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Ben Berlin


Birds, Sky, Water and Grass

Casein on Fir-Tex board
36 x 30 x 2.5 in.
Gift of Kathryn C. Wanlass in memory of Ralph Page Wanlass

This painting, created a year before his death, serves as a summation of Ben Berlin’s life. An early progressive painter in Southern California, he explored cubism during the 1920s and early 1930s, then surrealism after 1935, largely through still lifes, a popular modernist idiom. He was encouraged by his friends Lorser Feitelson and Helen Lundeberg, founders of the group now known as Post-Surrealism. The contradictory term “still life” appealed to the surrealists because of their fascination with the irrational, and would have especially intrigued Berlin, whose personal activities and professional career were constantly interrupted, and unfortunately affected, by his addiction to alcohol. He often regained consciousness after a blackout to realize he had lost most of his possessions, including paintings. Consequently, very few of his works are known.

The overlapping rectangular passages in Birds, Sky, Water, and Grass may represent all that Berlin remembered of his lost canvases, scraps of memories that haunted. That would be in keeping with surrealist ideology, as it promoted the idea that thoughts and memories were hidden in the unconscious, and released into a person’s consciousness through dreams and drugs. Berlin depicted a beautiful sky full of buoyant clouds and accompanied by a pair of birds, rippling white ribbons suggestive of a nearby ocean, and ordered rows of eggs and blue mounds. Two larger birds, one almost in the center of the composition, seemingly soaring upward from a sack of eggs, echo the direction of the vertical rod that ends at a glowing white egg. The patches of canvas set against a rough background, possibly the bark of a tree, form a collage of sorts. Pablo Picasso’s collages had made the technique famous, while photographers and surrealists later adopted the tactic to investigate the nature of their environments and fragmented realities. Perhaps Berlin sought a more predictable and ordered life. Surely the numerous eggs in this painting, a constant trope of surrealism, echo his desire to re-create himself.

Ilene Susan Fort

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