Thursday, April 10, 2008

Art Space Talk: Bernard Friendlich

Bernard Friendlich-- a veteran of WWII --has dedicated himself to his art for over seven decades. During that time he has focused on revealing the horror of war and the plight of social injustice through his art. Bernard describes his body of work over the last seven decades as "poetic realism". Bernard celebrated his 90th birthday in March of this year-- he continues to create art and explore new mediums. I would like to personally thank Bernard's daughter, Valerie Rush, for her assistance during this interview and for introducing me to his art.

Bernard with painting of FDR

Brian Sherwin: Bernard, you lived through the height of the Great Depression, several wars and conflicts, you've seen the best of society and the worst... what are your thoughts when you look back on those times and to the art that you have created during a span of over 70 years? Also, can you tell us about some of your early influences in art?

Bernard Friendlich: Beginning in my early teens, I witnessed evictions of my friends’ families due to loss of jobs. I also had an adored aunt who expressed strong political criticisms of President Hoover and great admiration for President Franklin Roosevelt. And so my early sketches of kids playing ball or mothers wheeling their babies in carriages eventually began to expand to include men constructing nearby buildings and others just trying to make a living and feed their families as my own social awareness matured.
Some years later, I read a magazine which introduced me to the "Ashcan" school of art. The unemployed artists had enlisted in Roosevelt ’s Workers Project Administration (WPA), where they had the freedom to depict realistic scenes of life. Not all of them were fine artists, yet they had a profound influence on the direction my art would take.
Holocaust by Bernard Friendlich

BS: According to your biography, as a young man, you had to turn down an art scholarship for financial reasons, and went instead into textile design, which limited your artistic scope. Can you tell our readers about those years and the choices you had to make in order to pursue your art?

BF: After graduating high school, I had to give up my art scholarship to Long Island University , in order to contribute to our family’s income. I was fortunate to find work in a commercial art studio, doing textile design. The salary of $75 per week was unusually high for the time and for my age, but I eventually realized that I was expected to bring in original designs by working every weekend at home. I soon found that all the studios in New York were the same.
Although I was very flattered at age seventeen to find my textile designs in such high demand, I began to realize, speaking to other artists, that I would never have time to pursue my own art. Thus, after three years in commercial art, I quit. Through family connections, I got a job and training as a marker-cutter in the men’s garment industry.
As a member of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union , I had a livable wage, security from lay-offs, and best of all, a hard-won 35-hour work week. The latter meant that I could get home by 5 pm, and had the time I needed to paint and sculpt. I worked in the garment industry as a cutter for nearly 40 years.

BS: Eventually, your young life was halted-- as many were --by a world war. During WWII you were drafted into the army. Are you able to talk about those years and how they influenced your artistic direction? In what way did you serve? How long? Did the war change your view of the world and of life? Did you continue to create art during the war years?

BF: Drafted into the army in 1943, I was sent first to England , and assigned as regimental camoufleur. In my free time, I painted small watercolors of the English countryside—scenes of pub life, thatched roof homes, and townspeople. Close to 100 paintings emerged from the small watercolor kit that went everywhere with me. Unfortunately, after we left England for France , many soldiers’ duffel bags were tossed from the trains by Frenchmen scrounging for canned goods and soap. Mine was among them. The few paintings I had sent home to my mother are all that survived from that period—I think some of them are in my gallery on the website.

After D-Day, I was reassigned to the Combat Engineers. The work was hard but fortunately, I neither killed nor saw much death, although the devastation of war surrounded me. After V-E Day, I was sent with a certain number of officers back to Germany for another year, as part of the decentralization of Germany into the four zones of US, Russian, English and French control. I returned home in 1946, feeling fortunate to have made it home safely, but I brought much of my hatred for war back with me.

BS: Did you find it difficult returning to the life you once had after the war? Did your art help you to make that transition?

BF: Returning to civilian life for both my brother and I was among the happiest moments of our lives—he to his wife, and me to meeting my future wife soon thereafter. She had just been discharged from the Women’s Army Corps, where she served in an army psychiatric hospital. We met through friends and discovered a compatibility in ideas and cultural interests that formed the foundation of our long and happy marriage. We recently celebrated our 61st wedding anniversary. She has made it possible for me to pursue my art without interruption—except for the great pleasure of fatherhood. We have two daughters and three granddaughters, all of them creative in their own unique ways.

Hiroshima -- Theme and Variations by Bernard Friendlich

BS: I've known many vets of WWII through the years-- my grandfather fought in several major battles during the war and I can remember his old war buddies visiting him when I was child --and they always seem to be marked by a degree of inner sadness-- I think soldiers in any war endure that. I understand that the holocaust and the loss of life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki affected you greatly. You eventually created paintings and sculptures that serve as a form of reminder of that specific loss of life. Would you say that you want your art to remind future generations not to allow the same mistakes? What is your message to the future? In giving that message do you find joy or hope?

BF: I have always been greatly affected by human suffering, especially when it is caused by callous greed and irreverence towards life. I believe that war has always been the greatest scourge of mankind and has often needed subterfuge and lies as well as false appeals to patriotism and religious fervor, to gain popular acceptance.

To depict aspects of the Holocaust was almost impossible for me, because the photographic images and documentaries were so vivid and compelling that a painting seemed too little and too late. I delayed attempting it for many years, but I finally overcame my reluctance.

As for Hiroshima and Nagasaki , I knew only a sculpture could begin to memorialize the horror of that event. This large sculpture of 350 lbs. was exhibited in the lobby of the Huntington Film Centre for three years, during the showing of "Black Rain," a Japanese film, the first ever allowed into this country depicting the physical condition of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki , and the fear and discrimination they faced. Whether people were fearful, ashamed or guilty, we never knew, but the sculpture never elicited the kind of responses we had hoped for. But there is a time for everything, and perhaps now is the time to face reality – and the past.
Future Mutation by Bernard Friendlich

BS: At 90 years of age, you are still painting, sculpting, and you enjoy a good game of chess. You hope to gain public exposure for your work. After communicating with your daughter I found out that you have had little opportunity to make the kinds of contacts, or finances, that a gallery showing would entail. I recently contacted a friend of mine who is an art curator at a war museum. I mentioned your art and we shall see how that goes. Would you be interested in an exhibit like that?

BF: Certainly I would like to have my art exhibited in such a setting, but I wish to be viewed not only as an anti-war artist, but as one who exposes the false illusions that afflict humankind.
Is it War? by Bernard Friendlich
BS: What have you been working on lately? Can you tell us about some of your recent creations?

BF: Over the past ten years, I’ve done some experimenting with mango pits, or kernels, making "talking heads" to express reflections on our times. Some are animals, tropical fish and birds, but many are people of all stripes. Some reflect humor and some social satire. They have been fun to do – they’re a kind of playtime for me.

More recently, last winter, I painted seven large oils depicting the effect of cruel policies on people’s lives. I hope to get their images uploaded to the website soon, but be forewarned --- they are not pretty scenes!
Mango Monkeys by Bernard Friendlich

BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about the life you have lived and your devotion to art?

BF: Well, I intend to continue creating new works of art for as long as I am able, as there is still much to say about this world of ours, and I hope to be able to influence youth to appreciate serious art. Thank you.

You can learn more about Bernard Friendlich by visiting his myartspace You can read more of my interviews by visiting the following page--

Take care, Stay true,

Brian Sherwin

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