Eugene Gustavovitch Berman was born in 1899 in St. Petersburg, Russia (Leningrad). His father died when Berman was seven years old and his mother remarried a wealthy banker and art collector, who took on the education of both Eugene and his brother Leonid. When the brothers were quite young their stepfather sent them to Germany, Switzerland, and France to study art. Upon their return they began to study formally with P.S. Naumoff, an esteemed Russian realist painter. In 1918 the Berman family fled Russia to escape the Bolshevik Revolution. They moved to Paris where Berman studied art at the Académie Ranson.
Of his teachers in Paris Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard were two of the greatest influences on his work. Both Bonnard and Vuillard belonged to a school of art called Les Nabis, which is a post-Impressionist movement that would later become Syntheticism. It was also at this time that he was studying with Emilio Terry, the architect who launched the “Louis XVII” architectural style that combined different historical aesthetic styles in a dreamlike manner. It was with Terry that Berman first traveled to Italy, where he gained inspiration from the Baroque architecture of Giovanni Guercino, and painters such as Lorenzo Bernini, Giovanni Tiepolo, and Francesco Guardi. At this time Berman’s work began to take on a decidedly Romantic quality, while still retaining its sensitivity towards the fallibility of life and European civilization. Berman’s first group exhibition was a show at the Durer Gallery in Paris featuring the “Neo-Romantics”. The success from this first exhibition led to his first solo show at the Galerie l’Etoile. His paintings were lauded for their fantastical nature, and eventually provided him with the opportunity to move to the United States.
In 1932 Berman was offered an exhibition at the Julian Levy Gallery in New York. Levy and Berman had met in Paris, and Levy had expressed an interest in Neo-Romanticism, as well as Surrealism. Berman often combined the two styles in his imaginary landscapes, which depicted architectural forms in vast and deserted vistas alongside romanticized figures that allude to classical figural studies. His scenes provided a visual commentary on the decay of the modern world, which he portrayed as being in ruins. Berman moved to the United States in 1935 and continued to exhibit in Levy’s gallery. Established as a painter Berman began turning his artistic abilities to other endeavors include covers for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Town and Country. He further broadened his artistic repertoire when he began to design stage sets for the Hartford Music festival. He combined his talent for set design with his love of architecture and created sets for several ballet companies and the Metropolitan Opera. Many of his theatrical projects brought him into collaboration with Igor Stravinsky. Berman continued to design theatrical sets for The Metropolitan Opera up until the late 1950s, and for Stravinsky until 1966. Meanwhile, his paintings continued to gain sizable recognition in several group exhibitions as well as a solo exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Berman’s success as a set designer did not diminish his passion for painting. He spent much of his time traveling in Europe and the United States, finding a particular affinity for California and the Southwest. He settled in Hollywood, California in the early 1940s. In 1947 Berman was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for a tour of the Southwest, where he studied the desert landscapes. He found a strong correlation between the vast, often bare landscapes he had been painting from his imagination and the flat, dry lands of Arizona and New Mexico. The loneliness and isolation Berman often expressed in his works lay out before him in the arid southwest. He combined these landscape studies from his fellowship with the theatricality of Hollywood to create new commentaries on materialism, fame, and the gaps in post-war prosperity. He still maintained his signature element of Neo-Romanticism, which was a departure from many of his contemporaries who were working with abstract Cubism and Futurism. Several of the paintings that came out of his southwest trip were shown at an exhibit at the Knoedler Gallery in New York.
In 1949 Berman married film actress, Ona Munson, most famously known for her portrayal of Belle Watling in Gone With the Wind. The same year, Berman received another Guggenheim fellowship, and the couple traveled to Mexico together. He continued to draw inspiration from the Southwest, all the while maintaining the visual continuity of Greco-Roman ruins. Berman traveled to Italy with Munson in 1950 to see some of his paintings that were in galleries alongside the works of Salvador Dali and Marcel Duchamp. The international appeal of his work was one of the many factors that contributed to his lifelong success. His classical imagery and architecture combined with the surrealist elements and Baroque shapes made his works very popular with a broad audience. His stage designs brought his unique way of seeing the world to a larger scale as well as to a new audience.
The end of Berman’s life and career can be marked by both success and sadness. Upon returning to the United States, he continued his work designing theater sets and painting. In 1955, Ona Munson committed suicide in the couple’s New York apartment. The loss of his wife devastated Berman, who was in the process of publishing a book of drawings and writings on his time in Italy. OnceImaginary Promenades in Italy was published Berman left the United States to settle permanently in Rome. In 1962 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Thereafter he only returned to the United States to renew his citizenship or to design the sets for Stravinsky’s chamber opera ballet, Renard. Berman spent the last few years of his life traveling through Egypt and Libya. In 1972 he passed away in Rome. A retrospective entitled “High Drama: Eugene Berman and the Legacy of the Melancholic Sublime” was held at the McNay Art Museum in 2005. This show gave viewers an opportunity to see into the unique world he had created through his perspective of sorrow softened by whimsy. Eugene Berman’s style set the stage for modern audiences to examine the human condition.
Written and compiled by Sonia Brand-Fisher