Sarai and the buffalo

Artist Sarai Sherman and Il Bisonte Gallery

Jane Fortune
January 31, 2013

Florence's Il Bisonte Gallery's viewable collection of lithographs boasts several top names in twentieth-century art. Visitors to the gallery are welcome to stop into its pleasant, wood-floored room, with its walls lined with racks of signed, poster-sized lithographs. Among the artists featured are Italian Pop Art exponent Titina Maselli, abstract sculptor Giò Pomodoro and contemporary etching artist and professor Swietlan Kraczyna. The collection also showcases works by an American painter and sculptor Sarai Sherman. In a recent interview, the 90-year-old artist recalled her Italian experience-and more.


The gallery is located in the ancient stables of Palazzo Serristori, just steps from Porta San Niccolò on the 'artisan's side' of the Arno. It was founded in 1959 as an art printing house when Maria Luisa Guiata, a Florentine partisan and multimedia artist, joined forces with several of the city's top artists and intellectuals. Their project later grew to include a rigorously traditional graphic art school, a library and cultural center.


Il Bison ('the buffalo'), one of the earliest Neanderthal images found carved inside caves, still seems a fitting emblem for this cultural stronghold in Florence, where international master artists lead hands-on workshop-style classes for an equally international population of up-and-coming artists committed to preserving traditional engraving and manual printing techniques in a world monopolized by mass-produced 'virtual' graphics.                    


Today the gallery's masters teach in the shadow of Pablo Picasso's sole Italian lithograph, created there in 1960, and seek inspiration in the works of Henry Moore, who produced 14 etchings during his post-flood visit to the then-printing house in 1967. Sarai Sherman's evocative Batman, Peace and Doves is another of Il Bisonte's most notable lithographs, showcasing the artist's life-long ability to combine social protest and ironic wit. In a recent phone interview, we asked Sherman what social themes have most deeply influenced her works. She responded with the frankness you might expect from a no-nonsense woman whose creative journey has lasted nearly eight decades: 'That's a complicated question. That's a question you can't answer just like that!'


Indeed. Especially for a painter, sculptor, ceramist and printmaker whose works find inspiration across history, from the protagonists of ancient Greek tragedy to the icons of rock 'n roll. Her works from the 1960s are a formidable example. Sherman experimented with colored intaglio prints, in which images are created by cutting, carving or engraving a flat surface. Folk Rock Blues and Flower Children (1969) is a series of nine such works that celebrates the era's music. She primarily spotlights Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin, while artistically integrating lyrics by the Beatles and Donovan. In 1964, she created a series of seven lithographs called The Bacchantes, inspired by Euripides' tragic play by the same name. Representing a fiery struggle, possibly human, possibly divine, they are among Il Bisonte's collection of bright, hand-printed works, the products of more than 300 guest artists over the decades.


Sherman's Italian experience began in 1952, when a Fulbright Scholarship allowed her to travel to Umbria and Rome. 'In Italy I mostly painted,' she remembers. 'I took a lot of my inspiration from the southern part of the country and spent considerable time painting people. Their lifestyle was different from what I was used to, and they were always curious about my art.'


Four decades after her first sojourn in Italy, Sherman spent two years creating frescos on the walls and altar of the Guzzetti Chapel, originally an eighteenth-century barn at Cortona's Villa delle Contesse. (For a three-dimensional fold-out reproduction of the works, see Roland Bellini's 1995 Camera Picta: Sarai Sherman.) On canvas, her subjects are often blurred, distorted and unrealistic, as with Icarus (1963), an oil painting inspired by the mythical boy's fatal flight. Encouraged by Carlo Ludovico Ragghianti, one of Il Bisonte's founding members and the author of a monograph on Sherman's work, she donated this as-yet-un-exhibited painting to the city of Florence as a consolation for the art it had lost after the 1966 flood. A majolica sculpture, Torso (1980), is on display in Il Bisonte's 4,500-volume art library. 


Stateside, Sherman's public works include 13 paintings at the Hirschorn Museum in Washington, DC (not currently on view), and, in New York, two paintings at the Whitney and her famous cascin and oil on canvas, Bear Cat (1959), at the Museum of Modern Art.


While discussing her most recent work, Sherman reveals her ever-revolutionary spirit. ?Right now, I'm in New York working on a canvas called Poison Plants,' she explains. 'It's a combination of mushrooms and helmets for war. I'm using classical oil paints-black, white, brown, and a shade of green like the kind used for military uniforms. It's very large. What I am doing today is related to the soldiers who are dying endlessly in central Europe.'


The theme seems apropos. Protest, social conflict and change have always been guiding forces in Sherman's art. When asked how she became an artist, Sherman answers with a regal sort of gumption that befits a woman whose first name means 'princess' in Hebrew: 'I don't know how I started. I just started.'


And since that fateful day she has yet to stop. 'I like painting and sculpture equally well,' the artist explains. 'But these days, I only paint.'


Sherman is unstoppable. Ninety years old, forever an artist.


Sarai Sherman earned a bachelor of fine arts in education at Tyler School of Fine Arts, Temple University in Philadelphia and studied under Russian sculptor, Boris Blai (1893-1985), who had apprenticed under Auguste Rodin. After five years at Tyler, she went to the State University of Iowa, Iowa City, where she earned a master's in painting and art history. Sherman has won many international awards, including the Proctor Prize from New York's National Academy of Design (1964), the Childe Hassam Prize (1970), and a variety of awards in Italy, among them the Marzotto Prize (1967). She was elected to the National Academy of Design in 1999.

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