Tuesday, November 13, 2012
Art, whether paint on canvas or words on the printed page, speaks to its audiences in a myriad of ways, with the impact of the message dependent on the artist’s use of the right medium.
Deborah M. Rosenthal found this to be true in the case of Jean Hélion, whose abstract paintings established him as one of the leading modernists in France in the 1930s. A decade later, however, Hélion used the written word to detail his experiences as a prisoner of war, held captive by the Nazis for two years in Poland before his escape. And while Hélion’s art endures, his account of his captivity – put to words in 1943’s They Shall Not Have Me – had been reduced to cult-classic status after initially becoming a bestseller following its release nearly 70 years ago.
Rosenthal, a professor of Fine Arts at Rider since 1989, was invited by Arcade Publishing to serve as the consulting editor for its new Arcade Artists & Art Series, which debuted with They Shall Not Have Me, and more recently continued with A Free House! Or, the Artist as a Craftsman, by Walter Richard Sickert. The series features volumes out of print for some anywhere from 20 to 70 years – memoirs, manifestos, books on theory, critical biography and criticism – that Rosenthal says deserve to be reexamined by the art community and beyond.
“They’re not coffee table books,” she explained. “Rather, it’s a quirky, but not unserious, series of books that I think deserve to be back in print.”
Rosenthal says the example of They Shall Not Have Me is particularly significant, not only for the quality and depth of Hélion’s writing, but also for the fact that it also represents one of the first published glimpses into the horror of Nazi brutality during World War II.
“For me, it’s a serious adventure tale, but it also prefigures accounts by people in concentration camps,” she said. “It’s not about art, but Hélion was such a shrewd observer of human beings.”
In the forward she wrote for the book, Rosenthal explains how They Shall Not Have Me is not a typical book by an artist, and that “the absence of art from its pages serves to create a different kind of picture – a sketch of the gigantic hole ripped in the fabric of life and the human culture by the Nazi assault on the world.” Though Hélion was eager to tell his story to the masses after his 1942 escape, his book has since been marginalized to a life not beyond the art community, particularly among painters.
“I’m excited to be adding material, in the form of introduction,” Rosenthal said. “This work helps explain who he is as a painter to an audience who may not know him.”
In the new reprint of A Free House!, a collection of writings by Sickert as compiled by Sir Osbert Sitwell, readers will once again come to know the German-born painter still regarded as a key influence on 20th century British avant-garde art. Rosenthal notes that the title of Sitwell’s compilation is a reference to the pubs of Edwardian England, in which “tied houses” were limited to serving beer and ale of a single brewery, while free houses could serve any and all brands.
“No doubt Sickert, who died in 1942 at the age of 81, is himself the ‘free house’ here – not tied to a single master or aesthetic doctrine,” Rosenthal notes at the start of the book. “The exclamation point raises his voice, as he serves up his thoughts on artists and art.”
During the fall and spring, the Arcade Artists & Art series, under Rosenthal’s consultation, will also publish Erwin Rosenthal’s The Changing Concept of Reality in Art and Contemporary Art in the Light of History; Wolfgang Paalen’s Form and Sense, and Sandra Davidson’s My Family and Other Animals, a book of animal caricatures by Davidson, the daughter of the famous American sculptor Alexander Calder, focusing on the Calder family.
“Ideas don’t go away in 20 years. These are texts that have relevance to anyone interested in art today,” Rosenthal said of the series. “Ideas don’t go bad on the shelf; I’m glad to bring things out of the shadows like this.”
* * *
In October, Rosenthal presented a lecture at the University of Virginia Art Museums’ Fralin Museum of Art, entitled The Artist in Society: Jean Hélion, painter, writer, prisoner, as part of the current exhibition Jean Hélion: Reality and Abstraction. The showing followed an acclaimed exhibit Rosenthal curated at the Schroeder Romero & Shredder Gallery in New York, entitled Jean Hélion: Five Decades, in spring 2012.