Shards Across Time: An Exhibition In Memorial Of Kristallnacht: The Art Of Yonia Fain And Pinchas Shaar
most illusions about the Nazis’ intentions. The mass murder of European Jewry that followed permanently altered the lives of the few that survived. Among them were two artists from Eastern Europe, Pinchas Shaar and Yonia Fain. Their art of the following 60 years continued
to reflect the Shoah in a multitude of ways.
A survey of their work is currently presented at the Brooklyn Jewish Arts Gallery until December 8, 2003 in an exhibition curated by your reviewer, Richard McBee. I am certain that both artists would agree that this exhibition must be dedicated to both those who did
survive and those kedoshim who perished in those terrible years.
At first glance, Pinchas Shaar’s work boasts a determined joie de vivre and sunny optimism reflected in bright jewel-like color, animated design and naïve depictions of fables, myths and Biblical subjects. Born in Poland, Shaar went to Paris in 1948, emigrated to Israel in 1956, and finally settled in New York in 1975. His compositions are populated with lions, lambs, birds, horses, unicorns, angels and whimsical people with stylized features and enormous eyes. Charming and sensual, his work seems far removed from a youth spent in the Lodz Ghetto under the brutal Nazi rule. Yet on closer inspection, his art slowly reveals the complexities
of a survivor.
Shaar expressed his Jewishness in both Biblical and cultural subjects. His suite of ten silkscreen prints, Jewish Holidays (1977) are typical images. The mask-like faces of the figures representing Passover, Simchat Torah, Succoth and Chanukah lends a persistent tension and distance to the otherwise joyful and colorful holiday depictions. The Judgment of Solomon (1979) is similar in the iconic child-like depiction of the wise king, the two mothers and the disputed infant. Lush color and intriguing design weaves together the narrative figures in Shaar’s highly graphic style. However, what emerges in spite of his compositional skill is a disconcerting disunity.
King Solomon is facing away from the mothers on the right. He holds the sword upright, still poised for judgment while the infant lies abandoned on the floor behind him, at first glance chopped into pieces. Of course, we then realize that all the figures are rendered piecemeal as an expression of Shaar’s style. Still, his style itself is disturbing, representing a world in which
judgment, justice and just actions are bifurcated, shattered and perhaps impossible.
Chazzan [Le Baal Tefila] (1964) offers another example of subtle stylistic contradictions. A figure is cloaked in a tallis before an elaborately decorated aron topped by Shaar’s signature Lions of Judah holding the Ten Commandments. An iconic sun (or stained glass window) illuminates the scene. The Baal Tefilah stretches out his hands in heavenly supplication as he gazes out at the viewer. We notice that the lower half of his face is obscured by some kind of scarf covering his mouth and chin. Another one of Shaar’s stylistic mannerisms to be sure, but here it represents a Prayer Leader, the one who is to give voice to the supplications of the congregation and all those who cannot speak, himself muffled and silenced.
Less than twenty years after surviving the Lodz Ghetto, the artist seems to doubt whether anyone has the ability to pray for us. Is it even still possible to reach out to God and pray for ourselves?
Pinchas Shaar was one of the many Jews who struggled to maintain a semblance of Jewish life sealed in the ghetto from 1940 until liberation in January 1945. We see two set designs he completed for the Lodz Ghetto Theater sometime in the early 1940’s. These inventive and highly creative compositions foreshadow much of his latter work, evidencing a predilection for
clear images, symbols and a free use of text and pattern. Poignantly, they also show an irrepressible kind of optimism that was obviously so necessary to survive not only the murderous Nazi fury, but also the loneliness of being a survivor 50 years later.
Yonia Fain’s odyssey is yet another reflection of the broken history Jews suffered in the Holocaust. Born in Russia in 1914, he escaped the turmoil of the Bolshevik revolution by fleeing to Vilna, part of Poland, in 1924. There he studied art and decided he wanted to
be a painter. As a young man his creativity flourished and he hoped to further his studies in Paris. This dream was shattered when in 1939 the Soviet Union occupied Vilna. Fain fled again, this time to Warsaw, where he narrowly escaped the advancing Nazis but was captured
by Soviet troops and imprisoned. Subsequently released in war-torn Russia, he finally escaped the Soviet Union by walking through Siberia to Japan in 1941. Just before Pearl Harbor, the Japanese deported him to Shanghai where he spent the rest of the war until liberation. He
then made his way to Mexico City, worked on murals with Diego Rivera and painted an enormous mural on the Holocaust depicting “the open wound of Europe and the World.”
It was very difficult for a foreign artist in Mexico and so he moved finally to New York in 1953. His experience of oppression, flight, imprisonment and exile has shaped his artwork ever since.
Despair (1993) presents a number of Fain’s motifs in one work. Much of his work is deeply expressionistic, allowing paint, color and line to abstractly express human emotions. The flat colors on the periphery of the canvas converge in angry knots of twisted forms, evoking cloth
or viscera wrapped around a cruciform matrix. In many of his works, Fain depicts a simple prisoner’s striped uniform draped over a chair or hung on a peg. It is the empty shell of a human being; perhaps all that Fain can bear to depict after the violence has finally abated. This
image, a ghost of those who did not survive, is repeated as a uniform impaled on barbed wire or hanging limply on grotesque apparitions of prisoners.
Yonia Fain’s work has multiple subjects that all return to a fundamental existential anguish. The Birth of Seth (1999) depicts the horror of a world gone terribly wrong in which more than Eden has been lost; the violence of Hell now reigns. In recent pastel drawings, Fain sees Adam and Eve in Expulsion from the Garden as being banished to a universe of threatening forms and abstract chaos. Man is depicted in desolation where the tragedy of Job is universal.
Gates of Sodom (1997) uses the tools of symbolic expressionism to reflect upon the nature of the refugee after the Holocaust. The gate-like form is created by two enormous pincers threatening all who approach. A hallucinatory collection of claws, knives and hatchets bristle on the towering shape and stand as a warning to all who approach the city. The Sodomites were infamous for their inhumanity to all who sought refuge or needed aid. For Yonia Fain this has become the all too familiar condition for refugees from the twentieth century. It is as if in spite of all efforts to comfort and repair, the survivors can only remember displacement and horror.
In the last decade, Fain has produced two enormous paintings, each 80 inches high and 11 feet long, that seek to synthesize the recollections and emotions that have consumed him for over fifty years. The Holocaust (1990-1997) is a violent abstraction of twisted landscape littered with limbs, animals and shards of a destroyed world. It is the whirlwind that roars in
pain and violence. Conversely, The Landscape of Echoes (1990-1997) is lyrical, light and poetic. The squares and rectangles float across the surface only interrupted by the briefest notations, a calligraphy of hope. In The Revolt (1998) Fain seems to finally find a kind of
liberation in color and movement that fight back against the threatening sharp forms advancing from the right side of the canvas. For Yonia Fain, art has always been his way to express that in spite of all the killing and suffering there was some purpose to his survival. Along with the
accidents of survival, there was a long trail of people who helped him. It is because of them that he feels he must stand as a witness to what occurred. In honor of them, he must have hope.
That honor is expressed by the 89-year-old Yonia Fain who still draws, daily, the things he cannot forget – the emotions and reactions that will not be quieted. His artistic testimony gives meaning to that which is incomprehensible. And like his fellow artist Pinchas Shaar, his creative struggle with the past allows us to begin to pick up the shards scattered across time.
Perhaps we will be able to match their courage to face the future.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to email him with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at email@example.com
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