Zarfin (1899-1975), Painter of the École de Paris, Member of the Paris School, His Life and Career, and the Current Status of his Œuvre

Schraga Faibich Zarfin (1899-1975), whose first name is sometimes cited as “Sam”, was born of a well-to-do family in Smilovitchi, a village near Minsk in Belorusse. Smilovitchi was also the birthplace of Chaïm Soutine in 1893; the two painters would meet up in Paris. Schraga Zarfin’s father was a tanner and wood merchant, and like many of his fellow villagers, a cultured man who took pleasure in reading Turgenev and Tolstoy. In 1913, Schraga Zarfin enrolled in the Art School of Vilna (Vilnius). A photo published by Maïté Vallès-Bled in the catalogue of the l989 Soutine exhibition organized by the Museum in Chartres shows him in 1913 or 1914 with Kikoïne.

In 1914, Zarfin emigrated to Palestine where he lived the difficult life of a pioneer. He joined the British Army in 1918 and attended officers’ school, remaining in the military until 1920. While still a soldier, however, he realized the path his life would take: having studied art both in Vilnius and Jerusalem (Beçal’el, in approximately 1916), he took part in a 1920 exhibition organized by the mayor of Jerusalem. His style at the time was akin to fauvism. He received further training with Max Liebermann in Berlin, where he participated in the 1923 Salon “Berliner Sezession”, and moved to Paris in 1924, where he continued to grow as an artist.

Between 1925 and 1927, then again in 1930, 1933, 1937 and 1940, he participated regularly in the Salon des Indépendants (cf. Nadine Nieszawer, Les peintres juifs à Paris [Jewish Painters in Paris], Paris, Denoël, 2000) and the exhibition catalogues of the Kandinski Library in the Pompidou Center in Paris. Zarfin married in 1929 and in 1931 obtained French citizenship. He moved to the Parisian suburb of Viroflay in 1932, then moved back to Paris in 1935. In 1936, he renewed contact with Soutine when the latter visited him in his apartment near the Parc Montsouris. During these years, Zarfin worked as a fabric designer in order to support his family: between 1933 and 1938, he created many fabric designs for a company founded by the Bessarabian painter Olga Olbi. The archives of Olbi’s company, including many Zarfin designs, were recently discovered by Edmond Rosenfeld, director of the Oréades Galleries with branches in Paris, Toulouse, Luchon and Moscow. During these years, Zarfin also continued to work at what he considered his true calling, as he recounted to the critic Henri Hertz (Zarfin, Geneva : Éditions Pierre Cailler, 1963, p. 104). Soutine, who expressed a keen appreciation for the paintings Zarfin produced in the 1930s, advised him to focus on his art.

Zarfin was mobilized in 1939, and at the end of 1939 or in early 1940, was paid by the Beaux-Arts some 2,000 francs for an album of drawings he had completed in the army. After the Armistice, Zarfin returned to his family in the provinces; they moved to safety in Brive, then to Lyons where they had relatives. During their absence, their landlord in Paris totally emptied their apartment (37, avenue Reille, in the 14th arrondissement), resulting in the loss of a number of Zarfin’s works and papers, thus explaining the sparse documentation of his work prior to 1940. What is certain is that between 1925 and 1940, Zarfin participated in the Salon des Indépendants, where his works sold for between 700 and 2,500 francs in the earlier years and between 3,500 and 5,000 francs later on. It is estimated that some 300 of his creations, including oil and watercolor paintings, drawings, gouaches and red-chalk drawings, were lost during the Occupation.

Zarfin continued his work in Lyon without declaring his Jewish identity, and before the occupation of the « free zone » and the stepped-up persecutions forced him into hiding in the Grenoble region. He participated in a number of shows in 1941 and 1942, exhibiting at the Notre-Dame Gallery in Grenoble in Nov. 1941, at the Foyer des Artists in Lyons in March 1942, and at the Folklore Gallery in that same city in July 1942. During this period, he worked predominantly with gouache, a medium he would experiment with later, combining it with oil. André Farcy (Pierre Andry-Farcy), Director of the Museum in Grenoble responsible for the first of the aforementioned exhibits, as well as other critics, expressed a high regard for Zarfin’s style. A critic for Le Temps wrote that Zarfin’s paintings treat landscapes, flowers and figures « with a fervent lyricism that seems to lift them out of nature and place them in a dream-like universe that is often bitter and violent, where lines are wild arabesques and colors the product of a subtle alchemy (Le Temps, July 11, 1942). After the Liberation, Zarfin’s mounted a one-man show in Grenoble.

He moved back to the Paris region at the end of the War in 1945, and in 1947 settled in Rosny-sous-Bois. The following years were particularly difficult, since he had lost all his possessions during the war. Nonetheless, he was now able to paint full-time thanks to help from his American cousins, the Dabeks and Frieds, as well as from various associations and fellow artists who gave him supplies. In 1950, he went to Normandy to paint at Honfleur, where he was to return several times in later years. He also made several trips to areas outside of Paris.

At around this time, Zarfin’s palette underwent a significant change, with his colors growing thicker. He paid numerous visits to his daugher and son-in-law in the Montpellier region in the early 1960s, and between 1963 and 1970 made several trips to the Finistère, then after 1970 to Savoie. Shunning the center stage, he nevertheless participated in a number of group shows, and in 1955 won a prize of 5,000 francs from the city of Montreuil. He was in constant contact with other painters from the Paris school : Aberdam, Antcher, Garfinkiel, Kikoïne, Kolnik, Krémègne and Pressmane, and with the sculptors Constant and Tamari. In December 1950, Henri Hertz published an important article on him in the journal Europe. The psychoanalyst Ernest Frankel wrote a controversial interpretation of Zarfin’s work that was strongly criticized by W. von Weisl in a number of articles published around 1958. In November 1954, the General Administration of Arts and Letters (Direction générale des arts et lettres) bought one of his landscapes for 25,000 francs. At around the same date, Helena Rubinstein and Alix de Rothschild acquired a number of his works. The art theorist Étienne Souriau, Professor at the Sorbonne, highlighted Zarfin’s works in a course titled “The Human Condition as see through Art” [La condition humaine vue à travers l’art] Paris : CDU, 1955 ; see also Souriau’s preface to the monograph titled Zarfin [1963] mentioned above. In 1958, the Jewish Museum in New York acquired and exhibited two of his works. During that same year, some thirty of Zarfin’s works were exhibted in Paris, at the Maison des intellectuels under the direction of Irénée Mauguet.

During the 1950s and 1960s, several collectors acquired a considerable number of Zarfin’s works, including Simon Spund (Paris), Imré Haas-Pollatsek (Fontenay-sous-Bois), Jeannine Ancelle (Rosny) and especially Paul Rempenault (Villemonble), who purchased some 90 paintings and gouaches. After the Second World War, several of Zarfin’s paintings crossed the Atlantic, destined for American but also Canadian collections.

Ernest Fraenkel’s 1963 study of Zarfin’s work published by Pierre Cailler in Geneva in 1963 included a number of perspectives on Zarfin by critics such as Jean Cassou, Etienne Souriau and Waldemar George. Fraenkel’s book was received by numerous critics. In 1964, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford exhibited seven Zarfin canvases and twelve gouaches. In 1966, the château of Laversine, near Creil, organized an exhibit of his works to celebrate a lithograph made from one of his paintings for the benefit of the Association of Children’s homes. Another Zarfin exhibit was organized in Laversine in 1970 ; both were reviewed in the press. In 1971, following the shows in Saint-Denis and Montreuil, Zarfin was one of the artists featured (18 paintings) alongside Bourdelle and Mauduit in an exhibit mounted by the municipality of Rosny-sous-Bois, where he was residing. In 1975, the year of his death, a few of his canvases were shown in a Paris gallery, and the municipality of Montreuil mounted a posthumous exhibit.

In the years following, large exhibits of his works were organized in the south of France: in Montpellier (Galerie du Fou, 1980) ; Lunel (Salle Louis-Feuillade, Nov.-Dec. 1981, approximately 100 works) ; Montpellier again in 1984, followed by Sète and Béziers (UFOLEA Salon, 1984). Each show met with favorable press reviews. During this same period, six of Zarfin’s works were shown in Quebec (Bilan de l’art contemporain [The Contemporary Art Scene] Dec. 1980-Jan. 1981) ; a Zarfin retrospective was featured in the Mitry-Mory Spring Salon in May, 1981, and his works were regularly exhibited in the Fall Salons in Issoudun between 1982 and 1984. Between 1982 and 1991, Zarfin was regularly included in annual exhibitions of the Association of Jewish Artists, Painters and Sculptors in France (APSJF), and in 1987, the Atlante Gallery in Paris (3e arrondissement) exhibited a number of his canvases. That same year, the APSJF donated one of Zarfin’s works to the Bat-Yam Museum in Israel, where it was put on display.

From 1995 to the present, Edmond Rosenfeld, Director of Les Oréades Galleries, has regularly exhibited paintings by Zarfin as well as some of his fabric designs in Toulouse, Luchon and shows elsewhere both in Paris and the provinces. Some of these works have been reproduced in the corresponding catalogues. A number of private collectors have acquired one or a number of Zarfin’s works during the same period. Beginning in 2000, Mme Nadine Nieszawer, a specialist on the Paris School (Bureau d’art, 4 rue Rambuteau, 75003 Paris, www.ecoledeparis.org), has sold a number of Zarfin’s works in both public and private sales. One of Zarfin’s canvases was included in the Paris-Marseille exhibit organized by the Montparnasse Museum; the work is reproduced in the catalogue. Jean Pallarès pubished an article on him in the journal La Rencontre, published by the Friends of the Fabre Museum in Montpellier (Dec. 2003).

Zarfin is featured in the website of the Society of Authors in the Graphic and Plastic Arts (ADAGP). An entry on him is forthcoming in Emmanuel Bénézit’s Dictionnaire critique et documentaire des peintres [Critical and Documentary Dictionary of Painters], Paris, Gründ.

Liliane Dulac Zarfin, January 2006