Portfolio — From the August 2016 issue

A Sigh and a Salute

An appreciation of Si Lewen and his Parade

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Ghost, c. 2013, from the collection of Art Spiegelman

Ghost, c. 2013, from the collection of Art Spiegelman

After we made contact, I began to appreciate the breadth and depth of Si’s lifetime of work as well as to learn more about the fraught and full lifetime that shaped the work. He was born in Lublin, Poland, on November 8, 1918, just as World War I ended. The family moved to Berlin when he was almost two to escape Polish anti-Semitism, only to discover the German variant. Taunted by the German children, and his teacher, as “that Polish Jewboy,” Si retreated from contact with others, and, by the age of five — having been given some paints to occupy him while he was confined in a Swiss sanatorium when suspected of having tuberculosis — he declared himself a painter. Long and repeated visits to Berlin’s art museums with his parents from toddlerhood on were his joy and the core of his education. Si told me that various paintings had spoken to him, but he wished they had been hung closer together “so they could talk to each other.” This observation planted a seed that would come to fruition years later in his mature work.

The young atheist resisted a traditional bar mitzvah, but made several dozen drawings to illustrate stories from the Bible instead. A few months later, he had his first exhibit in the small back room of a local bookshop, and began to sell his artwork. One oil painting of miserable workers trudging through the snow proved especially popular — it was “full of weltschmerz,” Si said — and he secretly made multiple copies, each of which he sold as the original. He felt his art career was off to a glorious start. It was dramatically interrupted in 1933.

Very soon after Hitler became chancellor, fourteen-year-old Si presciently insisted on fleeing Germany. He and his older brother Isaac, a little over sixteen, left the family behind and took a train for Paris, staying briefly with friends of their parents (where shy Si lost his virginity to their hostess, by the way), and then traveled to a farm in the Loire Valley to learn skills that might help the two young refugees emigrate to Palestine.

Untitled, 1999, with a collage inset from 1954

Untitled, 1999, with a collage inset from 1954

By a miracle involving a wildly successful plan to raise private money for Admiral Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole through the selling of a commemorative stamp — organized by an uncle of Si’s in America who ran the numismatic franchise at Gimbels department store — a grateful Senator Harry F. Byrd, the admiral’s brother, arranged impossible-to-get visas for the entire family to immigrate to America in 1935.

One of the two traumatic events that permanently scarred the young artist brought Si’s first euphoric year in New York to an abrupt end on a summer afternoon in 1936. Sitting by the lake in Central Park after one of his many visits to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he was beckoned over by a policeman in a rowboat who, on hearing his accented English, rowed him out to the center of the lake and bludgeoned him repeatedly with a blackjack — robbing him as he hurled anti-Semitic epithets. Aiming a gun at Si’s head, the policeman warned him not to tell a soul about what had happened or he’d come find him and kill him. Bloodied, in pain, humiliated, and terrified, the refugee — an outsider even here in his “promised land” — made his way home. Deeply depressed, Si tried to poison himself a few weeks later — his first near-fatal suicide attempt — and was committed to a mental hospital in Westchester for observation. Only after meeting his future wife, Rennie, a year and a half later, did he begin to come to terms with the assault, which has haunted him all his life. He was unable to tell her, his closest confidante, about it until after more than forty years of marriage.

Sunday Bridge, 1952

Sunday Bridge, 1952

In 1942, Si married Rennie, shortly after enlisting in the army. Wanting revenge on the Germans, he temporarily overcame his pacifist inclinations and joined an elite intelligence unit of native German speakers, mostly young immigrant Jews like himself, who were trained at Fort Ritchie, Maryland, and used in translation, espionage, and psychological warfare. Si’s primary duty was to broadcast from a sound truck at the battlefront to persuade German soldiers to surrender. Landing in Normandy nine days after D-Day, Si traveled along the front lines and into Germany, where he encountered his second lifelong trauma: witnessing the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after it was liberated. Surrounded by living skeletons and the smell of death, he wandered into the recently cooled crematorium. Having steeled himself through combat and with the help of schnapps, he broke down sobbing and — deeply shaken — fled. As he later wrote in Self-Portrait, his unpublished memoir: “My insides were one wrenching mess. I knew that I was finished as a soldier, seeing the world for what, I thought, it was: a slaughterhouse, a bordello, and an insane asylum, run by butchers, pimps, and madmen. . . . A hospital ship brought me back to America, and half a year later I was discharged — ‘as good as new,’ one of the doctors said. I was not so sure.”

A sequence from The Parade

A sequence from The Parade

Back in America, Si was surprised to find that, when he picked up his paintbrushes again, his postwar works eschewed blacks and were suffused in dappled layers of color, forming a prismatic Cubism with an Expressionist edge. They gave him a way to put the dark past behind him and were greeted with commercial-gallery success. His work began to appear in museum exhibitions in the United States and Europe. The fourteen-year-old dropout now taught art at Cooper Union, and then at the New School as well. The birth of two children — Vivian, in 1947, and Nina, in 1949 — made his future as sun-drenched as those paintings.

Still, by the turn of the decade, Si’s turbulent memories and feelings of displacement began to reassert themselves. “My world of translucent color and light was turning into transparent lies,” as the artist put it. By 1950, Si was pursuing an idea that had begun to gestate while he was still a soldier. Inspired by a lifelong love of movies — and in conscious resistance to the pure nonrepresentational abstraction that was coming to dominate contemporary art — he made The Parade.

Panels 1326, 1101, 1102, 1103, 1104, and 1327 from the series The Procession, c. 1960–2014

Panels 1326, 1101, 1102, 1103, 1104, and 1327 from the series The Procession, c. 1960–2014

The work begins with an excited crowd of flag-waving parents and children who gather to cheer a military procession of soldiers that turns into an abstract engine of war. Little boys playing with toy guns are beckoned from the arms of their mothers into the arms of a shrouded Grim Reaper, who transforms the children into helmeted, goose-stepping cannon fodder — interchangeable cogs in a relentless war machine. A series of vignettes focuses on scenes of escalating havoc and suffering — the disasters of war — replete with bayoneted mothers and babies, terrorized families fleeing bombed-out cities, and devastated farms. The images accumulate into a panoramic harvest of blood and death. The parade turns into a hanging row of severed heads, a procession of the wounded and maimed, a march of ravaged survivors staggering under the weight of the coffins they carry.

The Feast, 1962

The Feast, 1962

A gray smoke-filled sky with a few birds finally gives way to a simple, somber image of exhaustion: the bodies of two soldiers each slouched over the other in a death embrace, pierced by each other’s bayonet. A swirling and manic “victory” dance of the survivors immediately follows. In front of the ever-present flag-waving crowd, a small yapping hound — one of the many dogs of war running through The Parade — continues to bark as a mother protectively gathers a child with a flag to her bosom. This is a powerfully moving free-jazz dirge of a book that depicts mankind’s recurring war fever. It remains sadly urgent and relevant today.

In the fall of 1953, forty drawings from The Parade were shown at the Lotte Jacobi gallery in Midtown Manhattan, and described in the Sunday New York Times as having “a curiously impersonal yet intense feeling and are tremendously effective.” Lotte Jacobi, best known as a portrait photographer, had arranged for a version of The Parade to be shown to her friend and frequent portrait subject Albert Einstein two years earlier. Einstein wrote Si a glowing letter, stating, “Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art. . . . Our time needs you and your work!” Reviewers of the exhibit and the eventual book, published in 1957, compared the work with Goya’s Disasters of War, the drawings of Käthe Kollwitz, and Picasso’s Guernica. Si was always artistically ambitious and aimed to be part of this pantheon, but in a 1963 interview, when asked what his future plans were, he responded, “To put one foot in front of the other, as I’ve always done.”

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is the author of Maus. His essay “To Laugh That We May Not Weep” appeared in the January 2016 issue of Harper’s Magazine. This essay is an excerpt from his introduction to Si Lewen’s Parade: An Artist’s Odyssey, which will be published in October by Abrams ComicArts.

More from Art Spiegelman:

illustration From the June 2006 issue

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