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…


I Did Make the Cut! (briefly)

In one of my first posts (Posing Old Testament Style) I bemoaned my lack of X factor while modeling, and believed that my disheveled appearance led my father to cover me up in a photographic shot in favor of my more distinguished mother and sister.

I also wrote that I didn’t know of any painting done from these reference shots – but Lo and Behold! …

Bernard Safran, the Fitzgerald Gallery show 1965, unknown title for painting with angel

Bernard Safran, exhibited at the Fitzgerald Gallery 1965, interior shot of installation

I found a photo taken at the Fitzgerald Gallery from my father’s first solo show in 1965 that shows a painting with this very group, including me, stunned by an angel appearing over us. My father is collapsed in shock in the foreground in front of my mother. I am still only a blob of hair – but there I am.

I cannot find a title for this painting or any other reference for it in any of the ledgers or papers of my father’s. So I am assuming that it was destroyed after the show, not sold.

If anyone can suggest what this is depicting I would really appreciate hearing from you – I have been trying to figure out what scene from the Old Testament this is of.

Its interesting to see the other pieces that were for sale in the same area. I know the existence of one of the drawings of the angel on the left wall, but again have no record of sales for the other drawings shown in the room. Perhaps they were gifted.

And… another wonderful surprise for me – I found a Kodachrome slide of a painting that I have to assume was destroyed, of myself and my sister based on that funny photo of me with my fly down. And here I thought I didn’t rate!

Bernard Safran, unknown painting c 1965

My sister and I in a painting, that as far as I can tell, did not go in the Fitzgerald Gallery show in 1965. So I guess I made the cut only so far as a painting was painted – it was probably destroyed by my father soon after it was created.

I guess my Dad did appreciate my unique style. I have no idea if this was painted to be a portrait of us two girls or it was meant to depict something else.

In any case, I am happy to find these last remaining images.

… to be truly accepted for who I am… not in spite of my personal style but because of it!

I will write more about the1965 show in upcoming posts. Stay tuned.

Posing Old Testament Style 1961-1965

As I mentioned in my earlier posts, my Dad was doing cover portraits for Time Magazine in the early 1960s (to see some of his Time portraits from 1957 –1966 go to And while he was working for Time, my father was also painting other works on his own time for himself. Many of these depicted Old Testament stories. So for the first few years of my life I saw friends, family and neighbors posing in my father’s studio and coming to Biblical life on his easel.

Betty Safran, 1964, for religious work

Trying to pose c. 1964

From what I can gather from his records, Dad probably started working on the series in 1961. These paintings went into his first solo show held at the Fitzgerald Gallery, located on Madison Avenue in Manhattan, in 1965. (I’ll be writing more in another post about the show of ’65.)

Here I am trying my hardest to pose seriously for some dramatic scene, and typically I am controlling myself yet typically cannot pull it off – note the way my sweater is sort of tucked in, my fly is open and I am wearing fuzzy socks. At least I have a noble (if not long suffering) expression on my face…

There is a series of photographs from this session – I offer two more of the shots here – so you can see how this photo shoot progressed to the final impressive image of my sister, mother and I looking in awe at some miracle…

…In the second shot my back is turned to the viewer and my dignified sister has joined me…

…In the third and last image from the series my mother is included, and I am reduced to a blob of hair in the back – no embarrassing open fly; no goofy expression…

Bernard Safran religious work reference material Betty

Bernard Safran reference photo for religious work c 1964The final painting that went in the Fitzgerald Gallery show, uses this last image with my head blob – I guess I just didn’t command enough presence to make the cut.

My paternal Grandfather posing as King Saul was one of the earliest paintings completed in this series.

Pop (as my father called his father), posed with a broom handle that in the painting serves as his mighty staff, and with a satin turban on his head that my paternal Grandmother made when turbans were a fashionable item in the 1940s or 1950s. Tiny Mama (which is what we called my paternal Grandmother on account of her being tiny) knew how to make fancy hats – she’d been a milliner in the early 20th century when she was a young girl and teenager. (It looks too, like Pop’s wearing my maternal Grandmother’s fur collared coat.)

King Saul 1961

King Saul by Bernard Safran, oil on masonite, 1961, 18″ x 28″

Despite my joking about the painting, if you really take time to look at – it is magnificent – beautifully and sensitively painted; a striking portrait of my Grandfather (and possibly King Saul).

Using props was just what the Old Masters did too – in fact most realist artists use 3D references when constructing a complex painting, and many have used photography or similar technologies* to establish composition and reference material.

The Angel and Mom034

My mother Adele assisting an angel

Bernard Safran reference photo c1964, Jacob and bloodied coat of many colors

Sinister Bernie Safran has just given Jacob the bloodied coat of many colors

Lastly, I’ve included a couple of shots of neighbors (and my father) posing in the studio of our house.  I especially like the picture of my mother and the angel.

*Note: My father used photographs as a tool – not as a crutch. His technique was very slow and time consuming and no one was prepared to pose in his studio for weeks or months while a painting was being created. For those of you interested in the more technical aspects of his work – I will be writing about all these things in the future.