In 2002, during a visit to his native Israel, Haim Baron’s mother urged him to buy one of his cousin Isiu Schärf’s artworks. Baron had seen some of Schärf’s work before in the apartment of his maternal grandmother, Schärf’s aunt, who had sponsored the artist’s emigration from Romania to Israel in 1974. And Baron and his wife Sari had received a painting from Schärf as a wedding gift.
Baron went to the home of the late artist’s daughter Karla, who had stored his work in a locked room in the modest two-room apartment where Schärf and her mother had lived. It was located on the third floor of a row house in Rehovot, Israel, a few miles from Tel Aviv, Baron says. A tenant rented the other room.
“We set an appointment,” Baron recalled in an interview at his Tudor-style home outside Philadelphia. “The apartment was totally dark, the shutters were down. When she turned the lights on, I saw shelves packed with cardboard files. I couldn’t even move inside. I was looking through one of them, and I liked every single picture. I didn’t know what to do.”
Schärf’s works encompassed a range of styles, subjects and media: Expressionist-influenced portraits, Impressionist landscapes, collages and ink drawings, prints and paintings based on motifs and scenes in Yiddish literature. These last were Baron’s favorites.
Noting his indecision, Karla offered to give him three paintings if he bought just one.
“I told her, ‘Karla, I’d like to buy the whole collection’ — just out of the blue. She said, ‘Really? I need the room. I need to empty the house.’”
And, so, for a few thousand dollars, it was done: Baron, a 64-year-old architect specializing in kitchen and bathroom design, and his wife Sari, who manages their Ardmore, Pennsylvania, showroom, became the owners of some 600 works by a Romanian-Jewish artist who had known the Yiddish writer Itzik Manger and whose life spanned the cataclysms of the 20th century.
Isiu (short for Isidore) Schärf was born a century ago, in 1913, in Czernovitz, a town that passed from the Austro-Hungarian Empire to Romania to present-day Ukraine. “Not much later began to paint, neither better nor worse than others of that period,” he wrote, according to an introduction to an album of his work assembled in 1969 in Rehovot. The album included images inspired by the work of Sholem Aleichem and I.L. Peretz, among others.
“His art has to do with Judaism,” says Baron, “and it has to do with the human spirit, and it has to do with the Jewish struggle. It has a very mysterious quality, and he was deeply involved, rooted, in the Jewish Diaspora culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and a lot of these artworks are related to the literature of the various Yiddish poets and authors.”