Jewish Artist Who Once Called Chagall's Art 'Crappy' Finally Gets His Due

Retrospective and New Book Focus On Sam Szafran

A Feeling of Vertigo: Stairways are prominently featured in the work of the French Jewish artist Sam Szafran.
Courtesy of Gianadda Foundation
A Feeling of Vertigo: Stairways are prominently featured in the work of the French Jewish artist Sam Szafran.

By Benjamin Ivry

Published June 28, 2013, issue of June 28, 2013.
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As a teenager working as an office boy for the World Jewish Congress, he delivered papers to the home of the French Jewish author Edmond Fleg who introduced him to Marc Chagall. Szafran’s reaction to Chagall’s postwar creations? “If that’s what painting is, it’s crappy.” Only years later, after seeing Chagall’s designs for the Moscow State Yiddish Theater, did Szafran revise his opinion.

Nor did Szafran warm to the Romanian-born French-Israeli painter Avigdor Arikha, despite respecting his work: “I had more reservations about [Arikha’s] personality: He was humorless, and I am annoyed by Jews who lack humor.” Even Darius Milhaud, a mild-mannered and humorous French Jewish composer, received some sharp-tongued irony from Szafran, who in the early 1950s was working as a paid figure model for Daniel Milhaud, the composer’s son and a painter. When the elder Milhaud asked Szafran if he liked music, the teenage visitor replied, “Daniel plays your music for me, and I find that Bach, comparatively speaking, is a bit better.” Milhaud, known for his benevolence, simply replied, “Young man, if I’ve been able to help you like Bach, then I haven’t wasted my time.”

Szafran also enjoyed warm friendships, such as the one he had with Abraham Baratz, a Romanian French ceramist and former chess master who taught Szafran how to play chess. Chicago-born American Jewish artist Irving Petlin sublet his Paris studio to Szafran in 1968, when the latter began to seriously work out his subsequent aesthetic message. Szafran developed friendships with the author Emil Cioran, the photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and the artist Alberto Giacometti. Previously shy of interviews, Szafran accepted Veinstein’s offer of a sustained conversation, partly because he thought Veinstein’s elongated facial features resembled Giacometti’s; another attraction, according to Szafran, was that Veinstein had Polish Jewish roots, like his own. There the similarity ended, since Veinstein, born into a comfortable bourgeois household, survived the war in the Free Zone, unlike the working-class Szafrans, who experienced wartime travails and tragedy.

These experiences have had a lifelong impact on Szafran’s artistic destiny, compounded by his personal tendency to confront challenges of all kinds. In postwar Paris, where he appreciated novels by the notorious anti-Semite Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Szafran traveled to Céline’s home outside Paris and informed the writer: “Mr. Céline, I have one question for you: What did I ever do to you? I am Jewish.” Céline’s wife threw Szafran out of the house before the author could respond, but as in his probingly mysterious artworks, Szafran’s questions have always been more interesting than any answers they might elicit.

Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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