Recipes from Auschwitz – Thelma Rosner

Recipes from Auschwitz
Loop Gallery, Toronto
June 1-23, 2019

Detail – Recipes from Her Book, oil and graphite on handmade paper, 1998-2019

The work of artist Thelma Rosner has been a long-standing interest of mine. She is a friend, and I’ve written about her work before. I was looking forward to seeing Recipes from Auschwitz because the subject of concentration camp victims is difficult to visualize in an accessible way.

On first view, the main wall of paintings in this exhibition is very inviting. Arranged like pages of a book, the diptychs depict fruits and vegetables that are rich, dark, but also disconcerting in the way they seem to cast shadowy echoes of themselves on facing pages. I found this effect unnerving and wondered about my reaction.

From the Recipe Book, 2019, archival digital prints, 26 x 20 in.

The very title of this exhibition is a challenge: linking recipes and Auschwitz, the idea of food preparation and the horrors of the Nazi concentration camp experience often depicted with images of extreme starvation. The artist explains that her inspiration was a tiny recipe book created by a prisoner in the camp. Locked in a hopeless, dark and bitter place, the young Hungarian, Elisabeth Raab Yanowski, and her fellow inmates found solace in sharing their memories of the wonderful food they once had the freedom to make and enjoy. Elisabeth was moved to create a book of these recipes. It seems an act of desperation and bravery, collecting scraps of paper from the garbage of the Nazis, finding what must have been pencil stubs, and recording the remembered dishes in surprisingly clear handwriting. Somehow she kept this talisman safely hidden.

Still Life with Her Recipes, oil and graphite on handmade paper, 1998-2019, dimensions variable

When the surviving prisoners were released at the war’s end, Elizabeth was among them, and brought the tiny ‘book’ with her. Rosner includes three digital prints, From the Recipe Book  displayed on the wall facing the diptychs. It seems ironic to see the scraps of bureaucratic forms with their columns for accounts and boldly printed headings about work assignments and the like, covered with the careful cursive handwriting detailing directions for a luscious torte or hearty stew. That a woman trapped in a dire situation should go to such lengths to create and preserve this memento speaks to the significance of these memories.

Turning from the tiny recipe book pages to the opposite wall, I study Still Life with Her Recipes (oil and graphite on handmade paper, 1998-2019, dimensions variable). The ‘pages’ extend into the space and are installed along the wall. In each case, the page on the left has a dark ground, contrasting with the light, facing page. Set against the dark ground are individual or paired fruits and vegetables: onions, grapes, eggplants, pears, melons, to name a few. They invite close inspection because they are so realistic and lush. The onion, for instance, has textures and details that transfer to feelings in my hand. I realize how surprising this is because the representation is done in darks and lights, not colour. On the lighter facing page, there is a kind of mirror image of the onion that transfers the original highlights into dark areas, with the rest almost lost in the light. The effect is an eerie sensation.

Detail – Still Life with Her Recipes, oil and graphite on handmade paper, 1998-2019

I walk along the wall looking at this aspect on the work, noting the discomfort this provokes in me. The grapes are a good example – the small globes rise from the dark ground with highlights emphasizing their three-dimensional qualities. The mirror image on the right is almost shocking. It is as though we see a burnt out image with just enough shadow to tell us these are remains of the original. Why am I so disturbed by this? I feel as though there has been an explosion and what I see are the results of white heat, a flash of light, and so little of the original beauty survives. Yet that little bit is still there. Rosner’s use of contrasts of light and dark has been a recurring theme in her recent work, reflecting her concern with national and religious conflict.

Moving back and forth along the wall to study these pages, finally I focus on one that is different. The pepper! This diptych is opposite: the grounds are reversed so that the left hand page is light and the facing page is dark. And the dark pepper casts a shadow on the light ground. The light version on the right is more whole than any of the others, more of a whole mirror image. The form of this pepper reminds me of a human body and I cannot let go of this reference.

Detail – Still Life with Her Recipes (oil and graphite on handmade paper, 1998-2019

I step back and consider the whole wall of images. That tiny recipe book has been brought to life through these images. In my mind, the pepper/body does double duty because it helps me understand how memory can work to keep mind and body together in the most horrendous circumstances. The strength of our human spirit is made visible here, through an ordinary, basic experience: remembering the feel of food, of cooking, of eating, of friends and family.

Food as a significant bearer of culture is a theme Thelma Rosner has explored before in works such as Andalusia and Testimony (2000-2002), paintings rich with the colour and texture of fruits and vegetables such as eggplants and pomegranates. Here, however, the paintings in Still Life with Her Recipes find their richness not in colour, but in deep darkness. Rosner achieved this effect by sometimes rubbing the pigment to blend dark into less dark, and applying slightly pigmented cold wax to the surface of the paintings.

I believe this shifts the focus of the work, encouraging us to recognize the mirror images of our human nature. We are capable of the most horrific acts; we are capable of the most warm and generous acts. Recipes from Auschwitz is a kind of summation of Rosner’s intense studies of the range of human behaviors, from language, wars, to women’s lives. It is as though the artist can focus on the black and white of life, and while her starting reference point is history, I say it is also the here and now.

Madeline Lennon, Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University

Images are used with the permission of the artist.

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