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Keith Holz
Professor, Department of Art, Western Illinois University

One man delivers another piggyback onto a well-lit stoop, where a third man greets the pair. Horses stir in the foreground and middle ground, while a heap of equine flesh and bones writhes on the ground at left. These characters reenact the parable of the Good Samaritan within the strikingly geometric architectural setting of this canvas from 1930 Paris. A student of painting and architecture, the Russian-born Eugene Berman engaged here with the stables and courtyards of his 15th arrondissement neighborhood.1 Redolent of the compositions of Giorgio de Chirico, whom Berman had encountered in Italy during the 1920s, the flat, overlapping color planes flush with the picture plane approximate Cubist pictorial construction.

Modernism’s adamant futurity encourages us to forget that modern painters on occasion did return to old masters to rejuvenate their pictorial practices. A canvas in the Louvre from around 1650, formerly believed to be by Rembrandt but now attributed to Constantijn van Renesse and also titled The Good Samaritan, appears to have informed Berman’s adoption of this theme in this and three other canvases from the same year.2 Berman’s look back was also a gaze averse to any future associated with the Bolshevik Revolution and the upending of Russian society and artistic practices. That revolution had also spelled the downfall and flight of Berman’s affluent banking family and the relocation of Eugene and his painter brother, Leonid, through Finland and London to Paris by the end of 1918.

Compared to the decidedly nostalgic and romantic canvases and stage designs for which Eugene Berman is best known—compositions often dominated by classicizing architectural ruins set within perspectival spaces—his Good Samaritan compositions, which combine literary sources within rigorous architecturally determined designs, were less estranged from the absolute propositions and radical practices of the Constructivists and their Cubist precursors than any others in his oeuvre. Addressing this series’ distinctiveness, Julian Levy—who had met Berman before 1930 in Paris, exhibited his art at his New York gallery, and facilitated his immigration in 1935 to the United States—noted in 1947: “This kind of organization had been a solution when Berman was trying to combine representational images with the architectonics of Picasso’s cubism. . . . [The] pictures would have looked almost as if they were abstractions had they not been so evidently arrangements of recognizable courts, walls and windows.”3

In the Kemper Art Museum’s painting, the courtyard walls establish an enclosure of architectonically arranged, overlapping, rectilinear colored planes across a picture plane structured by five rectilinear doors, windows, and their openings. Together with the nearly cloudless sky and the dirt of the foreground yard, they blanket the surface of the canvas. The edges of walls, rooflines, and vertical smokestacks also impose geometry on the natural blue sky. Symmetry is enhanced through the piers flanking the rectangular black stable-door opening at center. Originally each pier was crowned with a vase, and pentimenti suggest that Berman reworked this aspect of the composition, as only the vase on the right remains fully visible.

What precisely captivated Berman in the Louvre’s canvas remains unknown, but a few general commonalities stand out. As with the Dutch canvas, Berman’s casts the New Testament characters in a dim nocturnal light on a proscenium-like platform, surrounded by the unadorned planes of the courtyard's inner walls. Both canvases share a procession from left to right of human protagonists passing horses as they approach an illuminated porch at the right. Furthermore, the Good Samaritan theme shared by both paintings foregrounds the issue of neighborliness among different ethnic groups. This reading was already suggested by Levy, whose recollection of his first encounter with Berman’s “pictures. . . of the stables and courtyards of Paris” is telling: “The old tale of the biblical Samaritan provides a good indication to the mood of those paintings: the neighborhood neighborliness lifted parabolically by Berman’s interpretation to the level of some contemporary myth.”4

Living in the multiethnic 15th arrondissement, Berman may have identified with Rembrandt’s residence in a Jewish neighborhood beginning in 1639. There Jewish neighbors modeled for the Dutch artist’s religious figures, including Jesus. The nearly suburban 15th shared one key characteristic with Rembrandt’s quarter in Amsterdam: both served as urban havens for refugees from many lands.

After the stock market crash and ensuing economic depression, an influx of refugees joined the highly concentrated immigrant populations living in Parisian districts such as the 15th. Migrants and especially refugees were subject to federal laws regulating foreigners. Already in 1922 the Soviet government had stripped Russian emigrants like Berman of their nationality, leaving them stateless. Russian refugees in Paris were also often subject to refoulement, or forced repatriation to their homeland, a fate Berman would surely have done anything to avoid.55 With the onset of the Depression, public outcry against immigrants taking French jobs and other expressions of xenophobia and anti-Semitism were on the rise.6 Russians in France suffered higher unemployment rates and were jobless for longer periods than previously, and they were also arrested for vagrancy more often than other foreigners.7 In this environment Berman’s experience as a Russian Jew in Paris would have triggered instincts of self-preservation but also heightened his concern for the destabilized status of fellow countrymen and other refugees. Regarded in this context, Berman’s move to restage the story of the injured, possibly Jewish traveler aided by a Samaritan (Samaritans and Jews typically scorned each other) was no simple reckoning with an old master canvas from the French state’s premier art museum. Rather, it marks his timely recognition of the potential for humane, neighborly relations across ethnic and religious divisions in the face of the state-sanctioned duress that he was beginning to witness in 1930.8 For a stateless migrant during this insecure period of rapidly shifting attitudes toward foreigners and a tightening dragnet of legislation affecting refugees and migrants—even Russian Jews who had enjoyed a decade of relatively little turbulence—the stakes of demonstrating assimilation to French society and professional belonging had seldom been higher.

Despite the gentle syncretic character of his art at this time, Berman’s Good Samaritan is notably devoid of Jewish or “primitivist” motifs or style (Eastern European, Russian, or otherwise), either of which might have pulled him into the crosshairs of xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment within the right-leaning French public sphere. Instead the canvas, with its balance approaching symmetry and its reconciliation of dramatic figures within a geometrically stable and sheltering surround, betrays its proximity to the French classical tradition—think of the compositions of Nicolas Poussin, Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, or even Paul Cézanne and André Derain—just as it marks out its distance from the radical Russian or Western avant-gardes of the day. In this respect the American collector and Wadsworth Athenaeum curator James Thrall Soby’s comment that Neo-Romantic paintings were “free at last from the burden of revolutionary ideas” rings true.9 By staging the injured, transient, and agitated horses within a protective architectonic surround, this canvas seems attuned to Charles Baudelaire’s 1863 challenge that painters of modern life come to terms with the old masters and to his definition of modernity as “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent, the half of art whose other half is the eternal and the immutable.”10 Berman builds both halves of this modernism into The Good Samaritan.

It is important to acknowledge that the Neo-Romantic painters’ work was not always met with enthusiasm. Those committed to the rigorous development of Cubism and its legacy were often harshly critical. Consider the view of the German expatriate art historian and critic Carl Einstein. Around 1930 Einstein offered only scorn for what he took to be the facile pictures of the Neo-Romantics. Although it was the paintings of Christian Bérard, Berman’s fellow student from the Académie Ranson, whose art had begun to embrace fashion illustration, that triggered Einstein’s acerbic critique of contemporary painting, his comments could have applied to Berman’s work as well. In an often-overlooked essay, “Kleine Bilderfabrik” (The little picture factory, 1931), Einstein delivered an institutional critique of the Paris art trade. Particularly offensive was the robust market for fashionable paintings, which, according to Einstein, Neo-Romantics like Berman fueled:

The fabrication of pictures without world- view or risk is lower than the traffic in young women, for the facile dauber is menaced by no punishment, only comfortable income. . . . Many people believe in their talent, mostly because they sit in Paris, where the legacy of painting flies around in tatters like nowhere else. One even belongs to the School of Paris and addresses cousin Cézanne in the familiar. One finally destroys the sham of a dubious commodity market. The abused Seine is dammed up with oil paint, the docks sink before the shame, Notre Dame is violated, and nudes, painted right down to the enameled skin, swing over moth-eaten sofas that emit outdated anecdotes and insect-spray.11

The very qualities that Einstein decried in the work of the Neo-Romantics, however, would be embraced with warmth and discernment across the Atlantic by Soby. In his 1935 book After Picasso, Soby praised the canvases Berman initiated on returning from Italy to Paris in 1930:

From his drawings, [Berman] painted a series of pictures of courtyards which have centers of dramatic excitement in contrast to the calm of the buildings beyond. . . .In pictures like The Wounded and Le Bon Samaritain, figures bend over a wounded man and horses stand ready to be ridden away. The light on these activities is derived from Rembrandt, and falls from a doorway on the right; there is no other light except the moonlight on the roofs and the dull glow from windows beyond. The painter’s melancholy is more active here, and no longer suggests a calm malaise but a quiet concern.12

This description refers to a different painting of the same title, formerly in the collection of Soby’s friend Edward M. M. Warburg, an early Museum of Modern Art board member, but it also befits the canvas in the collection of the Kemper Art Museum.

Stationing Berman’s painting amid key social and discursive contexts of the early 1930s, it is possible to regard it as a hybrid creation of the migrant imaginary seeking assimilation and acculturation. First, the Good Samaritan theme adapted from Rembrandt appears to express Berman’s hope for better ethnic relations in his neighborhood as well as improved relations with French immigration authorities. Second, the modernist application of flat, architectonic planes to frame a stage set is a subtle nod toward Cubist picture construction while retaining the architectonic framing of a rather conventional proscenium to stage the biblical narrative that Berman found timely. Third, the general maneuver of taking art backward—to an old master canvas depicting a biblical parable—in order to reinvent it, nudges Berman’s painting into a modernist tradition responsive to Baudelaire. In following each of these dualities negotiated in paint by Berman, we are able to discern how his painting also staked out a middle ground for itself between opposing critical factions concerned with contemporary Parisian pictorial aesthetics. With Berman’s residency and welcome in France precarious, and with critical views of his art polarized, The Good Samaritan brokers these dichotomies without effacing them, perhaps with the hope of ameliorating current and future discord.

  • 1 See Julian Levy, Eugene Berman (New York: Viking, 1947), v–viii, and James Thrall Soby, After Picasso (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1935), 36.
  • 2 For other artworks by Berman with this title see Levy, Berman, pls. III, VI, no. 17.
  • 3 Ibid., viii.
  • 4 Ibid., v–vi.
  • 5 See Mary Dewhurst Lewis, The Boundaries of the Republic: Migrant Rights 
and the Limits of Universalism in France, 1918–1940 (Stanford, CA: Stanford 
University Press, 2007), 158, 159.
  • 6 Ibid., 173.
  • 7 Ibid., 171–72.
  • 8 Another Jewish painter in Paris, the Belorussian Chaïm Soutine, painted 
his Carcass paintings from 1924 to 1929, a theme previously pioneered by Rembrandt. Like Berman’s Good Samaritan works, which triangulated with an outlying Parisian neighborhood and a canvas attributed to Rembrandt, Soutine’s paintings engaged with Parisian slaughterhouses of similar outlying, déclassé Parisian neighborhoods and Rembrandt’s paintings of bovine carcasses.
  • 9 Soby, After Picasso, 8.
  • 10 Charles Baudelaire, “The Painter of Modern Life,” in The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, ed. and trans. Jonathan Mayne (London: Phaidon, 
1964), 13.
  • 11 Carl Einstein, “Kleine Bilderfabrik,” Weltkunst 5 (April 1931): 2–3, reprinted in Carl Einstein (1885–1940): Kleine Bilderfabrik; Eine Auswahl unbekannter Aufsätze (Siegen, West Germany: Universität-Gesamthochschule Siegen, 1988), 24–26 (translation mine).
  • 12 Soby, After Picasso, 35–36.