Sep 2009 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

With remarkable vigour and dedication, two Russian-born women have brought new life to the work of gifted Czech painter, poet and librettist Peter Kien, who died in Auschwitz aged 25. A poignant exhibition celebrating his work continues this month in the grim setting of the Czech former ghetto and Nazi transit camp, Terezin, in honour of what would have been Kien’s 90th birthday. The exhibition, Franz Peter Kien – I Think, Love and Hate in Colours, in Forms!, is curated by Elena Makarova. An extensive catalogue, detailing Kien’s early life in the former Sudetenland town of Varnsdorf, was written by Ira Rabin to accompany the exhibition.

Much of Peter Kien’s extensive work, painted in Terezin’s technical drawing office, where he was director, is in the Expressionist style. An energy flows through his work, as though he is grasping the life which for him will prove a fleeting moment. Using stolen paper, Kien drew and painted the people around him in the camp. A drawing of his wife Ilse betrays the fear and anxiety she inevitably felt. His drawings of camp life, including those of the theatrical entertainment permitted in Terezin, are said to be invaluable testimony as to the true nature of Terezin - an inhuman concentration camp rather than the ‘show-case’ Jewish settlement which fooled the gullible Red Cross.

In 1943-44 Kien wrote the libretto to Viktor Ullmann’s one-act chamber opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, a subversive work which led to the deaths of both in Auschwitz.
Whitechapel Gallery likes to attract artists local and international. The latest one to feature under the all-encompassing light of the refurbished gallery is American artist Elizabeth Peyton. Her often miniature mood paintings are quite derivative of David Hockney, but the reflective pose she favours suggests a melancholy mood, particularly in her images from French literature. The line drawings have more immediacy, though.

Peter Kien: drawing of Viktor Ullmann

Walking in my Mind at the Hayward Gallery features the work of ten international artists. It explores their imagination through immersive large-scale installation art. Yoshimoto Nara’s My Drawing Room is a life-size recreation of the artist’s youth in the form of a cabin filled with the paraphernalia of his early memories. This includes battered toys, crayons and ripped-up drawings – a reflection of his days as solitary student artist, rock music blaring from a stereo and Japanese anime art on the walls. This perfectly encapsulates a moment: you can almost see the artist as a child in that space.

Yayoi Kusama uses her experience of recurring hallucinations to generate a striking installation of wall-to-ceiling red and white polka dots comprising huge misshapen inflatables. We explore the ‘dizzy, empty hypnotic feeling’ of the artist’s universe.

Thomas Hirschhorn’s Cavemanman re-creates a cave out of cardboard and brown packaging tape. Entering this cardboard labyrinth, you encounter foil-covered shop dummies, film posters and pages of political tracts, all connected to dynamite sticks, making you wonder if it will all explode!


Gloria Tessler

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