On Survival

by Susan Tallman

September 2015

One of the most poignant images in the British Museum’s 2011 exhibition “Out of Australia” (see Art in Print May–June 2011) was Ludwig Hirschfeld Mack’s Desolation, Internment Camp, Hay (1941). A few lines slashed into a rough board describe a lone figure silhouetted against a tall wire fence (nervous ticks of the knife make clear the wire is barbed); five stars twinkle above in the black sky. To northern eyes the constellation looks like a misshapen Big Dipper, but an Australian would instantly recognize the Southern Cross. The stars seem to glitter with something like hope, even while anchoring the figure in a definitively foreign land.

Mack, a Bauhaus-trained artist, had fled Nazi Germany for England only to find himself transported halfway around the world and interned as an enemy alien. By any objective measure he was the victim of political injustice, but Desolation is not a political work of art. It points no fingers at good guys or bad guys, shows no visible abuse of power, argues no call to action. Its supreme quality might best be described as existential stubbornness:

 “Look. I am here.”

The idea for this issue of Art in Print arose from conversations with the British Museum’s Stephen Coppel about works like Mack’s and about the broader question of art created in extremis. There is a lot of art about trauma, but relatively little made within it. This stands to reason: making art in the midst of crisis is difficult—time, materials, stamina and concentration are all a struggle—and if art in general is hard, prints, with their particular materials and processes, are that much harder. The recent exhibitions marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I were full of pictures of suffering, but the vast majority were made at a geographical or chronological distance: Otto Dix’s War etchings record the trenches in the most visceral and harrowing terms, but they are dated six years after Armistice Day.

The focus of this issue is not on traumatic memory or the evil humans do or even the suffering that ensues; it is on the part that art can sometimes play in surviving. The articles that follow look at art made in exile, behind barbed wire, under subjugation and amidst smoldering ruins.

In the days and weeks following the firebombing of Dresden in February 1945, Wilhelm Rudolph recorded scene after scene of craggy black blobs, the new, objective reality of the street corners and addresses he had known most of his life. Johannes Schmidt tells the story of Rudolph’s compulsive catalogue of destruction and the uses to which it was later put.

Stephen Coppel writes about the art produced by Mack and Erwin Fabian in Australian internment camps during World War II, while Charles Schultz sheds light on the work made by artists such as Chiura Obata and George Matsusaburo Hibi in the American internment camps to which Japanese-Americans were forcibly relocated during the war.

Leon Ferrari’s Heliografias, discussed here by Elizabeth DeRose, were made in exile during the Argentinian Dirty War of the 1970s and ’80s. These large and provocatively fragile diazotypes are abuzz with mad city plans and human activity stripped of purpose. Zanna Gilbert’s study of the mail art exchange between Brazilian Paulo Bruscky and East German Robert Rehfeldt illuminates the critical function of mail art for artists isolated by their national regimes.

Daniel Hewson interviews curator Yvette Mutumba about the remarkable collection of prints by black South African artists acquired by the Weltkulturen Museum in Frankfurt during the Apartheid era. Yuchen Chang’s essay on woodcut and the Cultural Revolution has had to be postponed and will appear in a subsequent issue.

In her review of the book Syria Speaks: Art and Culture from the Front Line,Elleree Erdos considers the new importance of social media for distributing art and for connecting sundered communities in diaspora. In other reviews, Paul Coldwell contemplates the importance of Bruce Nauman prints at Sims Reed in London; and Peter Briggs reviews the social, visual and economic styling of The Graphic Art of the Underground: A Counter-Cultural History. The winner of this issue’s Prix de Print, chosen by curator and scholar Katherine Alcauskas, is Sumi Perera’s paean to visionary architecture, Rebuilding the Unbuilt [Y Block].

Finally, as the second iteration of the Art in Art in Print series, we are very pleased to have in this issue Damon Davis’s All Hands on Deck, a project born on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of the shooting death of Michael Brown one year ago. As the chant “Hands up, don’t shoot” spread around the country, Davis understood the provocative power of the associated gesture: raised hands may be used to acquiesce, to protest or to rebuild. From our earliest childhood, however, they are used to say simply, “Look. I am here.”