From Montparnasse to Auschwitz

Montparnasse Deporte: The End of l'Ecole de Paris exhibits the work of Jewish artists in the 1920s and '30s.

auschwitz 298.88 (photo credit: )
auschwitz 298.88
(photo credit: )
It isn't easy to get to the art galleries of Yad Vashem. There's a long walk from the parking lot, which is always full. Best is to come by taxi. But it's worth making an effort to see Montparnasse Deporte: The End of l'Ecole de Paris, a large show of paintings and drawings by Jewish artists who, in the 1920s and '30s, worked for both short and long periods in Montparnasse; most were deported to the death camps, some from France, others from Poland and elsewhere east. Only a few survived. Most of this show of tragic biographies comes from the Montparnasse Museum in Paris, where it was originally mounted by curator Sylvie Buisson. The current Yad Vashem exhibition, with the addition of many works from Yad Vashem's own collection, was mounted by Yehudit Shendar, Senior Art Curator at Yad Vashem. It will be on view until the end of May. Artists, including many Jews from all over Europe, converged on Paris for over half a century before World War II, fired up by the pioneering ideas and fame of the likes of Picasso and Modigliani. Montparnasse, with its low rents, cheap cafes and innumerable studios, drew painters like a magnet. Painters in those days loved the company of other artists with whom they could discuss ideas, form friendships and stave off the loneliness of their often unheated studios. Jews mixed with non-Jewish artists and many managed to stay on in Paris until they were arrested by the Vichy French police and concentrated in holding camps until their deportation by the Germans. Most of the artists in this show, many long-time residents in Paris and some even French citizens, came from Poland and what is now the Ukraine. Others were Belorussians (like the brilliant trio of friends Soutine, Kikoine and Kremegne) or Czechs and Romanians; just one came from Greece. Some of the Jewish artists returned to their home towns in Eastern Europe after a few years in Paris. They, too, were murdered in the death camps. With the arrival of the Germans, many Jewish artists living in Paris (and not just those who lived in Montparnasse) went into hiding, some in the countryside; a number, like the brilliant Sonia Delaunay, survived. Chagall, another non-Montparnassian, escaped at the 11th hour with the help of the US consul in Marseille. With the beginning of the roundups, Chaim Soutine, a sometime Montparnassian, moved from village to village until worry and ulcers got the better of him; he died in a hospital in Paris in 1942. The decision to concentrate this selection only on artists who had lived and worked in Montparnasse is an arbitrary one, driven perhaps by the curious invention of a school that never existed: the Jewish School of Paris, a rubric beloved of art dealers and auctioneers. This is even acknowledged in the show's introductory text. But what are Max Ernst and Hans Bellmer doing in this collection? Neither was Jewish, though they had Jewish connections. Despite their work being condemned by Hitler as degenerate, both escaped him. And they are anyway not representative of the numerous gentile artists who passed through Montparnasse, several of them from as far away as Japan. Another gentile inexplicably included here is Jean Moulin (1899-1943), famed not as an artist but as a controversial Resistance leader. Tortured by Klaus Barbie, he died aboard a train taking him to Germany. Sadly, not even the more notable names in this show are represented by anything like their best works. This is true of survivors Michel Kikoine and Pinchus Kremegne; and even more so of the German-born early abstractionist Otto Wunderlich, arrested in France and killed at Majdanek; his abstraction here reflects nothing of his brilliance as a colorist. What does tie together these many different works is the predominant low-key palette of figurative poesy and romance that dominated French second and third-rank painting in the '30s. There are also many portraits (these may owe their survival to the sitters). But if only a few of these artists were of any historic importance, they were all pretty much accomplished. Just a few potted biographies that follow below are typical of the dozens in this exhibit. I was particularly taken by several expressionist cityscapes with trees by Polish-born Henri Epstein (1891-1944), who was killed in Auschwitz. He studied first at the Kacenbogen Drawing School in Lodz and then at the Fine Art Academy in Munich. Epstein visited Paris in 1912 and settled there in 1913, becoming an illustrator as well as a painter. He wrote in Yiddish for the Jewish art review Makhmadim, published in La Ruche. During the German occupation, Epstein bought a farm near pernon, which served as an atelier and a hideout; informed on, he was picked up in February 1944 by three Gestapo agents. Despite the efforts of his friends and his wife (the painter George Dorignac's daughter), he was interned in Drancy and promptly deported to Auschwitz. A number of Jewish painters who worked in Palestine in the early pre-state days returned to work in Europe, which ultimately led to their deaths. One was portraitist David Goychman (1900-1942) who grew up in the Ukrainian shtetl of Bogopolia. His father, a cereal trader, gave his three sons a religious education. In 1919, Goychman left Russia for a three-year stay in the Land of Israel, before leaving for Paris to enroll in the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Goychman was arrested in Villeurbanne, in January, 1941 and interned in Compiegne. Transferred to Drancy, he, Isis Kischka and Jacques Gotko held an improvised exhibition of their drawings. On September 11, 1942, Goychman was deported to his death in Auschwitz. Polish-born Ephraim Mandelbaum (1884-1942) began painting when encouraged by his first teacher, Samuel Hirszenberg. In 1905, he received a scholarship to the Fine Art Academy in Cracow under the portraitist Joseph Mehoffer. A Cracow chemist, Dr. Frenkel, appreciated his painting and began supporting him financially. When Mandelbaum fell sick Frenkel sent him to convalesce in Egypt, where he spent several winters. He visited Palestine and worked here as an artist before returning to Cracow. During the First World War, Mandelbaum was imprisoned as a suspected Russian spy and sentenced to death by hanging; Frenkel's intervention saved his life. Despite four years spent convalescing in a Viennese hospital, his prison experience left him psychologically scarred. In 1925, Mandelbaum moved to Paris with his wife and son where he underwent another hospitalization before settling in Montparnasse. His wife, a nurse, cared for him and supported their family. But in July, 1942, Mandelbaum and his wife were arrested by the French police during the infamous Velodrome d'Hiver roundup and quickly deported to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. A few years later their son, the painter Sam Mandel, committed suicide in Paris. David Brainin (1905-42) ran away from school in Kharkhov to come to Palestine and lived here for five years. Moving to Paris in 1924, he attended classes in painting, choreography and dance, marrying a dancer with the Ballets Russes. In 1931, he and his wife were invited to dance in Rio de Janeiro, Mexico City and Buenos Aires. Back in Paris, Brainin studied painting for four years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts and specialized in movie-set design. Arrested in Paris during a police round up in April, 1942, he was interned in Drancy and later in Compiegne, where, in spite of the difficulties of camp life, he continued to draw portraits of prisoners and guards. In September of 1942, Brainin was deported to Auschwitz, where he was murdered. Sadly, there is not even a brochure to this show. And the picture labels are stuck way beneath the paintings, many at knee height, presumably by a small child who could not reach any higher. (Till May 31. Sun-Wed 9:00-17:00; Thurs 9:00-20:00, Fri and Holiday Eves: 9:00-14:00.)