One of Boston’s most beloved modern artists, Jason Berger (1924-2010) expressed his joyful outlook on life throughout his stylistic evolution. Raised in Malden, MA by first-generation Jewish immigrants from Russia and Lithuania, Berger took advantage of his proximity to Boston’s cultural resources from a young age, spending hours at the Museum of Fine Arts and the Boston Public Library. He describes exploring the Newbury Street galleries where “there were many artists doing plein air painting at that time…and a lot of Boston watercolors”. Winslow Homer and John Singer Sargent were two of the region’s most celebrated and represented artists; Berger was particularly influenced by their watercolor landscapes. And so, as a thirteen-year old, he started his career painting outdoors, often painting with friends Jack Kramer and Reed Kay. These three were offered scholarships, along with Arthur Polonsky, for an art program for high-school students at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. This served as an important introduction; Berger and those childhood friends earned scholarships to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1941. The leading teacher at the SMFA during this time was the German immigrant Karl Zerbe. A contemporary of Hyman Bloom and Jack Levine, who also from the Jewish European immigrant community in Boston, Zerbe influenced a generation of SMFA students with his figurative expressionism. Zerbe, Bloom, and Levine started the Boston Expressionist movement, largely adopted by Zerbe’s acolytes. Berger was one such admirer. However, his studies were interrupted by World War I, and he served in Europe until 1946. When he returned to complete his studies at the Museum School, he met and later married fellow student Marilyn Powers in 1947. At a time when most American artists were embracing abstraction with gusto, Jason Berger focused on representational painting, along with a group of contemporaries now known as the Boston Expressionists.
Yet Berger eschewed the moody and pensive tones favored by many Boston Expressionists and instead became known for bright, vibrant, and playful canvases that reflected his personality and penchant for painting en plein air. Berger was awarded the Museum School’s European Traveling Fellowship, and traveled to France with his wife after graduation in 1949. His first stop was Normandy, to absorb the landscapes of Claude Monet, and then on to Paris to study with the cubist sculptor Ossip Zadkine. While in France, Berger viewed numerous exhibitions and was able to meet both George Braque and Henri Matisse. With assistance from the G.I. Bill, the Bergers were able to stay in Europe for three years. While many have felt a “European” influence in his art, Berger insisted that the “sense of motion in my paintings is a very American kind of thing.”1 When the Bergers returned to the States, Jason embarked upon his influential career as a teacher. Over three decades of teaching art, primarily at his alma mater, the SMFA, and at the Art Institute of Boston, Berger encouraged students to “Always tell the visual truth.”2 Teaching allowed him the freedom to not only continue his own painting, but to also travel each summer. Except for two years preceding the early death of his wife Marilyn in 1976, Berger spent summers in painting en plein air in France, Mexico, Portugal or Spain. Following Marilyn’s death, he returned to Portugal where he met Estela Cuoto who became his second wife in 1978. From then on, his summers were spent in Normandy, or other parts of Europe and Portugal where he and Estela relocated in 1994. Upon Estela’s unfortunate death in 1997, Berger remained in Portugal where he eventually married the painter, and former student, Leena Rekola in 1999. The couple moved back to the United States in March 2008 due to Jason’s poor health. Upon his death in 2010, Berger’s work had been exhibited in museums nationwide, including the Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, MA; Art Institute, Chicago, IL; Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, MA; DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, MA; Fitchburg Museum of Art, Fitchburg, MA; Museum of Modern Art, NYC; Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA; Worcester Museum of Art, Worcester, MA.
He has also exhibited widely in France, Mexico and Portugal. Berger’s work can be found in numerous private collections, as well as in the permanent collections of many institutions which include: Danforth Museum of Art, Framingham, MA; Guggenheim Museum, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, MA; and Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA. Sources: 1. Katz, Lois. The Paintings of Jason Berger. PharMa International, Inc., Tokyo, Japan, 1997. pg 90 2. Vivian Reiss, http://vivianreiss.com. References: French, Katherine. Jason Berger - Directed Vision, Catalogue, Danforth Museum, Framingham, MA, 2008. Katz, Lois. The Paintings of Jason Berger. PharMa International, Inc., Tokyo, Japan, 1997. Jason Berger website: www.jasonbergerpainter.com .