Sunday, January 21, 2018

Jacob Balgley: a forgotten contemporary of Chagall

Jacob Balgley, Rue à Jérusalem

How many of us have ever heard of Jacob Balgley, a direct contemporary of Marc Chagall? Not me, until I acquired a copy of Portrait de Jacob Balgley, written by his friend Claude Roger-Marx, and containing nine original etchings and four original drypoints. It was published in 1959, 25 years after the artist's death. The etchings and drypoints were printed on Vidalon wove paper by J.-J.-J. Rigal on the handpress of Mme Daragnès, and the book forms part of a series of hommages to various artists published by Manuel Bruker, variously with the title Portrait de, Éloge de, Visite à, or Tombeau de So-and-so. Each was published in an edition of 200 copies, the first 20 usually with an additional suite of the prints in the book. In the case of Portrait de Jacob Balgley, all of the books also had 9 additional prints loosely inserted at the back, four wonderful etchings and five rather pedestrian drypoints. Balgley seems to be a very interesting instance of a talented artist who has been forgotten both because of the vagaries of fortune but also because he simply wasn't interested in worldly success. You would think from the etching above, Rue à Jérusalem, that Balgley, like Chagall, loved life and its sensual pleasures, but actually he seems to have been a morose and austere character. The joyous dancing and music in this etching probably reflect his delight at achieving his lifetime dream of visiting Jerusalem; it's an image full of movement and life, and I'm sorry that it is slightly too large for my scanner, so has been a bit clipped at the sides.

Jacob Balgley, Musiciens

The painter and printmaker Jacob Balgley was born in Brest-Litovsk (now Brest), in Belarus, in 1891. Balgley's father was a rabbi, and he was brought up as an Orthodox Jew. Like Chagall, his almost direct contemporary, Balgley often took inspiration from the Bible. After studying in a yeshiva, Balgley began painting icons, his first artistic practice. 

Jacob Balgley, À la fontaine

After briefly studying medicine in St Petersburg and architecture in Odessa, Balgley moved to Paris in 1911 to continue his architectural studies at the École des Beaux-Arts, and settled in the artistic quarter of Montparnasse, where he rubbed shoulders with Chagall, Soutine, and Modigliani. But Balgley was never part of any group and had no interest in the ambitions and rivalries of his fellow-artists, whom he apparently referred to as "microbes". 

Jacob Balgley, Lecture de la Bible
Etching (double page with central fold)

In his Portrait de Jacob Balgley, Claude Roger-Marx says that Balgley "lived in a dream", was only interested in the interior world, and only aspired to the eternal. He had the demeanour of a suffering prophet.

Jacob Balgley, Cabbaliste en prière

As an artist, Jacob Balgley was essentially self-taught. In etching, he took Rembrandt and Dürer as his models. He had his own printing press, and from 1918 printed and published a series of print portfolios: Seize eaux-fortes, Anciennes et Nouvelles Prédictions, La Guerre et la Paix, Premiers essais pour sept études, Études inachevées, and Sept paysages.

Jacob Balgley, Famille en lecture

In 1920, Jacob Balgley met his future wife, Alice Kerfers, a student at the École des Arts Décoratifs, and she introduced him to the austere spiritual beauties of her native Brittany. In 1924 he took French nationality. He had his first and only solo exhibition in the same year, and although Roger-Marx says he never involved himself in the Salons, Bénézit lists him as having exhibited at the Salon d'Automne. 

Jacob Balgley, Untitled (Fishermen)

In 1925, Balgley and Kerfers travelled to Italy, Syria, and Palestine, a long-held dream curtailed by a nervous breakdown.

Jacob Balgley, Untitled (Rider)

Jacob Balgley seems to have had a very difficult and morose character, living an ascetic life in extreme poverty, "living like a fugitive, proud of his misfortune". 

Jacob Balgley, Untitled (Bicyclist)

The promising career of Jacob Balgley was cut short when he died in Paris in 1934 at the age of 43, from a heart attack (although he volunteered to enlist in 1914, he was rejected because of already apparent heart problems). 

Jacob Balgley, Untitled (Family under apple tree)

Claude Roger-Marx, who knew him well, writes in Portrait de Jacob Balgley that he died "a victim of his time, dead from having aimed too high, dead of pride and loneliness, incomprehensible to himself and to his relatives and friends."

Jacob Balgley, Untitled (Girl approaching farmhouse)

Although Jacob Balgley has been practically forgotten, unlike those "microbes" Chagall, Soutine, and Modigliani, since his death a number of retrospective exhibitions have been held of his work: in 1939 at Galerie Marcel Guiot, in 1955 at Galerie Marcel Bernheim, in 1974 at the Mairie du 1 Arrondissement, in 1982 at Cimaise de Paris, and in 1983 at the Centre Juif d'Art et de Culture.