Oregon Cultural Trust

Between Two Worlds: Leonora Carrington and David Seymour (Chim) at the Oregon Jewish Museum

Exhibits of a major Surrealist artist getting her due and a photographer known for his images of children amid war give rise to a host of cultural connections.

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Notice of the Leonora Carrington exhibit on exterior of Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.
Exhibition poster in museum window. Images of Carrington artworks © 2024 Estate of Leonora Carrington / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.


Story and Photos by FRIDERIKE HEUER


You’re trying to intellectualize something, desperately, and you’re wasting your time. That’s not a way of understanding, to make it into some kind of mini-logic. You’ll never understand by that road.” “What do you think we can understand by?” ” By your own feelings about things. It’ a visual world. You want to turn things into some kind of intellectual game. It’s not.” — Leonora Carrington in an interview published in 2015, with Carrington’s cousin, journalist Joanna Moorhead, author of Surreal Spaces: The Life and Art of Leonora Carrington.

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The year 2024 marks the centennial of Surrealism, a movement born in 1924 with the publication of a Manifesto by André Breton. Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education’s new exhibition The Magic World of Leonora Carrington joins the celebration, offering a small collection of prints by Leonora Carrington, one of the female pioneers of Surrealism and a lifelong painter of mystifying imagery full of passion for an otherworldly realm.

It was Bruce Guenther’s suggestion to introduce Carrington’s work for this special occasion, and he also secured the loan of the prints from Mixografia. As the adjunct curator for special exhibitions, he made his mark on OJMCHE’s visual arts programming during the last seven years, and we were the richer for it.

In addition to being connected to the art world and able to draw on a trove of curatorial experiences, he more importantly pursued two goals. For one, he wanted to widen the horizon of a local audience to the diversity and depth of contributions by Jewish artists, many of them unfamiliar. Secondly, he intended to shoot for the moon when it came to bringing work here that had previously seemed out of reach. Succeed he did!

He introduced us, among others, to Grisha Bruskin (Alefbet: The Alphabet of Memory) for OJMCHE’s inaugural exhibition in its current location, and a wide range of local Jewish artists’ work relating to identity and religion (I AM THIS: Art by Oregon Jewish Artists). He confronted us with the provocative, self-reflective art of Kitaj (R.B. Kitaj: A Jew Etc., Etc.) and reminded us of the art-historical importance of feminist Judy Chicago (Turning Inward, JUDY CHICAGO).

Continually, Guenther encouraged us to question, reevaluate and improve on our understanding of art in the context of Judaism. He pushed us, guided us, helped us. It is our loss that he is no longer going to surprise us with his choices of exceptional programming at OJMCHE.

Installation of the Leonora Carrington exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.
Installation of the Leonora Carrington exhibit at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

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A plethora of exhibitions here and in Europe are lined up to celebrate Surrealism’s centennial. Some are offering a general overview of this revolutionary art movement; others have a specific focus. Until mid-July you can visit The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium which inaugurated IMAGINE!, a touring exhibition of works of the most famous Surrealists, conceived in close collaboration with the Centre Pompidou (Paris). By September, Surrealism. L’exposition du centenaire (1924-1969) will open at the Centre Pompidou, then travel on to the German Hamburger Kunsthalle.

On the wings of its recent blockbuster exhibition about Caspar David Friedrich and the reaches of Romanticism, Hamburg will focus in 2025 on the affinities and differences between Romanticism and Surrealism. Then on to Madrid, and eventually we can visit closer to home, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This fall, the Lenbachhaus in Munich inaugurates a highly anticipated exhibition about Surrealism and anti-fascism, But live here? No thanks!illuminating Surrealism as a political movement with an internationalist commitment in the fight against colonialism and fascism.

The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds will display The Traumatic Surreal, concentrating on post-war Surrealist women artists and their opposition to the patriarchy since 1960. And last but not least, a show entirely dedicated to Leonora Carrington will also open in October at the Palazzo Reale in Milan, Italy.

This — believe it or not — selective list of exhibitions points to the many facets of the Surrealist movement and the fact that it has finally “arrived.” The shows will be accompanied by various intellectual explorations of the nature, origins, and practical consequences of Surrealism, helping us to understand what the movement is about, its implications for our own time, and where to place various artists within its margins.

A movement that was dedicated to the deconstruction of rational language, to dissolving the contradiction between reality and the irrational, to resisting habitual modes of thought and perception, is celebrated by means of the traditional intellectual lens and rational analysis of art historians and/or sociologists. One wonders if the artists would have been pleased or annoyed.

I speculate, though, that Leonora Carrington (1917-2011) couldn’t have cared less. I think of her as a force of nature who marched to her own drummer all her life, pursuing her painting, her writing, and her fervent political engagement for women’s liberation without a moment’s thought of the world’s reaction.

Then again, she would likely be pleased that female artists within the movement have eventually gotten their dues, rescued from the assigned roles as muses or child-women, young and subservient, as the male founders of the movement liked to think of them and/or treat them. Across the last decades they have finally been recognized as brilliant artists in their own rights, most recently with a magnificent survey exhibition at The Schirn, Frankfurt a.M., Fantastic Women.

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Born in England into a family of wealthy if staid manufacturers, sister to three younger brothers and raised by an Irish nanny fond of myths and fairy tales, Carrington rebelled from an early age. Thrown out of countless boarding schools, she enrolled in art programs and ended up in Paris at age 20, where she met and fell in love with a Surrealist painter 26 years her elder, Max Ernst.

He abandoned his second wife (having divorced his first, Luise Straus, who was later murdered in Auschwitz, and marrying and divorcing two more times during his lifetime) for Leonora, with whom he settled in rural France when interpersonal drama threatened to take over their productivity in Paris. Carrington refused to be a “muse” from the very beginning and engaged in her own — and distinct — exploration of both the themes and the processes closely associated with the new movement.

Left: Leonora Carrington, "A Magnificent Bird," portrait of Max Ernst (1939). Right: Max Ernst, "Leonora in the Morning Light" (1940) The artists exchanged these portraits during a reunion in New York. Carrington, by her own desire, never saw Ernst again after that.
Left: Leonora Carrington, “A Magnificent Bird,” portrait of Max Ernst (1939). Right: Max Ernst, “Leonora in the Morning Light” (1940) The artists exchanged these portraits during a reunion in New York. Carrington, by her own desire, never saw Ernst again after that.

When Ernst was arrested by the Nazis and later escaped to New York, she fled to Spain, suffering a severe mental breakdown made worse by inappropriate, possibly sadistic psychiatric care during inpatient treatment. She eventually left Europe on a visa provided by a marriage of convenience, and after some time settled in Mexico, finding love, committing to motherhood, and becoming extraordinarily prolific in her various creative endeavors, as a painter and novelist processing her autobiographical experiences, including her psychotic break.

In Mexico she was embedded in a group of close women friends who were also expatriate artists, including Remedios Varo, whose painted dream worlds incorporated mystical philosophy and Surrealist techniques not unlike Carrington’s, and photojournalist and surrealist photographer Kati Horna. They shared various interests that, at a minimum, enlivened quotidian domesticity and, more importantly, provided substance for their creative output less chained to reality: interests in alchemy, witchcraft, mythology, and more.

Leonora Carrington, "Información Secreta" (1974).
Leonora Carrington, “Información Secreta” (1974).

Some of Carrington’s prints on hand are products of her imagination; typical hybrid figures or grotesques that combine animal and human features. The bulk of the work, however, consists of paintings made in the early 1970s to dress characters of the play The Dybbuk or Between Two Worlds. 

The word Dybbuk originates from the Hebrew דָּבַק ,‎ dāḇaq, meaning “adhere” or “cling,” and refers to the soul of a dead person, always a man, now possessing the body of a living human being, most often a woman. Written by S. Ansky, who was interested in Hassidic folklore that contained elements of the story since the 13th century, the play was originally performed in 1920, first in Russian and later in Yiddish.  (דער דיבוק, אדער צווישן צוויי וועלטן; Der Dibuk, oder Tsvishn Tsvey Veltn. Here is a link to a magnificent Polish film made from the play in 1937, in Yiddish with English subtitles, a window into a world long gone.)

Alternatively, here is a short summary by a modern, feminist playwright, Lila Rose Kaplan:

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Once upon a time a woman named Leah was allowed to be in a story because she was getting married.  Her father picked her a rich husband. Then her dead boyfriend possessed her, because if a woman’s gonna take up space in a story she must not be a woman. Then they learned that Leah had been promised to her dead boyfriend before she was born.  She screamed why don’t I have any agency, but no one could hear her. So, they did an exorcism and got her unpossessed. Then she killed herself to be with her dead boyfriend or maybe she just wanted to be left alone.

Leonora Carrington, "Leye returns transformed into the Dybbuk" (1974).
Leonora Carrington, “Leye returns transformed into the Dybbuk” (1974).

Rachel Elior, the John and Golda Cohen Professor of Jewish Philosophy and Jewish Mystical Thought at Hebrew University, discusses the societal function served by the notion of possession by a spirit in her book DYBBUKS AND JEWISH WOMEN in Social History, Mysticism and Folklore. She argues that it could have been a means of escape for women who saw no other way out of the misery of oppression. Once “possessed,” women would no longer be held responsible for acting out or demanding agency of any kind, giving them a certain degree of freedom, including the refusal of arranged marriages. Of course there was a price to be paid, eventually, in the form of torturous exorcism.

Carrington was not Jewish — and she certainly did not lack agency! — but the appeal of this quintessentially Jewish story must have been strong, given that it contains so many elements that spoke to her interest in mysticism, soul transmigration, and the role of women in male-dominated societies; and it ultimately resonated with some of her own biographical experiences.

Between Two Worlds: Surrealist artists surely moved between worlds, that of reality and that within the recesses of the unconscious, a magical realm where irrationality was a prize, not a burden. As a female artist, Carrington had to fight to have her own voice heard, not being subsumed as a muse, possessed by a male, however smitten.

Father figures in her own life, whether her actual father or a substitute, Ernst, had controlled her existence to some extent. But the memory of forced separation from her lover might have also been evoked by the elements of loss in Leah’s world. As one who had experienced “being possessed” during her psychotic episode, the painter could surely imagine herself into the psyche of Leah, to whom this male spirit adheres, using her as a vessel for his own unfinished life. Exorcism was not simply a technical term for someone who had been forced through fit-inducing medication at the asylum in Spain. And last but not least, emigration placed you between worlds, the old and the new, neither one fully your own.

Even though the characters themselves did not spring from her imagination, the way that Carrington depicted them with her own aesthetic as strangely graceful, elongated figures infused them with a life of their own. The lithographs offer, indeed, a visual world, one that generates feelings rather than lending itself to rational analysis (which will not stop me from speculation, as per usual …). The collection traveled through Mexico, exhibited early at the Salón de la Plástica Mexicana. After they were transferred to lithographs at the Taller de Gráfica Popular in 1974. (I wrote previously about the political role the print studio played in Mexico here.)

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I consider her renderings remarkable in the sense that suffering, doubt, or bitterness are anything but central: Somehow I find primarily resilience in the strong colors and the androgynous costumes. And maybe there are traces of rage, in purple and red. Given that the artist was raised in a staunchly Catholic household, these colors might also refer to the liturgical colors associated with the Celebrations of Martyrs (red) and Masses for the Dead (purple.) Then again, we have the red stockings of the women’s liberation movement, and in England, her country of origin, the Suffragettes used purple that symbolized royalty, loyalty to the cause, and women’s quest for freedom.

Leonora Carrington, "Leye y Frade" (1974).
Leonora Carrington, “Leye y Frade” (1974).

The continual presence of protective females in the vicinity of Leah echoes one of the characteristics of the artist herself: She was acknowledged as a reliable supporter of the women around her, building strong connections to women all her life. It is as if Carrington’s own strength and endurance is gifted to the female protagonist, in defiance of the customary image of Leah as the victim.

The fact that some Mexican graphic elements are included also signals the possibility that a soul has come home, can come home, no longer restlessly wandering. They might reference the Surrealist artist’s own political beliefs captured by the movement statement found already in 1935 in the Bulletin International du Surréalisme: “The human soul is international.”

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Exterior notice of the exhibit "Chim: Between Devastation and Resurrection" at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.

Those who read or listen to our stories see everything as through a lens. This lens is the secret of narration, and it is ground anew in every story, ground between the temporal and the timeless. If we storytellers are Death’s Secretaries, we are so because, in our brief mortal lives, we are grinders of these lenses.” – John Berger in What Time Is It? (2019).

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War, like the soul, is international as well, alas. It claimed and continues to claim victims regardless of their association with the warring parties — international observers, aid workers, and photojournalist have paid that heavy price for trying to inform the world. David Seymour (Dawid Szymin, 1911-1956), known as Chim, was one of them — he was killed, three days after the armistice, no less, by Egyptian soldiers during the Suez Crisis when British–French–Israeli forces invaded Egypt in 1956 after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal.

Chim: Between Devastation and Resurrection presents photographs that cut through to the reality of war, ignoring nationalistic or ideological fervor in favor of an empathetic response to the horrors that wars impose on their victims. His lens told stories capturing both his times and the timelessness of suffering.

Born in Poland, Chim studied graphic arts at Leipzig’s prestigious Staatliche Akademie für Graphische Künste und Buchgewerbe in the early 1930s and then enrolled at the Sorbonne in Paris to study physics and chemistry. He started to take photographs for a variety of journals and magazines to make money for a living and soon got a reputation as a talented social documentarian as well as war photographer when he documented the Spanish Civil War in 1936.

Together with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and George Rodger, Chim co-founded the Magnum photo agency after WW II ended and he had returned to Europe, having enlisted in the U.S. Army during wartime. In 1948, he was commissioned by UNICEF for a project he is now most known for, documenting the war’s effect on European children. Children of Europe was published by Life magazine and in book form eventually.

David Seymour (Chim), "Girls playing in the ruins of a former orphanage, Monte Casino, Italy" (1948).
David Seymour (Chim), “Girls playing in the ruins of a former orphanage, Monte Casino, Italy” (1948).

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OJMCHE’s photography exhibitions have been hit and miss. There have been brilliant shows (Southern Rites and Die Plage come to mind,) but also more pedestrian ones. One of the problems has to do with receiving previously curated package exhibitions that served well in their original purposes, but do not necessarily speak to contemporary questions. They also do not allow juxtapositions with work that one might choose if curating independently, to complement or offset the photography on view.

The collection, on loan from the Illinois Holocaust Museum, and excerpted from an original show by the International Center for Photography, exhibits works that are solid, beautiful at times, and often moving. Chim was a master of the medium’s technical aspects, lighting and depth of field. He also often incorporated signs, banners, or posters into his images that functioned like internal captions, reminding us of the important legacy of Constructivism.

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If a show had been independently curated, though, it could have raised a number of important issues. For one, just as the female artists within the surrealist movement have long stayed unacknowledged, much less feted, so has the legacy of female photographers in the realm of war photography. Chim has often been called “photography’s forgotten hero,” but there are a surprising number of Jewish women who documented war since WW I, continuing through the Spanish Civil War and on to WW II, and are completely ignored by the canon, no matter how remarkable.

There was Alice Schalek ((1874-1956) who lived in Vienna and is regarded to be the first woman who photographed Austrian soldiers at the frontlines during WW I. Gerda Taro (Gerta Pohorylle) was the first Jewish female photographer killed in the field, in Spain. A lifelong socialist and gifted photographer, she was the partner of Magnum photographer Robert Capa, who, in contrast to her, has become legendary. Faigel Faye Schulman (1919 – 2021) was a Jewish partisan photographer, and the only such photographer to photograph their struggle in Eastern Europe during World War II. Honorable mention belongs to Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) who, although not Jewish, documented combat zones in World War II as the first woman war correspondent from the U.S., and, importantly, photographed Buchenwald when the concentration camp was liberated.

And then there was Kati Horna (1912-2000), one of Carrington’s closest friends in post-war Mexico. Born into a Jewish family in Hungary, a close childhood (and lifelong) friend of Robert Capa, she studied political science in Berlin, and, after the rise of the Nazis, photography back in Budapest. She ended up in the early 1930s in Paris, working as a freelance photographer for a press picture agency, Agence Photo. Her work shares both a modernist aesthetic and a focus on narrative with Chim’s. During her documentation of the Spanish Civil War, she concentrated on the conditions of women and children through mainly portraiture, just as we see in Chim’s later work for the UNICEF project. She utilized bird’s eye views early, as we’ve come to associate with Chim.

Kati Horna, “Umbrellas, Meeting of the CNT, Spanish Civil War, Barcelona” (1937).
David Seymour (Chim), "Child’s Funeral, Matera, Italy" (1948). 
David Seymour (Chim), “Child’s Funeral, Matera, Italy” (1948). 

It would have been valuable to learn about the history of photographers working at the same time in the same places, with the same political beliefs, and then wonder that the women disappeared from view. Again.

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Another question raised by exhibiting images of the effects of previous wars relates to war reporting in our contemporary society flooded with war imagery. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition Imagined Fronts – The Great War and Global Media, closing just this week after a long run, reminded us of the role of photography in a war-torn world.

Photography can be used as a tool of propaganda to generate both psychological and material support for the war effort. Likewise, it can be used to create empathy with its victims and oppose war actions. The borders between propaganda and information are porous, since war parties strive to claim that their efforts are just if not heroic, intending to legitimize their efforts, or dehumanize the opponent.

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David Seymour (Chim), "Boy in bombed building, Essen, Germany" (1947). Essen was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Germany, with 90 percent of its urban structures destroyed. A seat of heavy industry in the Ruhr region, it housed more than 350 forced labor camps during the war mining coal and producing weapons, working for Krupp and Siemens. Alfried Krupp was sentenced in the Nuremberg trials, but pardoned by the U.S. in 1951. Some people reliably get away with anything.
David Seymour (Chim), “Boy in bombed building, Essen, Germany” (1947). Essen was one of the most heavily bombed cities in Germany, with 90 percent of its urban structures destroyed. A seat of heavy industry in the Ruhr region, it housed more than 350 forced labor camps during the war mining coal and producing weapons, working for Krupp and Siemens. Alfried Krupp was sentenced in the Nuremberg trials, but pardoned by the U.S. in 1951. Some people reliably get away with anything.

War photography during the World Wars and up until the Vietnam War was regulated and controlled by states and military, censorship included. Imagery of direct violence and death was traditionally avoided, replaced by clichés. In fact, Richard Nixon attributed the loss of the Vietnam war to the media’s willingness to show violent images of the victims.

I continually wonder how the availability of phone cameras in people’s hands and easy internet dispersal have changed the impact of photography, now depicting participant horrors beyond our imagination, the fate of the victims and the actual unfolding of violent acts in real time. Do we accept their veracity or are they manipulated? Do we avoid them for fear of drowning in helpless bystander feelings? Will they distance us from understanding war because they come from sources that we associate with the “enemy?” Can war documentation cut through hate, anger, resentment, violence and destruction, changing minds? Could it in 1956, can it now?

In reviewing the LACMA exhibition, my thoughts were these:

I have no definitive answer. This exhibition’s imagery most meaningful to me, a pacifist, namely the depictions of suffering and the satirical stabs at those who financially gain from war, will likely not speak to those eager to go to war, just as racist propaganda posters embraced by them do nothing for me. Maybe our ideological or political divisions prevent us to think through art that does not confirm our preexisting beliefs. To that extent, art will not be able to produce change, given the strength of our biases.

It is certainly worth a further discussion, and I hope Chim’s images will provide a starting point for exploring these issues at OJMCHE. The last photo he took before he was killed two days later encapsulates war’s human toll — two wounded civilians sharing a mattress with paltry enough to eat. Half a century later we still see the same pictures, multiplied by thousands. Stories told through a lens were intended as a wakeup call. It seems, to no avail.

David Seymour (Chim) "Civilians, Port Said" (1956).
David Seymour (Chim) “Civilians, Port Said” (1956).

OREGON JEWISH MUSEUM AND CENTER FOR HOLOCAUST EDUCATION

  • Address: 724 N.W. Davis St., Portland
  • Hours: 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Wednesdays-Sundays
  • Chim: Between Devastation and Resurrection: July 7-Oct. 13, 2024
  • The Magic World of Leonora Carrington: July 7-Oct. 13, 2024

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Special events:
  • Goddess of Surrealism: A Lecture About Leonora Carrington, with Dr. Abigail Susik. 6-7 p.m. Aug. 8; doors open at 5:15 p.m. for reception.
  • The Life and Work of David “Chim” Seymour, presented by Ben Schneiderman. 2-3 p.m. July 21; reception 3-4 p.m.

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This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on July 5, 2024See Friderike Heuer’s previous ArtsWatch stories here.

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Friderike Heuer is a photographer and photomontage artist. Trained as an experimental psychologist at the New School for Social Research, she taught at Lewis & Clark College until she retired to pursue art full time. Her cultural blog www.heuermontage.com explores art and politics on a daily basis through photography and commentary. She has exhibited most recently at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education and Camerawork Gallery, on issues concerning migrants and refugees. She frequently volunteers as a photographer for small, local arts non-profits. For more information, visit www.friderikeheuer.online.

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