"You could describe Bernie's work as... warts and all"
"I am what you might call a people painter. My approach is a humanist approach… the prevailing view for many years has been that man is alone, unable to cope with the forces that are set against him…My opinion is diametrically opposed to that."
The Formative Years 1924-1956
Bernard Safran was born in Brooklyn, NY in 1924 to immigrant parents. His father had fled Czarist Russia after escaping from a Siberian prison camp; his mother had been sent to America at age thirteen to work as a milliner and pay for her refugee family's passage from Poland. Safran grew up in the rough and vibrant community of Bensonhurst, where Murder Inc. operated, and his best friend's father was the local bookie. His childhood memories were visually rich - full of the colorful people, sights, sounds and odors of everyday life in the big city. His street-smart upbringing with gangsters, pushcarts, fighting boys and 5 cent matinees left him with an unromanticized appreciation for the everyday life of the working classes.
Throughout his youth, Safran helped out with the family stationary business, but always knew he wanted to be an artist. He recalled his interest in art was already established by the age of five, "I liked to draw at this early age and drew airplanes, ships, horses and all sorts of things I had seen in movies." At the age of nine his grandmother enrolled him in adult art classes.
Safran went to New York's famed High School of Music and Art from 1936 to 1939. Some notable artists who attended the High School of Music and Art around the same time, were the Realist painter Harvey Dinnerstein and the painter and illustrator James Bama, as well as comic book artists Al Jaffe, Will Elder and Harvey Kurtzman (who together went on to found Mad Magazine).
Being part of the school's vibrant community opened Safran to drama, literature, classical music and art history. He began to visit the many art museums in New York and Brooklyn. His drawing teacher, Mr. Wilhelm, encouraged him to draw people from life on the subway while he traveled to and from school. This simple exercise inspired in him a life long fascination with the human condition. It was in high school that Safran decided he wanted to be an illustrator like the very famous and highly respected artists Maxfield Parrish, Norman Rockwell and N.C. Wyeth.
Between 1940 and 1945 he attended Pratt Institute Art School to study illustration with Khosrov Ajootian. Fellow Pratt Institute alumni from that period include figurative sculptor George Segal, geometric sculptor Beverly Pepper, Minimalist painter Ellsworth Kelly, and longtime New Yorker cartoonist Ed Koren. Other alumni of note include photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and painter Pat Steir.
It was at Pratt that Safran met his future wife Adele, who was also studying art. Adele recalls him as one of the stars of the school, particularly in life drawing, and notes that as a student Safran had already defined his philosophy and knew what he wanted to paint. She remembers that, at the time, he was inspired by the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec was an amazing draftsman and colorist and his lively depictions of people were not sugar coated or idealized, but in many cases strident and unapologetically honest.
The works of the Ashcan School also captured Safran's imagination, with their depictions of a grimy, industrial New York City. Unlike the soft romantic Impressionist paintings of upper class New York (such as the works of Maurice Prendergast) the paintings of the Ashcan School strove to show the excitement and squalor of the city he knew so intimately.
Safran's studies at Pratt were interrupted when he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II. He served from 1942 to 1945 with the U.S Army Engineer Corps in China, Burma and India. While he was in service he continued to draw, filling sketchbooks and scraps of paper with images of the war around him. Like many men of his generation, he found his years of service an adventurous but horrifying existence. In 1945, he was more than glad to return to Pratt to finish his degree and renew his relationship with Adele.
After graduating, Safran began a short-lived career as an illustrator in New York City. He produced mystery and Western paperback covers, illustrations for magazines like Boy's Life and illustrated several books, including a children's bible. The low pay and the variety and volume of work taught him discipline in getting jobs done expertly and efficiently, and helped him develop professional work habits that he continued for the rest of his life.
Adele was also working in the field, but decided it would be better for both if she became his agent and freed up his time to concentrate on illustration. She went out each day to do the round of New York City's many publishing houses -- arranging for assignments, dropping off completed artwork, and collecting payments. She did this until the birth of their first child in 1955.
In the beginning, Safran hired professional models for his illustration work, to ensure that the women had the contemporary style and look of the day. But after a while he found it more economical to use his wife and himself and many of their friends and relatives for models. Although he was working regularly, the pay was less than adequate and the work was unsatisfying. Safran found he did not like being an illustrator, and decided to pursue a career as a fine artist.
Becoming a Fine Artist -- Honing his Technique
In 1956 he took a six-month leave from work and devoted himself to the study of masterpieces in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Safran knew that the traditional way for an artist to learn to paint was to study the works of other painters. The old masters were, in his opinion, the most technically gifted painters of all time. He particularly admired the work of Peter Paul Rubens, which he felt displayed an unparalleled vitality, fluidity and brilliance in the handling of oil paint. Safran wrote:
||I thought I would attempt to find out how the old masters worked by copying a painting. I meant not to slavishly copy it but reconstruct it from the ground up based on what I had read and what I could see. I chose a Rubens painting, Atalanta and Meleager. Rubens is in bad repute these days because he loved to paint fat naked women; not our current taste. Most artists have studied him since his time. Velasquez knew him and became one of the greatest, after an association with him. Delacroix's journal attests to a life long fascination and the list is endless. There is a lot of material on how he worked and you can easily see it by knowing what to look for. It was a revelation to me… It improved my taste.|
In addition to oil studies, he completed hundreds of compositional studies in pen and ink. He mined the works of art historians as well as contemporary writers on art such as Vasari for everything he could learn about the artists of the past - their techniques, their philosophies and the details of their lives. He also began to paint outdoors to sharpen his eyes. He felt painting landscapes ex temporare would help him see color and value relationships more subtly - which it did.
It was at this time that he taught himself to make and use the black oil medium rediscovered by Jacques Maroger (the former chief conservator of the Louvre, who had dedicated his life to studying the painting techniques of the old masters). Maroger claimed to have found the formula that Rubens used that had kept the paint color and texture so fresh after all the centuries.
The black oil medium was made from cooking oil, lead and mastic tears to form a thick, smooth, transparent paste. Dry pigments were ground into a very fine powder in a mortar and pestle and then mixed with the medium to make oil paints. Once Safran learned the preparation techniques, he almost exclusively ground his own pigments, and mixed his own paints every morning before sitting down at the easel to work. He loved the rich, smooth feel of the medium and the freedom it offered - he could paint very thin luminous glazes to very thick impastos with it. The black oil medium allowed the paint to dry quickly and evenly so that it could be reworked and painted fresh each day.
A few years later, after Safran was famous for his TIME portraits, Maroger invited him to his home in Washington, DC. Maroger could see that Safran was serious about his painting, and he wanted to make sure that he had more detailed knowledge than his book provided about using the medium to ensure that his paintings would last. Safran was thrilled and honored to meet with Maroger.
Safran also worked hard to prepare his boards and canvases in the manner of the old masters. He painstakingly prepared gesso grounds and always brushed the surface of the gesso with a sheer coat of gray or brown. This was a particular technique he learned from Rubens. The striations of the gray brush strokes were intended to provide visual depth and a neutral background upon which to build the color. The striations are particularly visible in his earlier works (you can see the gray lines on some, and the texture of the lines in others).
It was during this time that Safran got the idea that he could be a portrait painter. His interests had always been in the infinite variety of human faces and character, but he had not painted portraits since art school and he needed practice. He let it be known to whomever he met that he would paint oil portraits for $25 each. He drove all over Brooklyn to paint them, and in this way he completed forty portraits from life in three-hour sittings.
The TIME Years 1957-1965
Safran noticed that TIME Magazine was regularly using fine artists for cover work. In 1957 he decided to paint a sample cover portrait of General Ulysses S. Grant with a non-objective background using his newly found knowledge. He took the sample portrait over to TIME and two days later, Safran was hired by the magazine and given the assignment to paint the Sultan of Morocco (published April 22, 1957).
His ability to capture the character of each person was no doubt why he was one of the most highly praised cover artists in the history of the publication and why his covers were widely collected by the public. He did not glamorize the famous and powerful, but showed them as individuals with their own inherent strengths and weaknesses. Between 1957 and 1966 Safran produced 73 cover portraits. Thirty-six of these are now in the collection of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
It was the first time in his life that Safran was able to make a respectable living with his art. The new income allowed him to travel to Europe to study the masterpieces there and to pursue his own work on the side.
In the early 1960s he painted a series depicting Biblical and mythological scenes in modern dress. Safran had been struck by the fact that the old masters had frequently painted such scenes with characters in contemporary dress -- in other words, painting the underlying story while making little effort to anchor events in their remote historical and geographic context -- and he was inspired to experiment with bringing Western civilization's great stories into the twentieth century. His first solo show of these paintings was at the Fitzgerald Gallery in Manhattan in 1966. It opened the night of the great New York blackout and understandably no one came. Though John Canaday, art critic for The New York Times, recognized the artist's painterly ability in person, he printed a scathing review in the newspaper. Safran did agree with part of the criticism - that the figures were not fully integrated into the scenes. He also recognized that many people simply did not relate to the subject matter. After careful consideration of the works, he destroyed or painted over the ones he felt were not successful, keeping only a handful of paintings for his personal collection.
In retrospect it is clear that the failure of the show was inevitable, given the state of the art world in the 1960s. At that time the New York art establishment regarded realistic art with indifference or even hostility. It was at the height of the non-representational movement, replete with Op Art, Pop Art, Abstract Expressionism, color field painting, and so on. Anything the least bit representational was definitely out of fashion. Art critic Robert Fulford recalled the era this way in his autobiography: In 1965 abstract art was the art that mattered, and people who still painted identifiable subjects were considered at best eccentric. Realist art has had a recent resurgence in popularity, but even today many critics only consider such work to have merit if it is shocking, subversive or ironic.
Painting for Himself 1960-
Safran left TIME in the mid 1960s to pursue his own interests. He decided to paint a subject that he knew intimately - the people and cityscape of Manhattan. He began to systematically photograph the city, eventually taking over 4,000 images in black and white. He traveled into areas that most people avoided, where he was threatened and harassed by thugs and drug dealers and angry street people. He found that if he took his wife with him he could wander more freely. He eventually bought a "spy" lens that took pictures at a ninety-degree angle so that he could photograph inconspicuously in crowds or in volatile situations. Safran never showed the photographs he took to anyone; he considered them merely tools for inspiration. Yet the images stand on their own, as an artistic and historical record of Manhattan in the 1960s and 1970s.
The City Project
Safran had learned as an illustrator how to use photographs as reference material. He discovered through research that many great artists relied upon the use of photographs or other mechanical means of reproduction when painting. It later became a point of contention with those who felt working from photographs in a realist manner reduced the quality of his art to illustration - for this he felt he had to explain:
"Anyone can take a photograph and copy it, but it doesn't make him an artist… it is a tool and a convenience and he (the artist) uses it. To use a photograph properly is something that must be learned after the artist has learned his business and not before.
From the thousands of photographic images, Safran culled ideas to create more than 40 oil paintings of Manhattan. Although gritty, these works share an underlying optimism. Individuals are shown as shaped, even broken, by the city, but they retain an unmistakable dignity and humanity.
This means that the artist has to be able to see in the photograph what he would see in a model. Without going into a discussion on how to draw the figure, it simply is a realization of how the edges turn, where the planes are, and how the figure articulates."
With the New York paintings, Safran produced a totally unique series of paintings of life in a large American city. In these works he achieved a satisfying synthesis of his humanist belief in the power of the individual with a visually rich display of painterly virtuosity. Furthermore, Safran felt that he had at last succeeded in creating unified compositions of figure and setting. Painting everyday scenes of Manhattan absorbed him for almost twenty years; he continued to paint New York long after he had left and moved to Canada.
To supplement his income while he painted for himself, Safran sold "bread and butter" works through the Capricorn Gallery in Washington, DC. This was the only gallery in the United States to represent him from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. He also began to take formal portrait commissions at this time.
Moving to the Country 1973-1995
In 1973, Safran moved his family from suburban New York City to a remote nineteenth-century farmhouse, several miles from the nearest neighbor, outside of Sackville in New Brunswick, Canada. He did this for several reasons: to live more economically, to remove himself from the overwhelming opinions of the New York art world, to provide a healthier life and education for his children, and to live near Adele's sister and her family.
A Change in Focus
In this rustic, rural setting, he returned to the theme of the experience of everyday life, now taking as his subjects the farmers, woodsmen, and fishermen of eastern Canada.
Safran found that this new environment led him to paint different images. Now, instead of painting people surrounded by a hostile and decaying environment, he started to paint them at work in the rural landscape. He noted that not only were people more relaxed in the country, but that the color was brighter. Although his subject matter changed, his point of view did not: his belief in the strength of the individual becomes even more apparent in his paintings. The painting of Farmer Ben V. (left), for example, is truly heroic in its conception. The artist elevates his humble subject by adopting a low perspective point and by setting the rugged figure against azure skies.
The rural paintings convey the epic dimension of rural life by depicting man in confrontation with nature. These rural struggles include a lone man controlling enormous draft horses; a man working to drain a sodden road; a constable surrounded by his car and a troubled sky; a farmer grooming a massive and dangerous steer.
It was at this time that Safran began to describe his work as Romantic Realism, emphasizing his use of color to express feelings. Although many have suggested his work is photo-realism, Safran's work goes beyond the hard-edged and impersonal approach favored by many working in the genre. In these more mature paintings, his masterful draftsmanship and control of color give the paintings a true depth of visual and emotional content.
Safran found that he received greater recognition for his work in Eastern Canada than in the United States. He had several successful shows, both of his New York Paintings and his Rural paintings. He was also commissioned to paint many of the prominent politicians and businesspeople of the region. From 1976-1986, he was represented by Manuge Gallery and Zwicker's Gallery of Halifax, Nova Scotia, and the Pavillioner Gallery of Prince Edward Island. Safran had gained such a critical following that in 1982 the Canadian Broadcast Corporation produced and aired a documentary on him.
For Safran, the greatest honor was when he was made a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (London, England) in 1985. To be considered in the same company with earlier artist members such as Gainsborough, Hogarth, Doré, Van Dyck, and Sargent thrilled him.
During the last few years of his life he worked on a series of complex autobiographical montages. The first painting done in this series was A Part of My War. The overall impression is one of startling visual complexity, movement, texture and color. Faces, his last work finished just days before his death, is his perhaps his most remarkable painting. It is an almost transcendent re-visioning of the genre of portraiture, which represents the climax of his career. Over seventy expressively realized portraits of himself, family and friends, and other people encountered over a lifetime float in darkness. It is the largest painting in his oeuvre.
What Mattered Most
Safran experienced open hostility from the art world throughout his life. It took remarkable courage to pursue his vision in the face of the relentless attacks from his peers and critics. What kept him going was his love of painting, and his dedication to a humanist approach. He believed art should enrich and move the viewer and that realism was the most direct form of communication. He wrote:
"Personally I feel that painting is a means of saying something poetic and philosophical. There has been too much negativism; I want to emphasize the positive qualities in everyday life - the courage, the sacrifice, the honesty, the independence."
Safran dedicated his life to making art and studying art. While living in New York, he regularly visited the art museums of the city, and also made trips to Washington, DC to study the collections there. He took two major tours of Europe in the 1960s to study art, and after moving to Canada made yearly trips to London, England for the same reason.
When Safran wasn't painting he was sketching and drawing to keep his eye sharp and his skill free. He kept reproductions of great works of art in his studio for inspiration, including a plaster cast of l'Écorché (The Flayed Man) by Houdon, an anatomical study of the muscles of the human body.
He was a solitary man who read extensively, and was particularly interested in military history, politics and the lives of artists. He loved music and martinis, and later in life enjoyed fishing on the lake behind his house in New Brunswick. Few artists can support themselves, much less their families, solely on their work alone, but Safran did.
Bernard Safran died in 1995 of a sudden heart attack. The works he left behind are his legacy.
His widow, Adele Safran, an artist herself, continues to paint. His elder daughter Barbara is a teacher and artist. His younger daughter Elizabeth is a museologist and manager of the Bernard Safran Estate Collection.