The Rediscovery of a Yiddish Master Painter From Czernovitz

Collector Seeks To Reintroduce Isiu Schärf to the World

The Megile of Isiu Schärf: The artist was an acquaintance of the Yiddish writer Itzik Menger.
Courtesy of Haim Baron
The Megile of Isiu Schärf: The artist was an acquaintance of the Yiddish writer Itzik Menger.

By Julia M. Klein

Published July 11, 2013, issue of July 12, 2013.
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Schärf designed his first stage sets for the “Camelion Theatre” of Czernowitz in 1934-35 and exhibited with other young Jewish painters in that city in 1935-36. In 1939, with war looming, he illustrated a book of Yiddish lullabies.

The Barons say that Schärf ’s parents died in the Holocaust. Schärf fought in the Soviet Army during World War II and lived in the Ural region (which overlaps Siberia) afterward. The Barons have watercolors, titled “Ural” and dated from 1942 and 1943, depicting mountains, a marketplace and houses under construction.

From 1950 to 1962, Schärf reportedly designed over 50 productions for the Yiddish State Theatre of Jassy, Romania, as well as creating designs for a puppet theater and exhibiting his work. In the 1960s, he designed sets and costumes for the Yiddish State Theatre of Bucharest, another city where his artwork was exhibited.

According to Baron, his grandmother tried for years to bring Schärf, who was her brother’s son, to Israel. He finally emigrated with his wife and grown daughter, Karla, an engineer. Karla died in 2010.

Sari Baron says she has powerful memories of Schärf. “I remember him tall, thin, and always laughing — always a smile on his face,” she says. “The only thing he wanted was to paint. He didn’t care about money at all. He even smiled when he didn’t have food to eat. He was always happy, probably because he had all this art in him.”

In Israel, Haim Baron says, Schärf worked as a high school art teacher at a kibbutz and created more stage sets. Sari Baron says that Tel Aviv’s Emalia Arbel Gallery sponsored an exhibition of his work in a historical building in the Barons’ hometown of Rishon LeZion.

The Barons have hung Schärf’s work throughout their house, but much remains stored haphazardly in their basement, where they regularly discover new treasures.

Schärf’s landscapes and cityscapes from his years in Israel — Sari Baron’s favorites — employ a lighter palate than his earlier works and reflect Impressionist influences. By contrast, some of Schärf’s portraits are reminiscent of the work of Soutine and other Expressionists. Other paintings evoke Chagall’s whimsy and use of color. Some self-portraits are done with collage. One drawing shows Schärf with a long face, large ears and unruly hair. “I think he looked very Romanian,” Sari Baron says.

Schärf’s sense of humor emerges most clearly in his prints, including one whose Yiddish title is translated as “Gentile Heaven.” At its center is an enticing image of nude women and wine; on opposite sides, an Orthodox Jewish man and woman pretend to cover their eyes while sneaking peeks at the forbidden vision.

In addition to the Yiddish folkloric scenes, Haim Baron is partial to a semi-abstract, energetically colored work featuring several fish. “Even in the fish you can see some human expression,” he says.

The Barons say they wish they knew more about Schärf. “He didn’t have an easy life,” Sari Baron says. “We didn’t probably ask him the right questions. [After his death], we thought, ‘Why didn’t we ask more?’ The frustration is unbelievable.”

But now, in Schärf’s centenary year, they long most for importance and value of his work. “We want him to be discovered as an artist,” Haim Baron says.

Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.


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