Entering Thelma Rosner’s exhibition at the McIntosh Gallery at Western University, I immediately pause in reaction to the floor installation that extends before me: a series of paintings on handmade paper arranged in rows and folded to resemble small tents. The sepia images seem spare in their simplicity and I find them somehow lonely. The first to catch my eye is a pair of shoes, then a book, a blank page, and two candlesticks, all in the first row.
I’m drawn to move along the side of the installation for closer views of the objects represented – jewelry, a musical instrument, a teapot, a broken comb, punctuated by the occasional blank sheet. And then a surprise. As the other sides of these small paper tents come into view there is a blast of vivid colour. From this perspective, all the sheets are painted, either with coloured versions of the sepia images or, where there were blank pages on one side, now there are birds. Interesting that Rosner found a way to represent the homelands of the refugees through the images of the national birds of the countries from which they fled. The reverse sides of these colourful bird images are blank sheets that seem to emphasize a lack, a void that was once filled with life.
For a number of years, the artist Thelma Rosner has considered the terrible reality too many people face when they must leave their homes and countries because of war, threats of genocide, natural disasters or other horrors. How do people survive? With the support of the London Cross Cultural Learner Centre, Rosner was able to talk with refugees about what they chose to bring with them when they came to Canada, which forms the basis for Where Can I Go Now?. She also created a bookwork, Some of Their Stories, with each person’s explanation for their choice. Displayed on a wall shelf at the end of the floor installation, the unbound pages repeat the image of a painted object with the reason for this choice in the individual’s words. Visitors are encouraged to pick up and read these sheets, creating a connection and some understanding of what it must be like to leave everything that was home.
This reality was made especially vivid for me with reports of the current situation of citizens fleeing the Ukraine under Russian attacks. Reporting on refugees arriving at the Polish border, a recent edition of The Globe and Mail national newspaper (March 5, 2022; A12-13) highlighted a series of photographs of hands holding objects, each linked with a statement about the individual and the reasons for their choices that were made under great stress and little time. I was struck by similarities such as photographs of loved ones, or a bunch of keys, attesting to the hope that the home now lost would somehow be recovered. It is a challenge to not be overwhelmed by this evidence of inhuman destruction that causes such fear and dislocation. This exhibition makes me wonder if it will ever stop, but also to marvel at the human capacity for resistance and survival.
Rosner first addressed these issues after reading about the experiences of Elisabeth Raab who in 1944 was forced by Nazis from her home in Hungary to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She managed to survive the terrors of the camp, but after liberation she discovered that she could not return to her home. The narrative of her survival and of her search for a home is taken up by the artist in two works included in the exhibition, Five Years’ Passage (2018-2020) and Her Recipes (2022).
Still in the main gallery, I turn from the stories of refugees to the large wall installation, Five Years’ Passage. Working on handmade paper, Rosner has created a shattered Europe with graphite and indigo oil paint. This image brings to mind the horrors of Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass) in November 1938, referencing the series of violent attacks against Jewish citizens of Germany and their workplaces. Raab’s forced move from her home in 1944 and her search for a place to live after 1945 is tracked on this ‘map’ of Europe, with red chains marking her many journeys as a displaced person. I was struck by the vastness of this Europe overwhelming the delicate quality of the painted red chain with its implications of violence and shackling. (In fact, Raab never did find a place to settle there, traveling instead to South America and finally to Canada.)
Standing in this space, surrounded by these eloquent narratives of determination and survival, I am struck by the ways people persevere in their quest to live, some place. Perhaps the most difficult to imagine is surviving the tortures of the concentration camp at Auschwitz as Elizabeth Raab did. Moving into the small gallery, we find the last work in this exhibition, Her Recipes, which gives me a sense of how she managed.
It seems that this young Hungarian woman and her fellow inmates found that recalling foods they had made, and sharing memories of the enjoyment they once had in their kitchens, brought them some respite from the terrible suffering they endured in the camp. Elizabeth was inspired to make a book of these recipes. Collecting scraps of paper and pencil stubs from Nazi garbage, she wrote out the recipes, creating a tiny book. Amazingly enough, she managed to keep this book hidden and was able to take it with her when the survivors were released.
Seven archival digital prints of the recipe book are displayed including the cover and six open pages. The clarity of these images allows us to read the recipes clearly written, in Hungarian, over the printed columns that detail the German soldiers’ assignments and pay scales. (The irony is striking!) On individual shelves below each print, the image is repeated and covered with a page of vellum on which the recipe has been translated from Hungarian into English. We can pick up these pages, read the translations and then lift the vellum for a close look at this excellent reproduction.
Sitting on a bench in front of Her Recipes, I consider the simple elegance of this work and how it might reflect the character of Elizabeth Raab. That she had this idea, that she actually made it work despite the dangers she had to overcome — and that it is a beautiful object — speaks volumes about her character and will to live a good, meaningful life. Thinking about all the works in the exhibition Where Can I Go Now?, I wonder about the artist’s will to understand how individuals can overcome terrible circumstances and veritable fear. An object that they embed with meaning and keep with them becomes a most special souvenir of their past, and perhaps also an arrow pointing to possible futures.
Thelma Rosner has created works that speak to our time with eloquence and with hope.
Madeline Lennon has been writing art reviews and artists’ profiles for Centred for the past three years.
Professor Emerita, Visual Arts, Western University.
Images are courtesy of McIntosh Gallery, Western University
The exhibition runs to April 16, 202, and is curated by Helen Gregory