, but shortly after relocating to Kibbutz Revadim near Gedera, she and her first husband parted ways.
The change in familial circumstances may have been trying, but it helped set Blum on the road to taking her childhood passion for art more seriously. “I started studying painting quite late, around the age of 28, I think. I did something creative beforehand on the kibbutz but that was just making decorations and such. It wasn’t about achieving some kind of personal expression.”
After Blum and her first husband separated, she found herself in a bit of a social pickle. “In those days, getting divorced wasn’t considered acceptable,” she says. Still, the kibbutz authorities were not entirely blind to her predicament. “The kibbutz wanted to help me. They wanted me to get out a bit because my ex-husband also lived on the kibbutz.”
And so the young single mother began attending formal weekly art lessons in Tel Aviv. “I told them I wanted to study art, and I started going to learn with someone called Schwarzman.” It wasn’t easy. “I’d stay overnight in Tel Aviv and catch a ride back to the kibbutz with the milk truck that delivered to the kibbutz, and I’d be back at work, at the hen house, by 6 a.m.,” she recalls.
After a while, she came under the wing of pioneer Israeli modernist artist Yehezkel Streichman, who gained fame and the Israel Prize for his groundbreaking abstract work. Blum’s approach is also, generally, placed in the abstract-leaning minimalist category, but there is a definite figurative element to her oils and watercolors, too. “I am very sensitive to colors,” she states. That comes through in her alluring landscapes, inspired by the views of the Jerusalem hills she espied from the 11th-floor apartment in Ramat Sharett she shared with her second husband.
ONCE AGAIN, it is not just about the sunrise and sunset lighting dynamics she says she caught from her home on a daily basis. “I remember before the war, my parents took me to Vilna, to my grandparents every summer. My grandmother loved flowers. She had a big garden, and I remember the flowers and the colors. I don’t really remember people and events from back then, but I remembered the colors. I see them right in front of my eyes when I paint.”
The move to the Ramat Sharett high-rise and the vistas it offered opened the painting floodgates. “Before that, I lived in a small apartment on Alfasi Street [in Rehavia]. I didn’t have much room there, certainly not for an easel, oils and all that. So I started doing small engravings. Also, I could only see parts of tree trunks from my window, so I couldn’t do landscapes.”
She received a helping hand from Jerusalem Print Workshop founder Aryeh Kilemnik, now 87 years old, who offered her the use of the presses she needed to produce prints of her engravings. In return, she began helping out at the workshop.
Eventually, Blum got herself a studio on Agron Street, where she could paint in comfort. Interestingly, she never painted in situ. That, she says, is down to information overload. “I always painted in a studio, even on Revadim where, after a time, I had a studio space. When I am in nature, I lose my concentration. There is so much going around me that I can’t focus on painting.”
Thankfully for us, for the past 60 or so years she has been able to translate her impressions of the colors and fluctuating light conditions over the Jerusalem Hills into seductive scenes that currently adorn the display areas of the Biennale Gallery, along with her intriguing engravings.
She no longer paints. “I don’t know whether it was because of my husband’s passing or maybe because of my age. I don’t exactly know why. I just felt it had run its course,” she observes. It may also be down to the accrued therapeutic rewards she has gleaned over the past 60-plus years. “I don’t feel the need for that healing anymore,” she says. ❖
A Life Lived Through Landscape closes on January 22.