Never heard of the artist Sam Szafran? You are not alone. Szafran (birth name: Berger) the subject of the exhibition “Sam Szafran: Obsessions of a Painter” at the Musée de l’Orangerie, was born in Paris in 1934, not an auspicious year for a child of Jewish immigrants from Poland. In 1942, when he was only seven years old, the occupying Nazis rounded up the city’s Jews and penned them up in the Vélodrome d’Hiver stadium pending shipment to concentration camps. Szafran managed to escape and spent most of the rest of the war hiding out with families in different parts of France. The Nazis eventually caught up with and imprisoned him, but luckily, the war soon came to an end, and he was liberated by American forces. His father and other family members, however, were killed in the camps.
After postwar sojourns in Switzerland and Australia, he returned in 1951 to Paris, where he supported himself through petty crime. He had always known he wanted to be an artist, however, and before long he was taking art classes and associating with avant-garde artists in Paris.
Did the traumas of his childhood influence the body of work he was to later produce? Who knows? But one thing is sure: Szafran remained a rebel. Throughout most of his career, he completely ignored art-world trends, painting figuratively when Abstract Expressionism was all the rage; continuing to paint when painting became completely outmoded; using pastels and watercolors (on silk), also out of favor; mostly ignoring the outside world as subject matter in favor of interiors and gardens; and freely messed with perspective (which he claimed he never learned).
As the exhibition’s subtitle indicates, Szafran was an obsessional artist who, when he became interested in a subject, depicted it over and over again. The first time I saw his paintings in a gallery a number of years ago, I was fascinated by his distorted depictions of indoor stairways, which lead to nowhere and have a dizzying effect on the viewer. His obsession with staircases apparently originated in a childhood memory of an uncle dangling him over a stairway and threatening to drop him – a viewer might also have a fear of falling into one of his drawings – as well as his memory of staircases as the turf of “gangs of kids.”
His staircases are deconstructed and put back together so that we see them as if from the point of view of “a spider that goes up and down on its thread in the stairwell and can see from above and below,” as he put it.
Seeing so many of these works, I noticed something I hadn’t before: while he seemed to be obsessed only with objects and places – not only stairways but also such interior spaces as print shops and his own studios and gardens – humans have not been totally left out of the picture. In almost every one of these images, if you look hard enough, you will find a human figure somewhere, sometimes tiny and sometimes quite obvious, as in the garden paintings, where his wife Lilette usually figures, providing relief from the otherwise all-over foliage.
Incredible attention to detail is another quality of Szafran’s work. Some paintings took him four years to finish. One can only marvel at the patience required for the foliage paintings, for example, in which every single leaf is delineated.
While Szafran was not unknown during his lifetime – many leading international museums own works by him – he had only one major exhibition, in 2013, at the Giannada Foundation in Martigny, Switzerland, which now has a permanent exhibition of Szafran’s works and a commissioned ceramic piece. The foundation’s website has a short film (in French) about Szafran, who died three years ago.
Don’t miss this rare show of the work of a unique artist, who was described by Henri Cartier-Bresson as being possessed of “dazzling madness.”
See our list of Current & Upcoming Exhibitions to find out what else is happening in the Paris art world.Favorite