Quand Méme, Despite Everything: Introduction to the new exhibition at the Hecht Museum

Homage to Homage, Heart to Heart

The Arrivals, Departures exhibition opened in early June at the Hecht Museum at the University of Haifa is a gem from several points of view: it is a fine presentation of not so widely known or exhibited often Jewish artists from the Ecole des Paris, the School of Paris; it is a meticulously researched historical observation of the tragic period that defined their lives; and it is soulful journey returning those eighteen tattooed souls back to us, their brethren, and to the wider public. To the world.

Arrivals Wall at the Arrivals, Departures Exhibition. (C) Weiss-Livnat Holocaust Studies program, University of Haifa.

It is also the homage to homage, so to say. It is a loving renewal and appreciation of the collection donated by Dr Oscar Ghez  to the Haifa University and the state of Israel 40 years ago. So far, only seven of 137 art works from that great donation were permanently displayed at the Hecht Museum. The current exhibition which would be on display for five months, until November 2018, and hopefully, would become the travelling one, shows as many as 85 works, 55 of them from the Ghez collection which he meant to be the memorial to the artists, the victims of the Holocaust.

It certainly is the memorial, both to the artists perished in the Holocaust, and to the man who loved Israel, loved his Jewish people, and who did care so much and relentlessly on the works of those who were murdered by the Nazis and given up by the Nazi collaborators. I am very glad that the Dr Ghez’s son, Dr Claude Ghez, who was present at the opening of the exhibition in Haifa, and who did so much for this exhibition to be materialised, saw the legacy of his father as a part of the living Israeli and Jewish culture today.

Poster for the Arrivals, Departures exhibition.

 

It is quite rare when you have a sensation from a new exhibition of getting home. Of being in harmony with everything around you, from a poster to the smallest exhibit. Overall, you have a feeling of seeing something what is as if natural continuation of your own thoughts, ideas and associations. Arrivals, Departures is the exhibition with a soul. And this soulful, genuinely compassionate exhibition is not only thought of masterly, with clear concept and a trove of research and knowledge behind it, but it is produced very finely, too.

The exhibition is also the result of friendly and fruitful co-operation which is always a pleasure to witness in the professional art world. The main team who conceived and produced Arrivals, Departures, Dr Rachel Perry and her students from The Weiss-Livnat International MA Program in the Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa has worked for the exhibition in close co-operation with Ghetto House Fighters Museum and  Yad Vashem  which both has loaned the art works from their collections to the exhibition. Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, Poland and Memorial de la Shoah in Paris had provided valuable documentation and records.

On personal level, among many people participated in this effort, the role of two people in particular had been crucial: Dr Claude Ghez  who has provided the ten great art works from his family’s collection at The Petit Palace  Modern Art Museum in Geneva, established by his father, to be seeing in Israel for the first time; and who had been extremely helpful and generous in many other ways, including possibility to print the exquisite catalogue of the exhibition; and Nadine Nieszawer, the well-known art dealer and expert on the Ecole des Paris, the daughter of the Holocaust survivor, who additionally to her brilliant skills and world-level knowledge of art and its perception, had put her heart into the project. Tangibly, all the efforts of all those people from so many institutions in different countries did bear that unmistaken mark of the presence of heart in the Arrivals, Departures exhibition. And perhaps, it is that instant feeling that greets a visitor of that rare show, the feeling of compassion that marks the exhibition in overall. But not only.

Dr Rachel Perry, Dr Claude Ghez and the group of students who worked on the exhibition project. (C) Rachel Perry.

 

Wedding  Art and History 

The Arrivals, Departures exhibition is the product of the two years studies of the MA program in the Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa. Art historian Dr Rachel Perry, the graduate of both Columbia and Harvard, with many years experience of work in Paris took her international students, nine of them in the first year and five in the second, on the remarkable journey. They were travelling together to Paris, to trace the track of the perished artists and to meet some of their relatives; three of them are living in Paris today. They embarked also onto personal journeys, as each student had been researching the life, destiny and work of particular artist, according to their own choice. The students were differentiated in tasks, too: someone was proof-checking facts and details; somebody else did planning and design; another one was focusing on illustrations and images. And Dr Perry herself was also worked intensely researching for the exhibition at the US National Holocaust Museum in Washington, the French WWII Archives, and at the other historical institutions.

It is there in Paris when Dr Perry was wandering with her student on the alleys of their pilgrimages to their heroes, when the name of the exhibition was born. “We were going from the one place to another, looking at the places of our artists’ studios, their homes, those streets at Montparnasse, and when we were leaving the studio of Alexandre Fasini, I rose my eyes and saw the street sign on the wall. It was rue du Depart.   Literally.  It cannot be, I thought”, – tells Rachel. – “But what’s more, when you are looking at the map of this district of Paris, you are seeing the Gare Montparnasse in the middle,  with rue de l’Arrivée and rue du Départ  very near from it, running in parallel, making two sides of one block, actually. And I thought: a railways station, and those two streets, it cannot be real”.  Upon hearing this from Rachel, I thought that it certainly was not a coincidence. It was definitely shown to her. From Above.

Voiceless Screams

The works at the exhibition are grouped according to the genres, from city landscapes, through the nature landscapes, the nudes, street lives, portraits. Says Rachel Perry: “Following the path, from the artists’ arrival to Paris, their life and work in France, via their works, you can see very clearly how the character of the works has changed reflecting the political and daily life changes from 1938 onward. How from exuberant, full of life and colour, vibrant pieces of art it has become more and more tense, gloomy, anxious. You can feel the fear, you are getting into the gray first and then dark palette, you are seeing the plots on canvases which were atypical for the Ecole des Paris, such as birds in a cage. And then you are facing the Departures wall, with all that documentation on their arrests, deportations, transports. The End”,  – explains the exhibition’s curator.

On especially poignant note, the exhibition also shows some works created by the artists while they were in detention. To me, it is a very powerful screaming point of the exhibition; of the kind of the screams which are made without voice.

They are the works of two artists, Jacques Gotko and Abraham Berline, who did find themselves in the company of a few more artists at the Royallieu-Compiégne internment camp in the northern part of France, before being transported to Drancy, and from there either to Auschwitz or Majdanek. As the camp had been under the auspices of the International Red Cross, they did supply it with some amount of art materials, so the imprisoned people there could paint or make drawings, if they felt like that.

The exhibition in Haifa shows some of those works. They were saved miraculously and heroically by the survived inmate the artist himself Isis Kischka who donated these priceless works to Ghetto Fighters House Museum in Israel. The Museum graciously loaned the works in question for the current exhibition.

If I would be making the poster for this exhibition, I would certainly use for it the small watercolour by Jacques Gotko which, in fact, was the invitation to the exhibition in the camp organised by the imprisoned artists for their brothers in tragedy. The work is signed “Gotko, 1496”, with the numbers being the artist’s inmate number in the camp.  On the invitation, there are two glasses touching each other in a toast, and a sign above them: Quand méme [Despite Everything!..] A piece of barbed wire is arranged around the glasses. But – there is always but, for the artists of The Ecole des Paris in general, and for any of our Jewish artists, musicians, writers, poets who did find themselves in the direst of dire circumstances, in particular. The ‘but’ of this small art work is the colour of the liquid inside the glasses rounded by barbed wire. It is bright orange. As bright, as sun. I love my people.

Jacques Gotko. Quand Méme. Ink and watercolour on paper. 14 x 19 cm. 1942. (C) Ghetto House Fighters Museum.

 

There are more art works painted in the camp at the exhibition. I feel compelled to mention all and every of them:  The Exit,  and Compiégne, both by Abraham Berline; Fence of the Camp at Compiégne, A View of the Compiégne Camp, Compiégne, and Quand Méme, all by Jacques Gotko. They all are light in colour and almost innocent in the plot, but not in the message. They are made this way as if their authors were trying to wash away the horror in which they themselves and so many others with the same destiny were living for the time which was left for them. Those works reminds me the tone of the memoirs and writings by Viktor Frankl, the one of the most profound Jewish voices of the Holocaust, and probably, the most gentle and contemplating one, without escaping the reality or forging it. But while Frankl was writing his analyses after the war, the works in question are made in camp, and thus are unique on-time experience, and also the statement.

The works from the camps in this exhibition, as the works of the children imprisoned in Terezienstadt, and the other works made on the spot during the Holocaust, are bearing the energy of the people who did them. We can still hear their voiceless scream even from those innocent-looking light blue water-colours. The lightness makes the scream yet more piercing.

Abraham Berline. The Exit. Oil on canvas. 1942. 50 x 61 cm. 1942. (C) The Ghez collection.University of Haifa.

I was affected to read in the catalogue and to hear it from Rachel Perry, too, on ‘the largest, unusually large oil painting made in the camp’, and then seeing the work’s measurement – 60 x 51 cm. The Holocaust reality has its own measures, obviously.

Holocaust and Art

There is well-known phenomenon of the two schools of thinking on the Holocaust and art, its mutual compatibility. The members of one school cannot get themselves content with the idea that such ultimate horror could be reflected by artistic means, would it be cinema, poetry, or visual arts. Some of the representative of this school believed that since creating process usually means positive energy, with an aesthetic elements involved, anything created anew as a piece of art would be still artificial in comparison with the real horrors of the Holocaust, and thus would be invalid from the point of view of authentic experience. Elie Wiesel, for his part, absolutely rejected the thought that Holocaust can be reflected by a movie, and firmly denied all proposals to make a film on his Night, the ultimate narrative of the Shoah. In the case of Wiesel, such position is quite understandable.

And there is another school of thinking on the matter; the one that sees the means of creative deeds  as an opportunity to express, to convey, and to connect. To express at least some of the ocean of emotions and thoughts evoked by such bottomless tragedy; to convey a multitude of messages, from hope against hope to the last subtle goodbye; to connect between those who were taken from life brutally and abruptly, and those who survived; and also, importantly, to connect between the generations, and in this vital task Dr Rachel Perry sees her ultimate goal in this special project:

“ As it happened, the resolving understanding of what we have been doing for the two last years did come to me almost in the end of the work. Among all those 85 art works, so versatile ones, some of them simply gorgeous, some rare, some very rarely exhibited, it all came down, for me personally, to the tiny watercolour, the smallest work in the entire exhibited collection. It is the Max  Jacob’s watercolour of a bridge, charming, warm and elegant, and just of 19 x 27 cm size. But for me, the message of the work has crystallised everything that we were doing during the years of building the project: we were building the bridge. Or even bridges: between the generations; between the people in different countries and with different history; between those for whom the Holocaust is the personal experience and part of life and those who are aware of it distantly; between knowledgeable and less knowledgeable people; between art connoisseurs and lovers of history, between experts and wide public. That bridge-building on so many levels has been the essence of our collective effort, to me.  And this is how I see the overall message of this project, and the main discovery of it”, – said the curator of Arrivals, Departures exhibition.

Max Jacob. Landscape with a Bridge. Watercolour and ink. 19 x 27 cm. (C) The Ghez collection. University of Haifa.

It was only natural that life brought forward a massive response to Holocaust; the response that has been expressed in different forms of art as well. It did not happen right away. Immediately after the war, there were many people who genuinely believed that nobody would be able to create a poetry or music after all that horror in general.

But then Paul Celan did come with his unparalleled poetry, the best one on our tragedy; and much later John Williams has created immortal music theme for The Schindler List; and Adrien Brody did not pretend for a second while living the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman on the screen in the Pianist, the film which is a rare exception from the Holocaust filmography, it has to be said. Not surprisingly, as the actor says himself, the world which had been opened to him in that role, still haunting him ever since, 16 years after the film’s release.

In another touching inter-connection, it is solely thanks to Szpilman and his after-war memoir that we know the details of the last period of life of Roman Kramsztyk who did come to Warsaw in the summer 1939 to deal with the family matters after his mother’s death, and had been trapped there. He was a notable man there, in the Warsaw Ghetto, the famous, well-to-do artist from Paris. He was sitting days through in the ghetto’s cafes, as he used to do in Paris, and he draw the days long, too. He drew the ghetto’s inhabitants, and it is another heart-breaking document both of the time and of art, the very few drawings which survived. Kramsztyk was killed by the Nazis in another round-up of the ghetto, as he refused to depart from his paintings in his studio. I understand him completely. The studio was savaged and robbed, of course,– as was the case with majority of the studios and works of the artists from this exhibition. That was done in a civilised France.

What Rachel Perry and her colleagues did assemble in the Arrivals, Departures exhibition is a rare mix of artists and their works which all are the very essence of the Shoah because they has become its victims, and at the same time, we are seeing many of their works created also  before the Second World War.  They did not stop to create during the Holocaust, too; they did it despite of it. Despite Everything. Quand méme.

Dr Perry emphasises that “the art has become a part and a tool of the Holocaust studies not before mid-1980s, which is quite recently, in historical terms. This is yet unexplored massive of knowledge, very fruitful one, and as such, it provides great opportunities, and widens up new horizons for us” – says Dr Perry. I cannot agree more with my colleague.

Arrivals, Departures exhibition stand with specially created personal files for each of the 18 exhibited artists. (C) University of Haifa.

Arrivals, Departures exhibition at the Hecht Museum, University of Haifa: until November 1st, 2018.

About the Author
Inna Rogatchi is internationally acclaimed writer, scholar and film-maker, the author of widely prized film on Simon Wiesenthal The Lessons of Survival. Her professional trade-mark is inter-weave of history, culture and mentality. She is the author of the concept of the Outreach to Humanity cultural and educational projects conducted internationally by The Rogatchi Foundation of which Inna is the co-founder and President. She is the wife of the world renowned artist Michael Rogatchi. Inna's family is related to the famous Rose-Mahler musical dynasty. Her professional interests are focused on Jewish heritage, Holocaust and post-Holocaust, arts and culture. She is twice laureate of the Italian Il Volo di Pegaso Italian National Art, Literature and Music Award, the Patmos Solidarity Award, and the New York Jewish Children's Museum Award for Outstanding Contribution into the Arts and Culture (together with her husband).
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