Looking at Art

All in the Family

An exhibition pairs artworks by New York painter Nicole Eisenman and her great-grandmother, Esther Hamerman, a Polish-born folk artist

Esther Hamerman, Polish Village, ca. 1950s.

Growing up in suburban Scarsdale, New York, the painter Nicole Eisenman was greeted every day by visions of mingling city streets, mysterious Jewish ceremonies, and domestic interiors.

“They covered the walls,” says Eisenman of the whimsical paintings by her great-grandmother, Esther Hamerman, a prolific Polish-born folk artist who had numerous exhibitions in New York and California before her death 35 years ago.

Eisenman says she was not inspired by her progenitor as a young artist. However, she “came to appreciate the brilliance” of Hamerman’s densely patterned compositions, which interweave her memories of Eastern Europe and Trinidad with scenes of her adopted cities of New York and San Francisco. (Eisenman’s own crowded social-realist paintings swerve into similar territory.) So, when Daniel Belasco, curator at the Jewish Museum in New York, included Eisenman in a 2010 exhibition called “Shifting the Gaze: Painting and Feminism,” she did what any admiring great-granddaughter would do: “While I had his attention, I brought her up,” she says.

Belasco had not heard of Hamerman, but he was intrigued and went to see Eisenman’s parents’ collection. He then proposed a show on Hamerman and Eisenman to the Philadelphia Museum of Jewish Art, which had earlier invited him to organize an exhibition solely of Eisenman’s work. “It was fun to find ways to put together paintings and drawings by two very different members of the same family,” Belasco says. “Carnival City: The Wondrous World of Esther Hamerman,” on view through March 19, pairs 14 Hamerman paintings from the 1950s with five recent Eisenman drawings.

Hamerman’s life was as remarkable as her art. “She is a figure who is beloved and heroicized in my family,” says Eisenman, whose mother, Kay Eisenman, is the daughter of Jean Hamerman, Hamerman’s second daughter. Born in 1886, Esther Hamerman was one of 13 children in a Jewish family in Wieliczka, Poland. She married at 18, raised four girls, and helped her husband run a hat-supply business in Vienna.

When the Nazis annexed Austria, in 1938, the Hamermans and two of their daughters fled Vienna, landing in Trinidad, where they were interned by the British for six years. They were allowed to move to New York in 1944, and the ever-creative Hamerman was encouraged to paint by her daughter and son-in-law, Helen and Leonard Breger, who submitted her first painting to a juried exhibition at the ACA Galleries on 57th Street. It was accepted, and Hamerman’s career was launched.

In 1950, after the death of her husband, Hamerman moved in with the Bregers in San Francisco, where she spent her most productive years. A solo exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum established her as one of California’s most original self-taught artists. She returned to New York in 1963 to live with another daughter, Nadja Merino-Kalfel, also an artist, and died in 1977.

Belasco regards Hamerman as a leading practitioner of “memory painting” in postwar American folk art, alongside the likes of Grandma Moses. Eisenman, who has three Hamerman paintings in her home in Brooklyn, was thrilled to see her great-grandmother’s works in a gallery for the first time, having mainly seen them in her parents’ rather dark 1920s-era house. “I know all of those paintings very well, but they really come to life in a well-lit space.”

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