Invoking a Culture
By Tom Wachunas
“…art deepens my person, indeed it is the color of my emotional exuberance.” -Martin Bertman-
EXHIBITION: Kings, Prophets, Angels and Poets: Judaism Through the Lens of Martin “Mich’l” Bertman / at TRANSLATIONS ART, 331 Cleveland Avenue NW, downtown Canton / THROUGH FEBRUARY 23 / Viewing hours are Wednesdays from Noon to 9p.m., Thursdays – Saturdays Noon to 5p.m. www.translationsart.com
I can certainly relate to the daunting task undertaken by Translations director Craig Joseph in selecting works for this show, having engaged the same process for Martin Bertman’s exhibit at the Canton Museum of Art late in 2011. Martin – Mich’l being his Hebrew name – died in July, 2012. Along with Bertman’s widow, Marilena, Joseph recently sifted through the hundreds of paintings stored, stacked and otherwise squirreled away throughout the Bertman home.
The resulting show is a marvelous look at Bertman’s remarkable journey through many stylistic phases as a painter. If you’ve yet to encounter the man or his work, make it a point to read the three texts hanging from the ceiling (my own presented here in a slightly expanded version), which include beautifully articulated personal thoughts from Rochelle Haas and Nancy Stewart Matin. They impart a moving overview of the richness and depth of Bertman’s impact on all who were fortunate enough to know him.
In varying degrees, Bertman’s oeuvre recapitulates many of the ideas put forth by the most challenging Post-Impressionist European painters of the late 19th century – ideas which in turn constituted the thrust of early 20th century Modernism. There was Cezanne’s radical flattening of the picture plane and simultaneity of perspectives, which was a seminal influence on Cubism. Van Gogh’s psychically charged color was the rallying cry of the Fauves and Expressionists, as was Gauguin’s exoticism.
But enough of the truncated history lesson. While he did, on more than one occasion, acknowledge to me his solidarity with these and other aesthetic developments, he was no mere imitator of historic styles in any superficially academic sense. He instead synthesized and hybridized them into a uniquely captivating pictorial dialect. His was a personal visual syntax, if you will, which described and identified both physical and spiritual realities.
The dominant spirit in this particular gathering of works is a deeply Hebraic one, and emblematic of an artist wholly connected to Judaism’s many faces – philosophical, religious, and secular. He clearly understood the lyrical power of color and organic form to invoke either ecstasy or suffering, to excite or subdue, to suggest the soulful or the mundane.
Bertman’s technique as a painter – a maker of marks on a flat surface – was not one of sleek, refined illusionism in the classical sense, but rather a more visceral sort of immediacy born of a pure, gestural spontaneity. As the paintings here so effectively demonstrate - ranging from the vibrant fluidity of Burning Bush, the hauntingly surreal symbols in Purim, and the electrifying drama of Angel with Sarah and Hagar, for example, to the raw honesty of Gas Chamber and Unidentified Men, he drew directly from the numinous mysticism of the Torah itself as well as the compelling resonance of the Jewish culture, both tortured and tender.
I continue to think of him ever immersed in a wondrously palpable yet ephemeral moment, as if chasing and securing the essence of a vision lest it slip from his impassioned grasp.
PHOTOS: (from top) Angel with Sarah and Hagar; Burning Bush; Gas Chamber; Unidentified Men