Life & art

Ludwig Blum: His Life as an Artist

Dalia Manor

In August 2014, a solemn ceremony was held in Jerusalem dedicating a street named in honor of Ludwig Blum. Fourteen years earlier, in October 2000, a similar ceremony was held in Brno, the Czech Republic, in which a memorial plaque was mounted on the wall of the house where Blum was born and raised. The words "Painter of Jerusalem" were inscribed on the plaque beneath Blum's name and dates of birth and death. This double commemoration, in his native city and in the city where he settled as a grown man – which was also the main theme of his work – is a rare, perhaps singular phenomenon among artists of his generation who left Europe to settle in Palestine. It illuminates Blum's unique attitude towards his two homelands. As long as he could, Blum continued to view himself simultaneously as a Jerusalemite and as a Czech painter.

 

Czech Roots

Ludwig Blum was born on 24 July 1891 in the Moravian village of Líšeň (Lösch, in German) situated in the vicinity of Brno (Brünn), the capital of Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Today it is in the Czech Republic and Líšeň is incorporated as one of Brno’s districts. Blum was the seventh child in a family of five boys and five girls – a traditional Jewish family among a Christian-Catholic population of some five thousand souls. His parents, Philipp Caleb Blum and Maria (Miriam) née Kohn (Cohen), both had deep roots in Moravia: Philipp was born in Krasna, and Maria was the daughter of a family of rabbis from Kostel (Podivin). In Líšeň, the Blum family lived off a general store they ran in the village. His parents worked long hours and the family business provided a good income.

Observing Jewish tradition and daily life within a Christian environment was not a simple task for a single family. The Blums had to find solutions for their various needs, so the father was his children’s teacher (melamed) in basic Jewish education and he was also authorized in kosher ritual slaughter of fowl for the household’s use. Prayers in synagogue were limited to the High Holidays in the nearby town of Brno, and it was in the synagogue there that important family celebrations of Bar Mitzvahs and weddings took place. Living in a house located just across the village’s largest church – where they would never set foot – the views, sounds, and rituals of the Catholic faith infiltrated the family's life on a daily basis. All the more so, as the children received their primary education at the local schools, where the day began with a Christian prayer. For their secondary education, the Blum boys and girls attended schools in Brno where other students and some teachers were Jewish.

Ludwig Blum’s recollections of his youth were of healthy and happy times. With his brothers and local village friends he roamed the countryside and woods, and collected flowers, butterflies, and birds. Ludwig was especially talented in gymnastics and trained with his brothers in the back yard of their house on the gymnastic devices their parents had placed there. Ludwig’s interest in sport continued for years, and as an adult he was a member of Jewish sports clubs. He participated successfully in gymnastic competitions, specializing in the high horizontal bar.

Blum’s parents encouraged their children not only to engage in sport but also to express themselves artistically. At the age of thirteen, Ludwig – who from a young age demonstrated talent and interest in drawing and painting – received a Bar-Mitzvah gift from his parents of oil paints and other necessary equipment for painting. At the German secondary school in Brno, Blum excelled in art and gymnastics while neglecting other subjects, and eventually left school at seventeen with aspirations to become a painter. Yet painting was not considered a suitable profession for a Jewish boy, and the family expected him to pursue a career in commerce. Ludwig was sent to a textile factory as a management apprentice. He spent his time at the desk for a year before quitting and moving to Vienna to study painting.

From Vienna to Prague – Blum's Artistic Training

Little is known about Blum’s time in Vienna, although he spent about three years there. In his biographical sketches he describes his involvement in sports and his successful participation, with a group of Viennese Jewish sportsmen, in a competition held in Berlin. All we know about his activity as an art student is that he studied in the private art school of the academic painter David Kohn (1861-1922), who specialized in portraits, genre paintings, and still life. The fact that Kohn was an observant Jew must have contributed to the Blum family’s trust in him, when they agreed that Ludwig should study with him and they would continue supporting him financially.

Some of Blum’s earliest surviving drawings include impressive naturalistic portraits that reflect his academic training. Over the years he painted naturalist portraits, though in a freer style, of family members and friends, or by commission. Blum studied with Kohn for two years, attending the admission exams of the Academy of Fine Arts in October 1912. It is not known whether he was admitted. In 1913 Ludwig was conscripted drafted to the Austrian army for one year. He had been called up twice before, but his teacher assisted him in postponing the draft. With the breakout of war in the summer of 1914 he was called up and served until 1918.  During this time he was decorated no less than seven times, including the Silver Cross of Merit with Crown and the Medal for Bravery. As a staff sergeant in the light infantry, Blum served on the Italian front for a year, and was later transferred to headquarters where he served as a war artist. Blum's elder brother and his brother-in-law were killed in the war. Another brother was taken prisoner of war by the Russians, and the family's youngest son was wounded.

In October 1919 Ludwig resumed his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, this time in Prague, the capital of the new Czechoslovak Republic. He studied for two semesters and received his diploma in July 1920. Here he specialized in painting under the guidance of the painter Franz Thiele, a conservative Austrian academic painter who specialized in portraits and was adamantly against modern art. "Even then I was unenthusiastic about extreme abstract painting," Blum would later write, recalling a visit with his teacher and fellow students to an exhibition of modern art in Berlin, "and to this day I have my reservations about most trends in modern art. To me, the human body and nature are the twin peaks of aesthetic feeling, and I regard the deformation of either as an artistic crime." Although Blum rarely discussed theoretical issues in art, these words reveal his view of art and artists. For him, the artist was one who portrays the beauty of the world in producing beautiful objects, rather than expressing his worldview or state of mind via his art. Issues of originality and innovation, so highly regarded in modern art, were not of high priority for him.

Blum’s ideas on art were deeply rooted in a particular European tradition. It was this tradition of the Old Masters that Blum set out to see in the "grand tour" he embarked on after completing his studies at the Academy. In February 1921, Ludwig Blum’s first passport was issued and for over two years he travelled back and forth between the great artistic centers of Western Europe, including Amsterdam, London, and Paris, adding Spain in 1922 and Italy in 1923. Occasionally he returned home, but spent most of that period in museums and historic monuments – observing, drawing, and painting. Blum’s last station in Europe was Catania, Sicily, where towards the end of May 1923 he embarked on a ship that took him to Palestine.

Zionist Activity and Immigration to Jerusalem

By his own testimony, Blum’s Zionist sentiments had developed in his youth, especially during his years in Vienna. But it was during his time in Prague, in 1919-1920, that he became deeply absorbed in Jewish and Zionist writings, and his decision to emigrate to Palestine took shape. In early September 1921 he took a break from his artistic travelling to attend the Twelfth Zionist Congress held in Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) in Czechoslovakia, the first Congress held after the War and after the Balfour Declaration. It was there that the founding of the Maccabi World Union was proclaimed. Blum’s attendance at the Congress may have been related to his role in Maccabi – in Prague he was in charge of the gymnastics branch in the district Maccabi club. Some years later Blum combined his sportive and artistic interests in a Zionist context: he painted the main image – a young sportsman holding a huge blue and white flag – for the advertising poster and commemorative postcard issued for the Maccabi games held in June 1929 in Moravská Ostrava (Mährisch Ostrau) in Czechoslovakia. It was a three-day international event during which the first Maccabiah, to be held in Palestine three years later, was announced. Blum himself, now 38, participated in the games as a gymnast on the horizontal bar, representing Maccabi Jerusalem.

Settling in Jerusalem, Blum naturally associated with other German-speaking immigrants, and soon took up residence in a house where several newcomers shared a home which they called, in a typical mixture of German and Hebrew, Wohn Kvutza (translated as "communal dwelling group"). It was probably less of a commune and more of an arrangement by single youngsters with different occupations who shared housekeeping expenses, including a cook and a laundrywoman. It was there that he met his future wife, Dina (Clementine) Mayer (1882-1964), a highly educated and qualified nursery-school teacher who had immigrated to Palestine from Germany in 1914. On 11 March 1924, Ludwig and Dina were married, celebrating their wedding on the roof of the German-run Hotel Fast in Jerusalem. After their marriage, Dina gave up her job and in October that year gave birth to their daughter Dvora. In September 1926 their son Eliyahu (Elie) was born.

Between Jerusalem and Europe: An International Career

In Jerusalem Blum befriended other artists, especially those more established yet close to him in age and ideology, such as Abel Pann, Aharon Shaul Schur, and Herman Struck. Blum also joined the Artists Association and took part in its next exhibition, the Third Annual Exhibition held in April-May 1924 at the Tower of David. A short time later he held a solo exhibition at the same venue. Yet Blum realized that the market in Palestine would not be sufficient for his needs, and it was time to turn abroad. In the spring of 1925, together with his wife and baby daughter, Ludwig Blum traveled to Czechoslovakia. At the artists’ house in Brno he exhibited a large one-man show. The success was so great, he wrote in his memoirs, that none of the seventy oil paintings displayed would be shipped home. In practical terms this meant an income sufficient to keep the family over the next few years. Following the success of his first exhibition in Brno in 1925, Blum returned to Europe every couple of years or so, usually alone, and stayed for a couple of months or more, travelling and exhibiting in two or even three places. In between those tours, the family lived on the proceeds of the sales. In his next tour, he went further afield and in October and December 1929 exhibited in Amsterdam and Berlin, respectively. During the 1930s he went to London twice, for quite a while each time. Having a taste for adventure, Blum also occasionally traveled in the Middle Eastern countries. In the summer of 1930 he travelled to Persia through Kurdistan and Iraq with his friend Dr. Wolfgang von Weisel, a Viennese-born journalist and Zionist activist. The dangerous journey, which included arrest on suspicion of espionage, produced impressive watercolors and oil paintings from historical sites the two visited along the way.

Jerusalem was Blum’s major theme, and panoramic views of the city his specialty. His most ambitious painting was the large-scale panorama called "Jerusalem, View from the Mount of Olives" – nearly eight meters in width – commissioned in 1936 for the Museum of Biblical Antiquities in Brno, Czechoslovakia. The painting is housed to this day at the Augustinian Monastery in Brno. The painting's "small" version, painted on location and displayed to this day at the residence of the President of Israel in Jerusalem, aroused interest when exhibited at the Royal Academy in London in 1938. Blum stayed with his family in London for a period of time, receiving some commissions and holding a number of exhibitions. Yet with the signs of imminent war growing ever stronger, his wife decided in January 1939 to leave with the couple's children and return to Palestine. Blum retained his Czechoslovakian passport over the years, but in March 1939 Czechoslovakia ceased to exist, having been annexed by Germany. In Jerusalem, Blum received a British passport as a resident of Palestine under the British Mandate and hurried back to London, hoping to renew his work there. But in September 1939, with the outbreak of war, he returned to Palestine, concluding his European period.

The War of Independence: Bereavement and National Recruitment

During the war years Blum had to rely on the local market for his income, including members of the British government with whom he had cultivated ties over the years. Even British officers serving in Palestine purchased his paintings as souvenirs of the Holy Land. By the end of World War II, with growing disappointment in British policies towards Jewish immigration, the active struggle against British rule in Palestine took the form of a series of underground operations coordinated by the Jewish Resistance Movement. The largest of these, the Night of the Bridges conducted on 16-17 June 1946, took the life of Blum’s son Elie, not yet twenty, along with other fighters. Ludwig and Dina were devastated. The loss of the talented, amiable young man, who aspired to become a shipping engineer and build the "Hebrew navy," was hard as it would be for any bereaved family. The absence of a grave to weep over made the tragedy even harder to bear, as Dina wrote. A letter sent to the families six months later informed them that body parts of the thirteen fighters who had died in the operation were buried in a mass grave in Haifa.  After the War of Independence the families of the fallen, Dina Blum among them, demanded that the authorities recognize the sacrifice of the pre-war paramilitary Palmach fighters as equally deserving of commemoration as those who fought in the War of Independence. Ultimately the families’ pressure was fruitful and in 1953 a memorial was erected on the site where the fighters were killed. An annual remembrance ceremony takes place there.

The impact of the tragedy on Ludwig Blum and his wife was immense. One of their responses was to volunteer for various social and national activities, among them the Jewish Civil Guard (Mishmar Ha-Am) that was established to maintain the public order in Jerusalem during the long siege of the city. Following his son’s death, Blum started almost obsessively to paint fighters, battlefields, and the destruction caused by war. He painted portraits of Palmach and other underground fighters, as well as and soldiers and snipers at their post in Jerusalem. A self-appointed war artist, Blum had received a special pass from the operational officer of the Jerusalem Brigade permitting him to visit the war sites and document them. Blum painted and drew scenes from the soldierly life, alongside the destruction caused by war and the ruins of buildings. Following the wartime events Blum was obliged to vacate his own residence and studio on Jaffa Street in the Generali Building (named for the Italian insurance company that had built it). As a replacement, the Blum family received a flat on Ben-Yehuda Street while Ludwig was allocated a studio in Talitha Kumi – a nineteenth-century orphanage for girls on King George Street. This was to remain his studio for many years.

With a deep sense of commitment to the national cause, Blum continued lending his talents to major historic events after the war, including the first session of the Israeli parliament in February 1949, the reburial of Theodore Herzl's remains, brought from Vienna, in August 1949, or the gathering of the Twenty-Third Zionist Congress in Jerusalem in 1951.

In the 1950s Blum was among the first painters to visit the newly developing town of Eilat in the far south of the country, depicting the desert views surrounding it. He often visited the Sea of Galilee and painted scenes throughout the country.

The establishment of the State of Israeli brought with it not only pride and joy but also serious social and economic difficulties following the war and the mass immigration in its aftermath. In 1951 Israel suffered a severe economic crisis. For an artist like Ludwig Blum who was entirely dependent on sales of his paintings, this meant he had to travel abroad again, this time to the United States. At the end of September 1951, Ludwig and Dina Blum left for a long stay – over ten months – abroad. Much like in the 1920s and 1930s, Blum approached Jewish and Zionist organizations in New York and the East Coast to host an exhibition of his paintings. His efforts bore fruit, and exhibitions of his works were held in New York and Philadelphia. In Israel Blum's paintings were shown in a series of retrospective exhibitions at the Jerusalem Artists' House, an institution Blum had helped establish: the first in 1951, the next two in 1963 and 1967. The last exhibition was held in 1973, a year before Blum’s death on 28 July 1974.

A School of his Own

Ludwig Blum was a well-known and well-respected figure in Jerusalem society. His immaculate outfits, always with a bow-tie – whatever the weather – and brimmed hats (replaced by berets in his later life) are still remembered by those who knew him.  Blum was a self-conscious bourgeois, whose hobby was hunting, and whose political affiliation was the centrist party of the General Zionists. Blum was known as a socially pleasant, generous man, who donated money and paintings to charities and good causes. Blum’s public persona was a regular fixture in Jerusalem cafés. He was appreciated and loved by many. Blum's commitment to conveying the beauty of the land, and the effects of light he created with such virtuosity, attracted the general public. He is a "school" of his own, far from the struggles and bustle of the modern art scene. For this reason he was often seen as an artist of the past.

Yet Ludwig Blum, being a committed and ardent Zionist, was enchanted not only by the country's mythical past, but, no less so, by its present and future. More than any other artist of his generation, Blum depicted, in a vibrant and sensitive naturalistic manner, Israel’s ideals and achievements in “real-time”, from the pre-state agricultural settlements, to the War of Independence, state symbols, and industrial developments.

His works continue to be appreciated by many private collectors, garnering success in the art market. Their recognition by the contemporary artistic establishment has been slow in coming, beginning in the 1990s, when his works began to be accepted into museum collections and gradually displayed in group shows. A retrospective exhibition at Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv in 2009, which attracted thousands of visitors, increased interest in his work among the general public and among contemporary artists in Israel.

Dalia Manor

For the full biographical essay see: Dalia Manor, The Real and the Ideal: The Painting of Ludwig Blum, Tel Aviv: Beit Hatfutsot, The Museum of the Jewish People, 2009.

Citing this article: Manor, Dalia, "Ludwig Blum: His Life as an Artist," retrieved: [full date], [internet source]