Sunday, September 16, 2018

Discoveries at Rochester's Memorial Art Gallery

"Untitled" by Josephine
Tota (1987)
A trip to Rochester wouldn't be complete without a visit to the Memorial Art Gallery. This outing yielded the discovery of two artists whose work was extremely personal: Josephine Tota and Esther Nisenthal Krinitz.

Like many people, Tota didn't begin to paint until she retired in her late 50s. Her life had not been a happy one. Tota suffered from a variety of medical ailments, including depression, for which she underwent electroshock therapy. Painting provided a means of escape. 

Tota took classes at the Creative Workshop at the very same Memorial Art Gallery where Maggie and I took in the exhibit. Tota's early work was standard fare, with landscapes and still lifes filling her canvases. It wasn't until she was in her 70s that her surrealistic bent emerged.

"The Surreal Visions of Josephine Tota" included 90 vivid works created over an 11 year period. Most are untitled, and Tota rarely shared any information about them. She was an artist who truly painted for herself.

Her paintings, including the one shown above, often include women with a starlight pattern around her eyes. Art historians assume this is a reference to her own failed cataract surgery. The format of this painting, with its decorative gold-leaf border, likely was inspired by a medieval illuminated manuscript. (The Memorial Art Gallery library contains such manuscripts, and it is thought Tota saw them there.) In another nod to the past, Tota often used egg tempera as her medium.

Tota also created 3D works. This version of "Untitled" was painted on a dressmaker's dummy cast from Tota's body. 

Tota was 79 when she agreed to an exhibit of 20 paintings and sculptures at the Creative Workshop. I can imagine her reluctantly going to the opening, standing in a corner nursing a glass of wine rather than holding court. I wonder what her reaction would be to this full-blown exhibit and to the curator's summation of her work, which read, "After a life of impotence within dominant social and political power structures, Tota found her radical voice painting the vivid, fantastical world within her head." 

"September 1942: This was a prelude to the Final Solution
that followed. At dawn, the Gestapo made a surprise raid and 
in our nightshirts, lined us up by the river and terrorized us 
with their guns as our Polish neighbors looked on." 
While I enjoyed the Tota exhibit, it was Esther Nisenthal Krinitz' "Fabric of Survival" that will stay with me 

Krinitz was a girl of 12 living in the Polish village of Mniszek when the Nazis arrived in 1939. For the next hree years, the village Jews lived at home with their families while being used as slave labor.  In 1942, the Jewish population of the village was told to report the next day to a train station 20 miles away to be moved to a "relocation camp." The families were told only to bring their money and jewelry and that there would be plenty of food where they were going. Esther and her sister Mania were somehow able to stay behind with a neighbor. They never saw their family again. 

Detail from Maidanek.  "August 1944. After the liberation, I left 
Grabowka and returned to Mniszek. None of my family was there. 
I went to Maidenek to search for signs of them. I looked through
piles of worn shoes but they all looked the same. After seeing the 
showers and gas chambers, the crematorium and the giant
cabbages growing on human ashes, I joined the Polish and Russian
armies stationed there."
It was only days before Esther and her sister were forced to leave the shelter they'd found with their neighbor. The risk was just too great for the family to harbor them. They traveled to the nearby village of Grabowka where they hid in plain sight for two years, working as "Catholic" farmhands. When the village was liberated by the Russians, Esther returned to Mniszek in search of her family. Unable to find them, she joined the Polish army.

After the war ended, Esther returned to Grabowka and was reunited with her sister. Still unable to locate their family, Esther and Mania went to a Displaced Persons camp where Esther met her future husband Max. 

In 1949, Esther and Max emigrated to the United States with Mania and their young daughter Bernice. A second daughter, Helene, arrived later. Esther owned a clothing store in Brooklyn and, later, Maryland until her death.  

"The Way to Berlin:  March 1945. Along with the 5th Division 
of the Russian Army, my Polish Army unit crossed the Oder
River into Germany. We passed the site of an earlier battle. 
The Russians had hung Nazi officers on every tree along the 
road. They looked as though they were still alive. Many other
dead Nazis lay scattered across the field, at the edge of which
a young pretty Russian soldier stood, pointing the way to Berlin."
Over the course of her life, Krinitz created 36 fabric collages chronicling her personal experience with the Holocaust. It was her way of sharing the story--and her family--with her daughters. Each quilt is embroidered with captions detailing the events shown. They are incredibly moving, and their simplicity only accentuates the horrors depicted. 

The exhibit is supplemented by a film featuring Esther's daughters talking about their mother and her drive to preserve her history through the creation of her fabric art.  Click here to watch that video.

Acclaimed film director Lawrence Kasdan also created a documentary about Krinitz. Click here to watch the result of his three days of interviews with her.

Krinitz' fabric art is featured in a picture book entitled "Memories of Survival." Her work is supplemented with historical detail and context provided by her daughter Bernice. "Memories of Survival" is available on Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. Nanette - I was so moved by your review of the Memorial Gallery & particularly the work of Esther Krinitz. Your blog post inspired me to listen to the interview and watch the video of her life. Thanks for writing about that. I noticed on one of the websites, that her work is coming to the Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore soon for a long stay. I am definitely planning to see it. thanks!


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