„Ten years of work — I collected, tore and worked again. I had been preparing to exhibiting my paintings, and above all to exhibiting portraits of a Jewish child (...). I would like the memory of my paintings to survive...”
The Jewish Historical Institute has a moving document from the collections of the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto — a testament of thirty-five-year-old Gela Seksztajn from 1st August, 1942. The artist „standing on the verge of life and death, being convinced that it was more probable that she would die than live, is saying goodby to her friends and art works.
This deeply moving document is a testament of a mature conviction about artistic mission of the Jewish painter.
Gela’s paintings survived hidden in a metal box in the basement of the Ber Borochow school at 68 Nowolipki Street, whose headmaster was her husband. She herself, with her husband and their little daughter Margolit, died in the Warsaw ghetto, just as she had predicted.
Somehow executing Gela’s last will, we are exhibiting her works in the center of the exhibition room of the Jewish Historical Institute’s building which survived the war. We are making her wish come true by showing portraits by children made with pencil, colored pencil, charcoal, drew in a hurry with a fast, economical stroke.
These portraits open the first part of the exhibition. Next to them, we show works of other artists working under pressure of inhumane times. Artists until recently free, who had to find in themselves the creative force in a situation of constraint, degradation, humiliation. They were no longer able to co-create, like before, the global landscape of art. The could only rescue remains of their humanity by sketching scenes form the ghetto. Just as Roman Kramsztyk did it, caught in the war in 1939 in Warsaw, where he had come from Paris to visit his dying mother. He drew a lot, directly on the street or from cafe windows, trying to instantly capture faces, gestures, situations. He became a chronicler of shocking scenes from life of a closed district. „A Jewish family in the ghetto takes a special place in his series of sanguine drawings Jewish Family in the Ghetto. We can see there confidence and lightness of the stroke of the master depicting a numb-with-pain homeless man walking with four starving children, holding in his hands the youngest of them. „Thrown out from his life by the ideology of the madmen to the bottom of humiliation, he shares the fate with the artist who preserved his image,” wrote Marek Rostworowski in a book Żydzi w Polsce. Obraz i słowo (Jews in Poland. Picture and Word).
This dramatic image was also captured in the lyrics of the song Kredka Kramsztyka (Kramsztyk’s Coloured Pencil) by Jacek Kramarczyk:
Niezmordowana jest sangwina:
Nosi bezdomny Żyd, nim skona
Dzieci na rękach i ramionach.
Doprawdy Święta to Rodzina.
(Tireless is sanguine
Before his death, a homeless Jew
Carries children in his hands and arms
It’s Saint Family indeed)
He drew people — Kaczmarski again — „Knowing that death was closer and closer.”
In this part of the exhibition we will find drawings by artists creating in the ghettos in Warsaw and Łódź, as it was this technique and lack of art resources in conditions of general misery that were in favour of capturing the events immediately, to create „diaries” of the times of war.
Kramsztyk’s images created before the Second World War are shown in the second part of the exhibition. It is comprised of the best paintings, mostly from the interwar period, by artists of Jewish descent. These works are the core of the JHI’s art collection. Their authors, masters of colour, space, rhythm and form, often refer to times of childhood and puberty. What we show here are remembered by the artists: „sceneries”, portraits, landscapes, views of little villages, genre works, still lifes. What is characteristic about them is an excellent technique learned in European handicraft schools and academies of fine art. Beginning with the works of „classical authors” still immersed in tradition of 19th-century realism, such as: Maurycy Trębacz, Samuel Hirszenberg, Abraham Neuman or Abraham Berman, we move on to the next generation of artists born around 1900. On the example of works of artists such as Henryk Berlewi, Sasza Blonder, Zygmunt Menkes, Marceli Słodki we are able to trace the participation of artists of Jewish descent in the international artistic movement and their road towards the modernity in art. It is possible that this modernity came from, as Debora Vogel, a writer, friend of many artists said „...Jewish element, which ought to be sought anywhere else but in the subject: it is located in irrational moment, which is hard to define, but which is nonetheless something real, hidden in the movement of the line and intensity of colouring.”
If we look closer at one of the exhibited paintings The Water Carrier by Józef Badower, we will see its cubising form. The painting can also be associated with early works of Kazimierz Malewicz, which the artist might have come across in Warsaw or Berlin in 1922. In excellent, expressive, unusually-economical Porter made by Maksymilian Eljowicz with a few strokes as if using a pair of compasses (dedicated to Beniek, most likely painter Bencion Cukierman) we will also notice the influence of cubism, and even constructivism. On the other hand, in Sasza Blonder’s rich-in-colour Town, in which houses look like colourful boxes intersected with a dark line, we will see not only influence of expressionism but also aspiration for abstraction, synthesis and geometrization of form. Behind each of the paintings shown on the exhibition, lies its long, interesting history: life of the artist who made it. Very often it is the only thing left of them, the only memorabilia.
The works shown at the exhibition had been collected on the territory of the entire country since 1944. Rescued from destruction, passed on, bought donated to the Jewish Historical Institute, they are very important documents and testimonies not only regarding the history of Polish Jews but also the existence of entire generations of artists whose youth and artistic heyday fell on inhumane times, not giving them a chance to live full lives and increase their artistic capabilities.
I suggest going through the exhibition contrary to the chronology: from darkness, sadness and pain (works from the period of 1939–1944, first floor of the building of the JHI) to the world of newly-discovered forms, brightness, colour (works from the period of 1890–1939, second floor of the building of the JHI), as all of the exhibited paintings actually survived.
Extant, may they give us joy and strength.