The Artwork of Sam Szafran
Born in Paris in November of 1934 to Jewish-Polish immigrants, Sam Szafran holds a unique place in the art world of the latter twentieth-century. His work is known for its figurative and lyrical approach to reality which he developed in the seclusion of his studio.
Szafran grew up in the Quatier des Halles and had a particularly difficult childhood marked by the disasters of the second World War. During the war, he was hidden in the Loire Valley and southern France, and later in Switzerland. After returning to his mother in Paris in 1944, Szafran was captured by the Nazis and sent to a camp in Drancy, a commune in northeast Paris. Freed by the American forces, he left Europe and spent four years in Australia before returning to Paris in 1951. His traumatic life during the war years led Szafran to prefer solitude in which he focused on his own inner thoughts and sense of existence; this introspection gave rise to the prominent themes in his work.
Sam Szafran studied at the Atelier de la Grande Chaumière, located in the Montparnasse district of Paris, under French-American surrealist painter and engraver Henri Goetz. During the post-war period in France, Szafran became associated with painters and printmakers Jean Arp, Alberto Giacometti, and Yves Klein, a leading member of the French Nouveau New-Realism movement. He also became acquainted with photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and documentary photographer Martine Franck.
During his studies at the atelier, Szafran earliest works were in the field of abstraction. In the early 1960s, the discovery of the pastel became a significant event in his life. Since then, Szafran began using the chalks of Pastels Roché as the dominating technique in his work, either alone or in combination with charcoal or watercolor. At the same time, the themes of his work changed. Szafran’s obsession with mastering the technique of pastel led to numerous series of staircases, greenhouses with jungle-like interiors, and ateliers filled with materials. His work focused on figurative themes and the technical precision needed for pastel work, a style quite opposite the abstract and gestural work at that time.
Sam Szafran was an experimental artistic explorer. Throughout his career, he concentrated on a small range of subjects, most notably views of the interior of his studio and a staircase in a Rue de Seine apartment building. In Szafran’s staircase and room series, the viewer’s gaze is challenged by the distorted and deconstructed perspectives and enclosed places that are tightly sealed on themselves. For over fifty years, he produced what he called “feuillages” or studies of potted plants in interior spaces. These are watercolors depicting Szafran’s obsession with plants: their infinite interstices of leaves, aerial tendrils and luxuriant foliage.
In 1991, Sam Szafran received the Grand Prix des Arts de la Ville de Paris. He was awarded the 3rd Prix Piero Crommelynck in 2011. Sam Szafran passed away in September of 2019 and is buried in the Cimetière Parisian de Bagneux. Throughout much of Sam Szafran’s career, his work was acquired by a coterie of enthusiastic and devoted collectors. Prominent among these was the French-American businessman and collector William Louis-Dreyfus, who assembled an exceptional group of works by the artist that spanned several decades of his career.
Szafran’s work has been exhibited in many galleries throughout the years including Paris’s Galerie Claude Bernard, Galerie Jacques Kerchache, and Galerie Vallois. His work was shown at Caja Iberia in Saragosse, Spain in 1988; New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2004: the Musée d’Orsay in 2008; and the Max Ernst Museum in Brühl, Germany in 2010. Szafran’s work is housed in many public collections including that of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Top Insert Image: Sam Szafran, Untitled (Plants), 1986-1987, Watercolor on Paper, Page from Sketchbook, 73.7 x 47.6 cm, William louis-Dreyfus Foundation
Bottom Insert Image: Sam Szafran, “L’Atelier”, 2019, Lithograph in Colors, Edition of 80, Publisher Cornette de Saint-Cyr, 121 x 80 cm, Private Collection