Ecole des Vitebsk: The Paradox of the Ecole des Paris
There is needless to say that curatorial-wise, Dr Perry was working with fantastic material: tens of works of the artists from the Ecole des Paris, many of them had not been exhibited for decades. It is a jack-pot for any curator, a real treasure-trove, a curatorial dream.
It is undisputed fact in the world of the modern art experts that you always are in win-win situation while working on the artists from the Ecole des Paris. It is the real art you are dealing with in that case whatever its subject, technique or genre it might be. You are also guaranteed that the people would be visiting an exhibition in crowds because the Ecole des Paris’ art is magnetic.
As charming and magnetic, as the perception of Paris itself by the myriad of talents whom we know today as the Ecole des Paris. Paradoxically enough, the very formation of the group did come from outside, and had been pronounced by the hostile and xenophobic French critics and journalists in 1930s who were quite irritated by the fountaining talent of those poor emigrants, many of them Jewish, whom the French snobs tried to discredit and alienate, all in vain, of course.
In their turn, the brilliant artists whom we know as the ones belonging to the Ecole des Paris, and especially its Jewish members, did not care too much on the insinuation of the hostile French critics. If anything, hostility was nothing new to them, many of whom has come from the Eastern and Central Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland and Czechoslovakia; and even those from Italy and France itself, due to their belonging to the certain circles or because of their origin and roots. Neither poverty, and utter poverty was anything new to the vast majority of those artists.
In fact, they were inter-connected not by the attempts of ostracism by some French snob critics, but by their artistic vision, their lust to create, and their unlimited love for Paris – which was both a magnet and a symbol for them, in much wider sense than an artistic affiliation or creative environment. Believers or not, with some of them being converted to the Christianity or being assimilated, they were all cemented in between themselves by their Jewish origin, sometimes, sub-consciously perhaps.
Chagall and Modigliani, Soutine and Lipchitz and many others were living and working at the La Ruche [ the Beehive] or nearby, in the heart of Montparnasse, feeling themselves in a special universe that had been created to the certain extent by their own imaginary, their own Feeling of Paris. It was their own planet and cosmos called Paris – which had something to do with France, of course, but mainly, it had to do with their own idealistic picture of it. Like Alexandre Dumas left to us the world of France which, in fact, he was dreaming about, the artists of the Ecole des Paris did love Paris and France of their dreams, their striving, their aspirations. They were happy there, even if hungry, and they created in the fountaining, non-stop fashion.
The miserable critics who thought that they do understand art and culture are remembered now solely to the fact that they were so persistently hostile to the group of very talented artists whom those snobs had called collectively the Ecole des Paris. And, notably, from 1935 onward, their hostility, progressively and rapidly, has turned into full neglect and ostracism, on purely racist and anti-Semitic ground, yet five years before Hitler marched through the Champs Elysée. No mainstream French media had published a word about Chagall or other Jewish artist whatsoever yet five years before France gave in to the Nazi regime.
Because of the way in which they were creating their works, because of the character of their outbursting inner freedom, and the way of creating entirely new world by their art, the group of brilliant talents from the wider circle of the Ecole des Paris, definitely those of the Jewish origin, should be called the Ecole des Vitebsk, regardless of the actual place of their birth. Metaphorically, they all had come from the Chagallian Vitebsk, and they all instituted it in history of art for good. I am so grateful to my artist husband Michael for this enlightening term. Between ourselves, we are, indeed, calling the myriad of our beloved artists The Ecole des Vitebsk.
Discoveries and Jewels: Best and Rarely Exhibited Works
How lucky we are now, with a possibility to indulge ourselves into the 85 art works at the Arrivals, Departures exhibition of the artists who are not exhibited as regularly, as Chagall or Modigliani, but who were their colleagues and friends. Among 18 artists exhibited at the Hecht Museum, seven are well-known: Naum Aronson, Max Jacob, Adolphe Feder, Moise Kogan, Roman Kramsztyk, Henri Epstein and Léon Weissberg. Another four are well-known to the specialists, but not so much to the wide public: Joseph Hecht, George Kars, Nathan Grunsweigh and Natalie Kraemer; with the rest of seven are known to the experts: George Ascher, Abraham Berline, Jacques Cytrynovitch, Alexandre Fasini, Jacques Gotko, Karl Haber and Joachim Weingart.
The great achievement of this rare exhibition is that it brings out to the public such well balanced group of the artists from the Ecole des Paris in such fine and quite natural combination.
The curator’s choice had been based on the superb collection assembled by Dr Oscar Ghez during 38 years of his art collecting mission. There is art collecting and art collecting. There are those who are throwing millions into the pieces which they believe will keep – or preferably rise – the value; and there are those who are investing money into the ideas and who are acting being motivated by heart. This is exactly the case of Dr Oscar Ghez who acted with love and compassion while assembling his collection. When Dr Ghez was hearing on the available and appearing at the market art works of the artists who fell the victims of the Shoah, he diligently, lovingly acquired the works, the more, the better. For the future generations, for living, not still memory, for preserving the spirit of those who had been annihilated so mercilessly and so meticulously. My heart goes to this man, and to the people like him, whose heart rules their missions.
I do hope that it would be possible to make this exhibition travelling one. It really worth all the effort and every penny which could be put into that.
The exhibition is marked by many great works; this always is the first and the last criteria for any art exhibition.
Among the 85 works of Arrivals, Departures, we are stunned by a trove of treasures representing the strong, matured, emphatic art of Natalie Kraemer, the only woman among the artists presented at the exhibition; especially her haunting The Refugee portrait – with a possibility of it being her self-portrait; The Hunted One; and her masterly Blind Man. We are impressed by superb portrait of the leader of the Warsaw Ghetto Adam Chernjakow made by Roman Kramsztyk just two weeks before the Chernajkow’s suicide ( he could not bear to participate in signing the amassing deportation orders for the Warsaw Ghetto inhabitants ( the work is on the loan from the Israel Museum). We are delighted by incredibly serene and gentle work by Max Jacob, View of Pont-Aven. We are affected by the haunting works by Joachim Weingart, The Meal; and by Léon Weissberg, in his Self-Portrait as a Clown, dramatic, unforgettable work. His other work, House in the Sun ( loaned by Yad Vashem), is done on such unusual media as oil on a small piece of fibre cement ( 26 x 19 cm), and you are going to remember this detail for ever. You are indulged into a big cache of masterly works of a very able artist, George Kars, with that fantastic Dancer relief on bronze of a petite 12×11 cm size. You would always remember sad-to-the-bottom-and-beyond Self-Portrait of Natan Grunsweig, with the artist wearing kippah and Star of David. And you would be so happy to uncover a great artist, as Alexandre Fasini was, especially looking on his Composition created in 1928, his Surrealist work of 1930, and his Portrait of Young Boy. Among the works of Henry Epstein, his Clamant of 1912, Nude painted in 1915, and Young Woman are real jewels.
When I counted the number of the works which I did pick up as the strongest ones, in my personal appraisal, it turned out that their amount was 18. The same as the amount of the artists selected by Rachel Perry for the exhibition – with very conscious idea of connecting it to the meaning of number 18 in the Jewish tradition – Chai, for Life. Indeed.
Historical perspective has been essential in this art exhibition, and it has brought out many important discoveries. Rachel Perry is delighted while talking on this part of the project and the two-year process of the work on it. Her eyes are sparkled, and smile does not leave her face. I understand her completely.
Rachel shared with me the way in which she and her students were finding the new material travelling the world for that. The fact-restoring trips to Paris where the descendants of three of the exhibited artists still live today, including the daughter of Léon Weissberg, she attests as ‘pilgrimages’. They certainly were.
Her trips to the numerous archives in France and the US resulted with incredible findings. Their breakthrough at home in Israel where the descendants of two of their artists live, including the nephew of Alexandre Fasini, himself the grandson of legendary Russian writer Ilya Ilf, has brought entirely new knowledge. They were helped from Above, too: the man who did the professional photographing of the art works, the first one since the time of the donation of the Ghez collection, notably, turned out to be the relative of Joachim Weingart, the one of their artists about whom almost nothing was known. The photographer had put Dr Perry and her students in touch with the living family members who did fill the gaps in our knowledge about the artist now.
Among the 18 artists, there are the only two who survived the war, Nathan Grunsweigh and Joseph Hecht. One more, George Kars, surviving the Holocaust, had committed suicide in February 1945. It gives us a tragic figure: 84% of the artists presented at the Arrivals, Departures exhibition had become the direct victims of the Shoah.
We are lamenting this loss re-reading the poem of Marc Chagall who returning back to France from the USA where he spent the war and first post-war years, and where he lost the love of his life, his soul-mate Bella, had been devastated beyond expression by the terrible catastrophe that had happened to his friends and colleagues. That devastation was not short-lived one for Chagall. Three years after his return to France, and seven years after his heart-broken letter from New York called “To the Paris Artists”, he wrote that tragic poem called To Our Martyred Artists. After the Holocaust, Chagall was inconsolable for a long time; he was unable to control the emotions which were haunting him for the decade by the time of composing the poem. It wrote it in Yiddish, and by hand, naturally. The original is displayed at the Israel Museum. For some inexplicable to me reason, it took more than 40 years to translate that very important creation by Marc Chagall into English. It is very difficult to take a quote from that tearful prayer, because every word there is inseparable from the whole. But I will try:
“They were taken to their death baths
where they got the taste of their sweat.
That was when they suddenly saw the light
of their unpainted pictures. […].
[…] Israel’s brothers, Pissaro’s and
Modigliani’s…, our brothers… led along by
ropes by the sons of Durer, Cranach
and Holbein…being led to death in the crematoriums […].[…] After him ( David) descends our Moses
saying: Do not fear anyone,
he says that you should lie quiet
until he carves out new tablets for a new world”.
( translated from Yiddish to English by Eugene Borowitz , (C) 1993, ARS, N.Y/ADAGP, Paris).
Among quite significant new materials discovered by Dr Perry and her students are the details of the life and the death of Natalie Kraemer, a very good artist about whom virtually nothing was known – until now. In a true history detective style, the Perry group having guessed that Natalie could be married, did find her maiden name, and followed just incredible tragic story of the important painter. As it happened, the Natalie Kraemer’s family lived in Vichy, and the artist was very nervous about the Vichy regime. She, the only one from the family, decided to run and to try to hide somewhere else in France. Her husband and all his family left in Vichy and were saved nearby by the family of their old French acquaintances, who were recently affirmed the Righteous of Nations by Yad Vashem. Poor Natalie, being on the run, ended up in Nice where she was apprehended and arrested by the Nazis, and eventually deported from Drancy to Auschwitz – in the same convoy in which there was Charlotte Salomon. That all has been established for the first time, as many other important historical facts which now are attributed to the biographies of the artists who, as it was previously understood, perished in the Shoah without traces.
It is quite chilling to read in the exhibition catalogue and in the personal files which the organisers has created for every artist, all those details which they established on their tragic destinies: the date of arrest, sometimes the reason of it ( as possible informing on them to the Gestapo), the date and place of their deporting, details on their transport, number of convoy. It all does make their lives and the atmosphere of the period quite tangible. One has a feeling that it is happening now. And this is very powerful achievement of this exhibition and the project behind it.
By founding out and filling the gaps in our knowledge about important artists from the Ecole des Paris, Dr Perry and her students did provide a huge service as to the memory of those people, as to the world culture.
Human dimension: the Primary Value
But the most important dimension for me in this exhibition which is far more than another show of art is its human dimension. The attitude of its curator and her students; the support to them provided by the Academic Head of the Weiss-Livnat International Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa Professor Arieh J. Kochavi and the program’s Administrative Director Dr Yael Granot-Bein; the attention and deep involvement into the project of its key persons, such as Dr Claude Ghez and Nadine Nieszawer; the warm co-operation of all those institutions which participated in the project.
Behind all those efforts, both individual and institutional ones, there had been pulsating motivation prompted by beats of our Jewish hearts, and those others who understood and felt alike, which all had been turned into the special rhythm, the one that turns our hearts in with the first sounds of the John Williams’ theme for The Schindler’s List. We all are united by the theme – both musical and historical one, the human theme of our brethren annihilated in the Night of the Shoah.
And yet, and yet – echoing beloved Elie Wiesel, – despite annihilation, despite everything – Quand Méme – there is the carte-postale sent by Léon Weissberg on February 22nd, 1943, four days after his arrest by the French policemen who knew him personally and were friendly to him before, and two weeks before the Nazi train moved him to Majdanek, to his daughter Lydie who did survive, and who lives in Paris today. We are seeing the post-card written by the hand of the artist who was talking to his little daughter, we are reading his heart-wretched words “I leave for unknown destination…”, and we feel the presence of the person who was annihilated immediately after arriving to Majdanek on March 11, 1943. We feel his presence 75 years after that happened. If Rachel Perry would not find the Léon Weissberg’s daughter, and would not include this historical artifact into the exhibition and its catalogue, nobody beyond the Weissberg’s immediate family would ever be aware with it.
This is what I call the Human Dimension in our re-addressing the Shoah today. And this is what motivates us in this ongoing quest: to feel the breath of the people who were whipped from life decades ago. Our people.
In the mid- 2000s, I saw an unforgettable exhibition at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. It was the time when Poland was awakening after its 45-years-long lethargy regarding the truth on the destiny of Jews in their country during the Holocaust. It was the time when the mood of the society and its leaders in Poland was coinciding in speaking the painful truth out. Just fifteen years on, we are seeing another Poland where its current governing authorities supported by the substantial part of population are doing everything in their power to distort and silence this truth.
But back in the mid-2000s, the exhibition at the most respected institution in Poland dealing with the Jewish history, was simply heart-breaking. In several large halls, tens of absolutely diversified paintings were displayed. There were landscapes and portraits, still-lives and genre-scenes, some drawings, but mostly oil paintings. The only similar thing in the entire exhibition in between the paintings displayed there was the year of passing of the artists: 1943, mostly, but also, 1942, and 1944, and some of 1941. There had been no need for a catalogue raisonnes. It was so painfully clear.
I was glad to learn that the Arrivals, Departures exhibition had been prepared in close co-operation with the experts from the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw. I detected the similarity of approach to the theme of the artists whose lives were cut abruptly and cruelly by the Holocaust.
But there is a substantial difference between those two exhibitions dealing with the similar subject. If the exhibition in Warsaw was sobering statement: ‘look now, here are the works of those who had been murdered and starved mercilessly’, the exhibition in Haifa, some 15 years later, is the Homecoming.
Homecoming is the overwhelming feeling after one visits the Arrivals, Departures exhibition at the Hecht Museum, reads it catalogue, and thinks about it for a long time afterwards. Some of the exhibited artists there were known more, some less, – but they all, all those tattooed souls, have had the same destiny, all of them but three were murdered in the Shoah; for many of them, their studios were destroyed and looted. The legacy of many of them survived in a tiny fraction. The same drama is true regarding their works: from the 85 works exhibited in Haifa, majority were not exhibited for a very long time, if ever.
Both, in the matter of their works and their lives, reconstructed with such loving precision and deep humanistic motivation, those people, Jewish men and one woman, talented and creative, thoughtful and hard-working, had been returned from oblivion now, and not just by re-establishing their place in The Ecole des Paris and the cultural landscape of the modern art, but they are remembered now, with warmth and genuine interest, in the State of Israel, at their Home, with people there are able to see not only their works, but also their faces, and those ones of their families and friends, to know more about their lives and aspirations, to perceive them who were sadistically thorn off life, not as shadows which most of them were for the wide public before, but as the existing and beloved part of our people.
Back in the beginning of the XX century, it was a happy and aspiring Arrival to the universe of their dreams. Some twenty-something years later, it was inhuman and horrifying Departure. Now, 77 years and three generations after, it has been the Homecoming of those 18 tattooed souls, thanks to the one woman who did inspire the team of her students who worked on the project with their souls attached to it.
“I take the road to the new Temple
and there light a candle
for your picture”, – wrote Marc Chagall in 1951 being devastated over the destiny of so many of his friends.
About seventy years later, Rachel Perry, her students and colleagues did exactly what Chagall was feeling in his heart: they did lit a candle for the pictures of the 18 Jewish artists whom they did return from the oblivion.
Chapeau, dear Rachel. And thank you.
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Arrivals, Departures exhibition at the Hecht Museum, the University of Haifa, until November 1st, 2018.