We Expect Our Art to be Perfect

wedding dance tornAre you on Facebook? So is Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life! This recent Facebook post has elicited some nice comments, so I’m sharing it here too.

We expect our art to be perfect, unblemished. We are taught to say it is damaged or no longer as valuable when the artist’s original image is damaged. We lament imperfection. But in these tears and creases in my great-grandfather’s works I see a story to be told. These losses aren’t to be mourned. This is valuable history that speaks volumes of the Polish-Jewish community and the tragic losses it suffered in the Holocaust.
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Art as Witness

Today I have a guest blog post on a site run by Rachel Muller.  Rachel and I met on Twitter, our mutual interest in revisiting the past, particularly in regards to the Second World War, is our connecting point. My piece is a short one that introduces readers to my great-grandfather’s art and the vibrant life and culture in Warsaw in the interwar years.

Please visit Rachel’s site through this link to read Moshe Rynecki: Art as Witness on her blog.

 

 

Jewish Heir Searching for Lost Family Art

With Clooney’s Monuments Men film now viewed by many audiences, and the revelations of the Gurlitt trove of art in Germany, there has been a lot of publicity about the lost and looted art of the Second World War. While much of the recent interest in looted art seems centered around the astronomical value of famous artworks both lost and found, there are much greater numbers of lesser known pieces that vanished during the war, and each has a tale to tell. I have a very personal interest in these lesser known stories, because for more than a decade I have been dedicated to finding works painted by my great-grandfather, Moshe, who perished in Majdanek.

While Moshe (two self portraits below) perished in the Holocaust, incredibly my grandparents and father (who was eight when the war ended) survived the war.  And thanks to Moshe’s foresight, the surviving family’s determination, and an incredible stroke of good luck, my family was able to recover a small portion of his art.  That any of Moshe’s art survived the massive devastation visited on Warsaw through the course of the Nazi invasion, uprisings by the Jews and Poles, and the subsequent Soviet occupation is astounding. That my relatives managed to find it (and each other) in the chaos after the war ended is even more astonishing. So although I never met my great-grandfather, I feel as though I did because I literally grew up surrounded by his paintings, featured proudly on the walls of my parents’ and grandparents’ homes.

But in order to tell this story properly, I need to take several steps back and start at the beginning. My great-grandfather started out life as the son of a tailor in Siedlce, a small town east of Warsaw. He was a student, and while he loved to draw and paint, he did not receive much mentoring or encouragement. His father made sure he finished both his Jewish education at a Yeshiva as well as a more traditional education at a Russian middle school. Eventually Moshe was allowed to attend the Warsaw Academy of Art, but only for a short time period; his father just didn’t see how his son could make a living painting pictures. To discourage his son from pursuing an art career, he married him off to Perla Mittelsbach, a woman from a family of some means. Together they operated an art supply store selling paint supplies, writing materials, and books for artists and students.

Perla Rynecki, 1929Moshe, for his part, never wanted to give up painting and, considering his culture and the times he lived in, he was very fortunate to be able to continue to paint. Perla (at left in their store) supported, or at least accepted, the fact that her husband was primarily interested in painting. And so while Perla tended to the store and its customers, Moshe took his keen eye, sketchbook, and paints into the world to record what he saw. His paintings reveal a painter whose real skill was visual narration, with a keen eye for exploring and documenting the daily rhythm of life. He painted artisans and laborers, study and worship in the Synagogue, and moments of leisure. He was modestly successful, exhibiting consistently in the 1920s and 1930s in Warsaw. His works were featured in Jewish art salons, the Jewish Society for the Promotion of Fine Arts, and at the Warsaw Art Academy.

Moshe was also prolific: by my grandpa George’s account, Moshe had produced roughly 800 paintings and some sculptures by 1939. In September, when the Nazis invaded, my great-grandfather became concerned that his life’s work would be destroyed. In an effort to safeguard his art, he divided it into bundles and distributed the work to trusted friends in and around the city of Warsaw. He gave lists of the hiding places to his wife, son, and daughter, hoping that eventually his oeuvre would once again be whole.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. While his son George begged him to stay outside the Warsaw Ghetto and hide, Moshe willingly went into the Ghetto to “be with his people,” and was eventually deported to Majdanek where he perished. My father and his parents miraculously survived the Second World War living in Warsaw with fake papers. They paid bribes, bought and sold goods on the black market, and had their fair share of close calls. In fact, my grandpa George spent the last year of the war in a prison, and was being marched to a death camp when he was liberated by American soldiers. Moshe’s wife, Perla, survived the war, as did a few cousins. But Moshe’s daughter, as well as most of my father’s family, did not.

Although the war had left the vast majority of Warsaw in rubble, Perla returned with a cousin to search for the hidden bundles of art. Her husband, her store, and the world she knew were all gone, but she hoped to be able to at least retrieve Moshe’s legacy. She believed the paintings would tell the story of a community that once thrived in Poland, acting as a testament to her husband’s passion for art, to the Jewish people and culture, and a way of life that once flourished. Perla found only a single bundle in the basement of a home across the river Vistula, just over 100 pieces. Many were relatively pristine; others were ripped, torn, and stepped upon. She bundled up the surviving works and took them to her son (my grandpa George) who, by that point, was living in Italy awaiting permission from the United States government to emigrate and start his life anew.

George later wrote in his memoir that these were the only pieces that survived. For many years my father and I thought the same, but ultimately, and to our great joy, we discovered that we were wrong. In 2000 we learned the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw has 52 of my great-grandfather’s pieces. In the years since we have learned of several collectors with his works, and of the survival of at least one other bundle purchased by Polish partisans after the war. As a result of the sheer number of discoveries, I believe there must be more of his work out there – pieces in attics, basements, or simply hanging in people’s homes.

Today I am an heir to this story, this legacy, and the paintings. My great grandfather saw his role as documenting the world around him; I see mine as uncovering and sharing a world that was lost. So first I shared the works I had; with my father’s support I built a website featuring Moshe’s paintings. This led to a watershed moment, when we were contacted in 2002 by Yad Vashem whose curator, Yehudit Shendar, requested we donate a piece painted in the Warsaw Ghetto. Although it was difficult to part with a piece, we felt it was both an honor to Moshe and a way of sharing with the many visitors to the museum.

Ultimately, culture belongs to all of us. In the Monuments Men film, Clooney’s character says “if you destroy an entire generation of a people’s culture it’s as if they never existed. That’s what Hitler wants and it’s the one thing we can’t allow.”  My family is doing its best to preserve the memory of the Polish Jewish culture portrayed in my great-grandfather’s works.  We share the art we have on our website, on social media, and in talks at Universities and museums. I am working on both a book and a documentary film about Moshe’s art, and my quest to find the lost and missing pieces.

For me, each painting is an actual, physical link to the past. Each brush stroke is an extension of my great-grandfather; of who he was and of the time and place of his life.  I know the collection will never be whole again, but I feel compelled to search for the surviving paintings. I keep thinking that if I find enough of them; if I learn enough of their stories and the stories of the people whose lives they have touched, I will understand. Understand the fragments of a vanished culture the paintings portray, and in them, find the echoes of my great-grandfather.

 

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[note: I originally approached several different national newspapers, magazines, and online news outlets about publishing this piece. None were interested, so I’m sharing it here instead.]

[note 2.  4/23/2014: Since publishing this piece, I have been invited to blog on Huffington Post. I have posted this piece on their site, and it can be seen here: Jewish Heir Searching for Lost Family Art]

 

#DrawArt: A Great Granddaughter’s Perspective

The quest to find my great-grandfather’s lost art means I spend a great deal of time focusing on what is missing from the original collection and searching for clues from the past rather than reflecting on what I know about the pieces my family already has. This collaborative video project with Paige Dansinger enables me to pause and gaze inward – to take a longer look at the pieces we already have and to reflect on what each of the pieces shows and teaches us about his body of work.

Although the Moshe Rynecki story begins with an artist whose life and work belong squarely in the 20th century, today the #mrynecki story is also very much a contemporary one.  Paige (who is in Minneapolis) and I met on Twitter.  We have never met in person (I live in California) but talked on the phone and used email, Facebook, and Twitter to collaborate.  This project is the result of a social media connection and friendship that gave me the opportunity to curate and explore an element of my great-grandfather’s work – representations of women – that otherwise sometimes gets lost in the shadow of his portrayal of men in religious study.

I love that this project breathes new life into my great-grandfather’s art and leads me to new discoveries.

[Note: Below the video are the six images Paige paints in the video.]

24 Krucza Street

I know from my grandpa George’s memoir that the family lived at 24 Krucza Street in Warsaw.  He writes of it twice in his memoir.  This is his most vivid description of the apartment:

I have brought my sister through machine gunfire about ten city blocks from the exams to our home on Krucza 24 where we lived at this time. We had an apartment of six rooms on the third floor. Uncounted paintings and sculpture adorned the walls. Our upright piano, black ebony, in the living room. Red mahogany furniture. And ever present art. My father, Moshe, was an artist, a known painter.

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I also have an envelope showing the building number as the return address for a letter my great-grandfather wrote to Otto Schneid.

 

 

 

 

 

Perla Rynecki, 1929

And for a long time I’ve been told the portrait of my great-grandmother, Perla, was painted inside the shop the family ran in the building.

 

 

 

 

 

24 Krucza streetAnd I know from Google maps street view what the building at the address looks like today.

 

 

 

 

But I’ve never seen what the building looked like before the war, before it was destroyed, and hauled away as rubble.  Today I got an email from a man who pointed out a website that appears to be displaying the photographs of a building that was 24 Krucza Street, the same building where my great-grandparents lived.  These are those photos, taken before 1939, and labeled on the website as coming from a private collection.  Even more incredible, the man who emailed me says his great-grandparents lived at 25 Krucza Street, the building across the street.

 

 

Jewish Heirs Searching for Lost Family Art

I am not the only heir of a Jewish artist searching for lost art.  It’s important that all stories of searches (and finds!) be more well known.  I thought I’d share the three people and artists with whom I am familiar.

Miriam Friedman Morris – Miriam’s father, David Friedmann (later changed to Friedman) was an Austrian painter and graphics artist who lived in Berlin from 1911 until the end of 1938, when he fled the Nazis to Prague.  I was lucky enough to meet Miriam in New York in June 2013 at the German Consulate General and to see the work of her father which was on display in the “Painting to Survive – The Work of David Friedman” exhibit.  You can also view a video of the opening reception of the David Friedman Exhibition.  In addition to collecting her father’s lost and scattered works, she also has generously donated them to many [Read more…]

Untitled? My Guest Blog on Museumlines.

Museumlines is a London based blog hosted by David Mentiply (@davidmentiply) offering reviews of museums, galleries and exhibitions. I was invited to write about the Moshe Rynecki project for the blog.  My piece, “Untitled?” is about titles (or lack thereof) for my great-grandfather’s paintings.  The piece explores curatorial choices versus known information and a viewer’s “needs.”

Here’s the piece as it appears on Museumlines:

Moshe Rynecki was a Warsaw based artist who painted scenes of the Polish Jewish community in the interwar years. He had a keen eye for exploring and documenting the daily rhythm of life; painting scenes from the synagogue, manual labor, and leisure time. At the outbreak of the Second World War Moshe became concerned about preserving his life’s work. In the early days of the war he made the decision to divide his oeuvre of approximately 800 works into a number of bundles, and to hide them in and around Warsaw. He gave a list of the locations where the works were hidden to his wife, son, and daughter, in hopes that after the war the family would retrieve the bundles and the collection would be whole once again. Moshe perished in the Holocaust. After the war his surviving widow recovered only a small percentage of the original collection; just over 100 paintings.  Today his great-granddaughter is searching for the lost and missing pieces from the original collection.  To date she has located approximately 70 pieces.

I grew up in the shadow of my great-grandfather’s paintings. Many pieces hung on the walls of my parents’ home which, given the sheer number of works, sometimes made my childhood home feel an awful lot like the hallowed halls of a museum.  While the presence of the art sometimes made me feel more like I lived in an exhibition than a child-friendly home with play spaces, I had the distinct advantage of actually living in the space.  There were no crowds, no closing times, and no security guards objecting to my close proximity to the works.  The disadvantage, if there was one, centered around my having to learn about the art on my own.  There was no curator to group the works by theme, style, or other artistic attributes, and never any exhibit labels to contextualize or explain the paintings to me.

In a way, having paintings hanging with no written guidance is liberating. In fact, today it has become hip for some museums to not provide any information at all about the works on display.  The theoretical concept for this lack of labels is to liberate visitors from a curator’s preconceived notions; to allow viewers to assess and appreciate the aesthetic appeal of a given piece (or a larger collection) without the wisdom and insight of titles or explanatory paragraphs.  My parents were not ahead of their time, of course; very few, if any, private collectors have descriptive labels on their collection.  Instead, guests notice the art on display and sometimes inquire about it.  The family learns to curate the work verbally – to share the pieces they love and to tell abbreviated stories about the collection.  This approach works quite well if the art is in your family and isn’t shared beyond the walls of your home, but as interest in my great-grandfather’s work has grown, and my responsibility to the collection has expanded, the haphazard titles assigned to the pieces gnaws at me.[Read more…]

Past and Present Collide

I know this isn’t going to make a lot of sense to many people, but for me Poland has always been the land of shadows. It has been the black and white photographs from the Second World War. It is the amalgamation of my great-grandfather’s paintings. It is “the old country.” It is the country of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s stories. I have come to know it not through its current residents, but through the memories of survivors. It is a place where I am afraid to go – not for my physical safety – but because the shadows of the past frighten me. I wonder how not being called the Americanized “rye-neck-e” that I know as my own identity, but rather a “ri-net-ski” (the proper Polish pronunciation) will make me feel. I am confused by the issues of history, identity, memory, and self. It is why I will NOT go alone when I travel there to film for my documentary film.

My great-grandfather lived at 24 Krucza Street. While I’ve always known this fact, it was confirmed and made very real for me with the discovery of this envelope and letter showing it as his return address. I’ve always known it is the place where the family had the art[Read more…]

Art: Lives. People Making Connections Through Art

I wrote a piece, “Stories Behind the Canvases: My Relationship to an Art Legacy” for the website Art: Lives – People Making Connections Through Art.  The site’s goal and purpose is to be a place for people to share the art they collect and the stories behind the art in their lives.  It’s about trying to better understand how, “artistic expression impacts us and people we know.”  I’m excited about writing for this site because it’s a place where the stories behind the art are just as important as the art itself.  It’s the [Read more…]

Fragments of Memory

Although there are many gaping holes in my knowledge of my family’s war time story, the one story that I do know is one my grandfather told me when I was about eight years old. The way I remember it, my parents and I were visiting my grandparents’ home when, during a pause in the conversation, my grandfather announced he wanted to tell me “A true family story.”  The story begins in June of 1943. My father and grandmother have been arrested by the Polish police on the streets of Warsaw. But just as Grandpa is getting going in the story, Grandma stands up and interrupts him. “Don’t tell this story. Please,” she begs, “no war stories.”  Grandpa tells her I’m old enough to hear the story, that it’s his home, and he can tell his granddaughter whatever he pleases. Grandma shakes her head; the rush of wartime memories seem to fill her mind and send her reeling. She yells at Grandpa in Polish. I don’t speak Polish, so I have no idea what she’s saying, but her voice shakes and trembles, and she’s on the verge of tears. It’s clear to me that she does not want grandpa to tell this story. Grandpa responds to her pleas with a raised and unsympathetic voice. Grandma starts crying and leaves the[Read more…]