Erna Rosenstein, Aubrey Williams. The Earth Will Open its Mouth
The exhibition The earth will open its mouth represents a dialog between paintings by Erna Rosenstein (1913–2004) and Aubrey Williams (1926–1990). It shows how they revisited the past, turned to organic forms and explored the depths of the earth, discovering what had been hidden and left unsaid. Their encounter offers insight into how painting communicated the traumas of historical violence in the 1950s and 1960s, at a time marked both by decolonization and the emergence of public memory about the Holocaust. Williams, a Guyanese painter based in London, and Rosenstein, a Polish artist of Jewish descent, provided their own pictorial alternatives of modernity. Their works addressed problems shared by all existence, such as transformation and survival. This exhibition has been prompted by the co-presence of Rosenstein’s and Williams’s works in the collection of the Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź.
ms2, 19 Ogrodowa St
In work by Erna Rosenstein – painter, poet and Holocaust survivor – themes of the earth, and the traces, remnants and evidence it may conceal, occupy a central position. For her, the earth was the source of life; and a grave. But it was also a repository of knowledge: if we listen, it can tell us about the past. The artist, who escaped death herself, sought the exhumation of her parents’ bodies after they had been murdered following their escape from the Lwów Ghetto (today’s Lviv). Her efforts led to the excavation of the bodies and their burial in 1964. In her poetry and painting, she expressed her intuition that the accumulation of human remains changes the natural environment and that the non-human world can potentially provide evidence of genocidal crimes.
In Williams’s art, the history of colonial and racist oppression appears both as the direct subject of his paintings and as a “specter” that haunts them. They speak of colonial genocide, slavery, and the destruction of indigenous Caribbean cultures and the natural environment. Through his paintings, Williams evoked Guyanese landscapes and the geological matter that lay underneath. His works articulated the necessity of shifting attention and expanding the field of vision in one’s surroundings to the geological and the mineral.
The space that stretches between these two artistic practices is, on the one hand, an eruption of life, color and expressive shapes, and on the other hand, an unknown graveyard, where human remains make contact with nature – both seeking justice and wanting to be mourned. To look at Williams’s and Rosenstein’s practices is to journey to the traces of the past and historical violence – which, much like memory, is not fixed. Williams referred to the feeling that pictorial art stirred within him “a tragic excitement”. The phrase can be applied to both of the artists’ practices. In the one and the other, a sense of loss intertwined with the affirmation of life.
Rosenstein’s paintings include themes that conjure the archetypal space of the cave; as well as inspirations from archeology and prehistoric art. In Williams’s art, similar themes surface as a direct result of his encounter with Guyana’s indigenous inhabitants of the Warrau tribe. But the two artists’ works did not only converge in these themes; the painters also shared sensibilities and imaginations. Williams was fascinated by petroglyphs – traditional drawings carved in stone – and by pre-Columbian art; whereas Rosenstein pondered how images emerged and persisted in culture. Both artists repeatedly painted scenes of fire, conflagration and destruction. They provoked a reflection on what is left behind by violence in personal and intergenerational memory. This is especially relevant in the face of the destruction that affects the lives of individuals, entire generations and ecosystems.
Patron of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź
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ms2, 19 Ogrodowa St