New York

Erna Rosenstein, Północ (Portret matki) (Midnight [Portrait of the Artist’s Mother]), 1979, mixed media on canvas, 26 × 20 1⁄8".

Erna Rosenstein, Północ (Portret matki) (Midnight [Portrait of the Artist’s Mother]), 1979, mixed media on canvas, 26 × 20 1⁄8".

Erna Rosenstein

Erna Rosenstein (1913–2004) was a Polish Jew and Communist who ended up abjuring her political party when Poland fell to the Soviets after World War II. But she didn’t abandon Judaism, despite the loss of her parents, who were murdered by a bandit while her country was under Nazi occupation. Though terribly disillusioned, she never lost faith in the substantive illusions of art. She was a painter as well as a poet: A member of the avant-garde Kraków Group during the 1930s, she refused to make propagandistic socialist-realist art under Joseph Stalin’s brutal reign.

This wide-ranging exhibition, organized by curator Alison M. Gingeras, was the first showing of Rosenstein’s art in the United States and featured a selection of the visionary abstractions, landscapes, and figurative works she made after World War II. Included in this presentation were a number of memento mori: The most compelling among them were the eerie Świt (Portret ojca) (Dawn [Portrait of the Artist’s Father]) and Północ (Portret matki) (Midnight [Portrait of the Artist’s Mother]), both 1979. The former is a painting of her dead father—his head hovers in a pale-blue sky, the hint of red blood on his neck suggesting he has been guillotined—while the latter is a mixed-media-on-canvas rendering of her deceased mother, whose floating severed head smiles kindly against a pitch-black ground. Księga wiecznej pamię (Book of Eternal Remembrance), 1995, was a handpainted artist’s book with collaged materials, drawings, and poetry that is both a profound assertion of Rosenstein’s Jewishness and a testament to life before and after the Shoah—a haunting piece that makes one wonder if the small candle-like object in the oil Pałac piorunów (Palace of Lightning), 1983, is an eternal flame. These despairing works were tempered by Rosenstein’s illustrations for Mała opowieść ślimaku i wszystkich jego przyjaciołach (Tiny Tale of Snail and All His Friends), 1997–2001, a surprisingly optimistic collection of crayon-and-watercolor pieces made for children. They are meticulously executed, clear-eyed, and undeniably tender.

But the more trenchant masterpieces here were Rosenstein’s marvelous abstractions, including the deliriously chaotic Indianie (Indians) ca. 1950, and the explosive Spalenie czarownicy (The Burning of a Witch), 1966. Sometimes Rosenstein piles up her rich, painterly gestures into a murky complexity, as we saw in Kawiarnia (Tiny Café), 1947, while elsewhere they are stripped down, as the flat broad planes of Choragiew (Banner), 1975, demonstrated. Krzyk o północy (Scream at Midnight), 1968, combined both of these modalities: It features an oddly visceral, flaming slope rendered in gold and a blood-drenched red that butts up against a variegated field of grimy blues, grays, and whites. To call images like this one “Surrealist dream pictures,” as many art historians have, is lazy and represents a misreading of their Sturm und Drang fury. Their aesthetic complexity and psychic density, presented as sensuous and expressive ends in and of themselves, confirm their romanticism. And though the paintings tend to be small, they unequivocally deliver. They are abstract portraits of a soul in distress—turbulent nightmares brought under a semblance of artistic control.

Surrealist paintings are a species of what used to be called “literary paintings”; they are clever illustrations rather than feverish eruptions, peculiarly objective rather than profoundly subjective. They are meant to be deciphered and read, thus demanding an interpretive method that short-circuits their emotional effect, unlike Rosenstein’s disturbing abstractions, which are powerfully immediate: The mortified skin of her images gets under our own. To use Freud’s distinction, the artist’s nonobjective works owe their originality to the fact that they are primary, rather than secondary, process pieces. They are not indebted to Parisian Surrealism, as has been said, but to German Expressionism. It is worth noting that between 1932 and 1934 Rosenstein studied in Vienna, where she likely became aware of the Secessionists, before studying in Kraków, where she possibly learned about vanguard Russian artists. Rosenstein may have been aware of what Wassily Kandinsky called the “psychology of color,” the concept arising in his 1911 landmark essay “Concerning the Spiritual in Art,” in which he argued that art had to come out of “inner necessity.” It was certainly need that drove her to make such astonishing and original work.