Sam Borenstein worked from the heart

SHELDON KIRSHNER
CANADIAN JEWISH NEWS
Dec 16, 1999. Vol. 29, Iss. 49, p. 11

As a young, aspiring reporter in Montreal in 1964, one of my first stories was about Sam Borenstein, the iconoclastic painter.

After the piece appeared in the Westward News, the now-defunct weekly owned and edited by a rambunctious Irishman named John O’Meara, Borenstein gratefully gave me a print of one of his seething expressionistic landscapes of the Quebec countryside.

Painted in Piedmont on Jan. 10, 1961, it is a typical Borenstein canvas, an explosion of vivid red, blue and white brushstrokes. It is a winter scene of bare trees, two simple cottages and a river partially coated in snow. Inexorably drawn to its simplicity and its robustness, I had it framed. Thirty-five years on, the print still hangs in my house, a constant reminder of an artist who marched to no one’s rhythm but his own.

When I met Borenstein, a kindly and solicitous person who apparently could be mercurial, unpredictable and volatile, he was at the height of his creative powers, and had already succeeded in making something of an impression on Canada’s artistic community.

Now, three decades on, his work can be found in major museums across Canada and in the United States — the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery in Ottawa, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Musee du Quebec, the Hamilton Museum of Fine Arts, and the Hirschhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.

But even 20 years ago, Borenstein was something of a force in the art world. Such was his reputation that, in 1978, William Kuhns and Leo Rosshandler published Sam Borenstein, a lavishly-illustrated coffee-table book in his honour.

Yet, 30 years after his untimely death, it is debatable whether he has received the recognition he deserves. As art dealer and friend Walter Klinkhoff has observed, Borenstein occupies “a small place in Canadian art history.”

Best known for his Laurentian landscapes, flower studies and portraits Borenstein did not attain the fame he sought, probably because his flamboyant and emotionally-charged style was at variance with the conservative and reserved tastes of Montreal collectors.

As Klinkhoff put it: “Evidently, Borenstein was out of step. Emotion was to be recollected in tranquility, reason was to prevail over passion … if an artist’s production was to be accepted as Canadian in form and spirit. Borenstein’s paintings … do not qualify under these terms. If anything, they are on a collision course with the idyllic renderings of landscapes developed in Canada, following the practice set and the lead given by the Group of Seven.”

Influenced by van Gogh and Soutine, Borenstein was a painter of “wrenchingly strong colors and writhing shapes,” as critic Lawrence Sabbath has noted. He worked from the heart and was totally dedicated to his craft, even when he could not make a living from it.

Borenstein barely scraped by, doing what he could to support his beloved wife Judith and their three children, Norman, Maxine and Joyce (a Montreal filmmaker whose sensitive documentary, The Colors of My Father: A Portrait of Sam Borenstein, won a Genie and was nominated for an Academy Award). He sold antiques. He drove a taxi. At one point, Judith was the breadwinner.

Born in 1908 in Kalvaria, Lithuania, Borenstein was the son of a rabbinic scholar whose wife died of influenza in 1918, the year of the great plague. The family immigrated to Canada in 1921 by way of Danzig and Liverpool.

Dropping out of school, Borenstein toiled in a garment factory and learned to be a cutter. Not cut out for the shmatta business, he enrolled in art classes at the Monument National. Often, he spent his days sketching on Mount Royal or St. Helen’s Island.

In 1938, he met Judith, who sustained him through years of rejection and disappointment. She was a lifelong admirer, being impressed by the honesty and spontaneity of his paintings.

They spent summers in an old school house in the Laurentians, and in winter, he could be seen with a palette painting street scenes of Montreal.

Klinkhoff, a fan, gave Borenstein his first solo exhibition in 1958, and a second one in 1961. Sir George Williams University (Concordia) mounted a Borenstein retrospective in 1966.

Borenstein had many years left when he succumbed to cancer. He died on Dec. 15, 1969, two days after being admitted to the Jewish General Hospital,

Thirty years later, he is fondly remembered by those who had the fortune to meet him. “He was a kind of magician,” says Joyce Borenstein. “He could transform a country village into a painting blazing with color.”

Need one say more?

Copyright © Canadian Jewish News

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