Miriam Cahn

The famous question Is it still possible to write poetry after Auschwitz? has been transformed by the Swiss artist Miriam Cahn into the no less pressing question, Is it still possible to make significant art in a world that is threatened by the nuclear bomb?

Cahn’s medium is drawing, a painterly kind of drawing marked by many gradations between black and white, line and surface, figure and spatial expanse. Her images are traumatic, comparable to that incomprehensible dance of figures in a dream, where location is as difficult to define as it is in Cahn’s work. Each drawing intensifies this sensation of being in an ambiguous psychic place from which impossibly contorted faces and figures emerge. These figures are a melange of animal, human, and plant forms, either goblins or, more often, menacing ghosts, children or quivering old people. All are without a firm stand. They circle about one another, surfacing from deep pools of blackness or bright light, only to stare wide-eyed and disappear again; or they are attached to antennas, listening intently without telling anyone what they hear.

Among the works in this exhibition, which was organized by the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, were two recent books of drawings, both titled “Strategische Orte” (Strategic sites, 1984), which provided the show’s title and theme. One book contains a series of colorful pastels, transformations of the light generated by an atomic explosion, the light that precedes by seconds the final destruction. In the second book, one discovers an incredible variety of childlike drawings, messages from the lost world of innocence. Some of these are delicately diffuse, some extremely dense; all are done in velvety black chalk. In these books Cahn offers a condemnation of man’s ultimate folly that is at once poetic and sarcastic.

Moving away from the books, one’s attention was drawn to three monumental landscape drawings, Cahn’s most recent works: Berge (Mountains), Hügel (Hills), and Stadt (City), all 1985—the “strategic sites” of impending catastrophe. For each, black chalk has been scattered on and ground into the paper, a spontaneous act of drawing that transforms the material into an overwhelming experience of threatening clouds of smoke. The remaining white areas in the ominous black expanse evoke the last diffuse light before the apocalypse. These are drawings in which no human figures appear. Yet, no less so than the other, earlier drawings in this exhibition, which are populated by human ciphers, these too are images of the search for the strategic site of humanity in the face of an undeniable threat, the extinction of primordial energy by the manmade power of the bomb.

Along with Arnulf Rainer’s “Hiroshima-Zyklus” (Hiroshima cycle, 1982–84), this work is among the most important expressions of our contemporary dance with death. In its essential ambivalence, its oscillation between impending death and vital energy, Cahn’s work attains an intensity of expression that is all but impossible to escape. The use of the medium of drawing, with its undisguised and uncorrected directness, its recording of unmediated feelings, supports the radical existential experience embedded in Cahn’s work. The concentration on the color black and the sensual quality of the chalks, whose consistency heightens the sense of transiency, push the expressiveness of this work to the point where it becomes a magical, poetic incantation of life. In the wide-eyed gaze of Cahn’s childlike figures, astonishment and terror seem to hold each other in balance, defying catastrophe.

Annelie Pohlen

Translated from the German by Leslie Strickland.