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.”
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.