Exquisitely Sad

By Julie HeffernanOne man, Russian Surrealist Eugene Berman, was able—somehow—to incorporate the memento mori/totenkopf skull motifs of Imperial Rome and Nazi Germany in what must have been a sad marriage of classical imagery and a contemporary European artistic sensibility beaten and demoralized by wanton militarism. A current show of his work at the Long Beach Museum of Art, “Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime,” exudes Berman's “skepticism about modernity and progress that seems a natural reaction to the catastrophic historical events of the 1930s and 1940s,” according to exhibition notes. Which is true: though later external tragedies such as “the fallout of 1960s idealism and the AIDS pandemic” inform several of the exhibit's later works, the focus is clearly on Berman and his meditations on mortality and impermanence.

The museum has cagily designated Berman's painting Cassandra (1942-1943) the exhibit's premier piece. Indeed, its placement in the museum's foyer forces you to consider its theme as the undercurrent of the entire exhibit. Cassandra is a tragic figure in Greek mythology: given the awesome ability to see the future but fated to have her predictions disbelieved. In the painting, her back is turned to the viewer as she surveys a conflagration she surely and vainly foresaw, perhaps the legendary fall of Troy. Her situation, Berman implies, is not unlike the artist's: seen but not studied, heard but not heeded.

Also in the entryway is another pivotal work, this one illustrating Berman's most common visual theme. Perspective of Columns at Paestum (1959-1960) juxtaposes the megalithic remains of classical architecture with the tiny, unassuming forms of people simply going about their daily lives. Stooped women herd goats amongst the bases of towering columns, while a boy shinnies up the weathered marble and celebrates having reached the top. The best of what a civilization creates, perhaps a monument to the ages, Berman intimates, will one day fade into the landscape, no more significant than a tree on a hilltop.

It's all darkly hued: Monument to a Muse (1942) features Berman's interpretation of classical religious imagery. Filling most of the frame is a crumbling, stucco wall with a central niche for offerings. Inside is a half-empty water vessel, stark in its placement against such a dryly desolate backdrop. The stringless frame of Apollo's weather-beaten lyre leans against the shrine like driftwood on a white beach, and lengths of blood-red cloth are draped about the wall, its color recalling that of poor Cassandra's garments. Apollo is esteemed not only for being father to the Muses, the goddesses who bestow divine inspiration, but also as the founder of the famous temple at Delphi, the center of prophecy even throughout Roman times. With the requisite minuscule figures toiling away in the barren distance, this piece stands at the intersection of the exhibit's main themes. Contrast this scene, however, with Sunset With a Greek Temple in the Distance (1962), in which a network of catacombs stretches from the foreground into deep background, where they meet a hill on which a decrepit temple sits. The ruins, looking much like those of Athens' Parthenon, are lit from behind, yet seemingly from within, by the setting sun. With no people in the frame, Berman allows the architectural form to convey a rare glimpse of hope for the creations of mankind.

And as a matter of course, the exhibit includes Berman's own memento mori, Macabre Still Life (1947), his version of an extremely common artistic form. On his tableau, he places a human skull wrapped pathetically in a babushka. Next to it, a few barnacles cling grimly to the dried remains of a sea sponge, while shards of white shells dot the stony surface with an insistent brightness. Remember that you too, Berman insinuates, will die—which is exactly what the Romans said. Perhaps insects will explore your calcified remains like women chasing goats through a ruined temple's remaining columns. Eugene Berman has left us a legacy not only of the melancholy sublime, but also of the sublimely melancholy.


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