The Fantastic World of Eugène Berman

Eugène Berman, Wardrobe, 1939. V&A.
 This extraordinary wardrobe, a gem in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, is the creation of Eugène Berman, Russian-born painter of Surrealist dreams and Baroque fantasies.

Berman is less known today than many other Surrealists, which is surprising, given his long and respected career. He was born in Russia in 1899, and he and his brother, Leonid (also an artist), were well travelled at an early age, thanks to a step-father who sent them to school in Switzerland, France and Germany.

Eugène Berman, View in Perspective of a Perfect Sunset, 1941. Source: PMA.
Eugène Berman, Ruins Of A Greek Temple At Sunset, 1962

The brothers fled the Russian Revolution in 1918, ending up in Paris where Eugène studied art with Pierre Bonnard, Eduard Vuillard and Felix Vallotton, all key figures in Post-impressionist France. In 1922 Berman made his first of many trips to Italy, where he fell in love with the architecture that was to appear in so many of his paintings.

Eugène Berman, Perspective of Columns at Paestum (detail), 1959-60

Berman's predilection for desolate landscapes populated by semi-ruined buildings, mysterious figures and setting suns led to his association with the Neo-Romantics, a group that included French painter/designer Christian Bérard and Russian Pavel Tchelitchew (another branch of Neo-Romanticism flourished in England in the 1930s and 40s - but that is another blog post.)

Poster for show at Julian Levy Gallery, 1936. Source
Moving to New York in 1935, Berman exhibited at the Julian Levy Gallery, an important venue for Surrealism that showed the work of such luminaries as Joseph Cornell, Salvador Dali, Frida Kahlo and Arshile Gorky. He also began designing for theatre, including sets for the Metropolitan Opera and collaborations with composer Igor Stravinsky and choreographer George Balanchine.

Eugène Berman, Don Giovanni - Tomb of Commendatore, 1957. Source

In the 1940s Berman moved to Los Angeles, where he continued to work for the theatre, but also to paint. Tragedy struck in 1955, when his wife, actress Ona Munson, took her own life. Perhaps it was this sad event that prompted his move to Italy, where he lived until his death in 1971.

Eugène Berman, Mirage, 1940. Source

Berman's work is in over fifty significant collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There's been but one retrospective of his work, High Drama: Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime, at the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio in 2005. We want more!

Biographical details from Sullivan Goss: An American Gallery and Sonia Brand-Fisher/Caldwell Gallery.