Ain’t Life a Bitch?

In an earlier post (A Painful State of Mind) I wrote about the early influences in my father’s life that might have had some bearing on his mental health. Now I’m going to write about things that happened in the 1960s that seemed to reinforce his misery and paranoid beliefs…

Bernie with beard, c 1960

My father Bernard Safran – the only time he ever grew a beard – it didn’t last long, c 1960

In 1965 my father Bernard Safran, was deep in the throes of depression and paranoia. Everyone and life in general, just seemed to conspire against him.

The last cover portrait my father painted for Time Magazine was of Fidel Castro in August 1965 – it ran in October of that year and was featured on a double page spread in the New York Times.

The only other commercial job he did during this period (1967) was a cover portrait of Jackie Kennedy for The Ladies Home Journal: a very high profile person on a very successful magazine. (my father had already done a number of portraits of the Kennedy’s for Time)

But when it was published, the editors decided to put the portrait inside the magazine instead of on the cover, and they reversed the image. This was unforgivable to him – everything looks ‘not right’ when a face is printed backwards – there are subtle differences between the features that we recognize unconsciously as normal but when they are reversed look wrong – a lower lid on one side, a difference in a nostril, and so on. Its also looks wrong because its not how the artist meant for the work to be seen – he’s already worked out the composition and the focal point, etc. for it to have the right visual impact.

He felt that Time had interfered and done this against him – he was convinced that he was blacklisted and he’d never work again.

When he left Time in 1965, he had no income coming in so we were living off my father’s savings. He took a chance and decided to join Portraits Inc. to try and get some “bread and butter” work.  Portraits Inc. is a large business that acts as an agent for portrait artists and provides commissions. My father was unable to get any work through them however, despite having been one of the most popular and lauded portrait artists in the country just months before. Again he believed that Time had interfered and this was just more proof to him that he’d been blacklisted.

Fitzgerald Gallery with Adele and Betty 1965

Fitzgerald Gallery with Adele and Betty 1965

In 1965 he had his first solo show at the Fitzgerald Gallery located at 718 Madison Avenue in NYC from November 9th – December 4th. The day before the opening, the art critic John Canaday of the New York Times came to review the show and met with my father at the gallery. He was very genial and appreciative of my father’s painterly abilities, but his published review the next day was devastating for my father – he said that he felt that my father had not fully integrated the figures into the scenes and that many people simply would not relate to the subject matter – a criticism, by the way, that my father had to agree with. After brooding over it for a while my father destroyed most of the paintings – representing several years of work.

But there’s more…. The Fitzgerald show opened at 5pm on November 9th, at just about the same time that the Great New York Blackout started: the entire northeast coast of the US and all the way up into Canada lost electrical power for about 12 hours.

christ on cross by Bernard Safran

Christ on the Cross by Bernard Safran (destroyed by artist) oil on masonite? dimensions unknown

New York City was completely shut down – no lights, no trains, no heat. Obviously, no one came that night for the opening – so my father and Ed Fitzgerald drank warm champagne and slept on the cold floor of the gallery all night until the trains were back up and my father could come home.

In 1968 the timing for my father’s second solo show at the Capricorn Gallery in Bethesda, Maryland (a suburb of Washington D.C.) was as terrible as for his first show in New York City. The Capricorn show was scheduled to open on April 5th, but the circumstances that arose were dreadful – just the day before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. The country was in shock over the murder, and within hours Washington, D.C. erupted into one of the worst riots in US history. The National Guard, US Marines and troops of the US Army were called in to restore order. Very few people ventured out of their homes for days. (my father was a great admirer of Dr. King for the record)

My father did sell works from both shows and continued to sell works through the Capricorn Gallery well into the 1970s but he never achieved the fame and money he’d enjoyed during his Time years.

Please consider, dear reader, that this was the 1960s and realist art was empirically treated with derision and disfavor during this period. Very few artists would do realist art at this time, and even fewer galleries sold their work. The Fitzgerald Gallery and Capricorn Gallery were rare on the East Coast of the US, in that they only showed representational art during this time. (Capricorn’s roster included such 20th century painters as Manon Cleary, Andrea Way, Peggy Bacon, Adolph Dehn, Audrey Flack, and Moses Soyer.)

One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth, 1963 MOMA collection

An example of Conceptual Art from the 1960s:
One and Three Chairs by Joseph Kosuth, 1963 MOMA collection

The 1960s is synonymous with the modernist movement in art – and every kind of modern art was being touted as the new big thing (Conceptual Art, Pop Art, Op Art, Color Field Painting, Performance Art, etc, etc,); this is the period that artists like Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein made it big.

By choosing to paint realistically, my father had chosen a very difficult path to follow and though he understood that it would be an uphill battle to be accepted by the critics – I don’t think he believed that it would be such a one-sided war. And worse, my father’s humanist point of view was considered by those in the know to be old fashioned at best – his personal vision just didn’t jive with what was in favor during his entire life.

Self Portrait by Bernard Safran, December 1960, oil on masonite, 9" x 11"

Self Portrait by Bernard Safran, December 1960, oil on masonite, 9″ x 11″

Its not an easy thing to be dismissed so readily, especially when what you are putting out there is part of your heart and soul. But the thing is – he had no choice – his art was what mattered most to him and he had to do it the way he felt it – not the way that would be fashionable – it had to be meaningful to him.

to be continued…

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