The moving tribute of Art Spiegelman to his “master” Si Lewen

“Vur work (is) very impressive. […] It has the real merit of combating bellicose tendencies through art. When he wrote to Si Lewen in 1951, Albert Einstein was full of praise for the artist’s drawings. According to him, his sketches would constitute a formidable means of converting the masses to pacifism.

“Neither concrete descriptions nor intellectual discourses can match the psychological effect of true art. It has often been said that art should not serve any political or other cause. I am not of this opinion ”, indicates the scientist in a long missive addressed to the artist.

An extract from this letter is featured in the exhibition * that the Museum of Art and History of Judaism (Mahj) is dedicating to Si Lewen, unfairly unknown in France. “This exhibition owes a lot to Art Spiegelman. He was the one who fought for years to bring Si Lewen out of oblivion, ”explains Paul Salmona, director of the establishment. In fact, he is the author of Maus who played the guides for Point, a few days ago.

The art of Si “seen” by Art Spiegelman

“Lewen had reasons to hate war,” explains Art Spiegelman, who knew the designer well in the evening of his life. “Born in Lublin (Poland) in 1918 into a rather atheistic Jewish family, Si Lewen miraculously escaped the Shoah”, continues the cartoonist. “His salvation? He owed it to the intuition of his father, Samuel Lewin (1890-1959), a well-known Yiddish writer in his time. It was he who, to escape the pogroms, moved his family to Berlin in 1920; then sent his two boys to France in 1933 ”, adds Pascale Samuel, curator of the modern and contemporary collection of the Mahj, curator of this exhibition.

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At the time, Si Lewen was still called Yeshaya Lewin. Is it to respect the Jewish tradition which requires that we change our first name when we escape great danger? He calls himself Isaiah when he arrives in France where he lives on a farm in Indre-et-Loire. It was under this name that he moved to Grenoble where he learned mechanics at the technical high school in Vaucanson. In 1935, the Lewin family obtained in extremis visas for the United States and moved to New York. Isaiah changes his name once again. Having become Simon Lewen, he will now be called Si (pronounced “Sai”, American style) Lewen. He enlisted in the American army in 1942 and landed in Normandy two years later.

The ordeal of war

Perfectly German-speaking, Si Lewen is on the front line, in a unit nicknamed the Ritchie Boys which, between the exchanges of fire, addresses the soldiers of the Wehrmacht, to encourage them to surrender. On April 11, 1945, it was within this regiment that he participated in the liberation of the Buchenwald camp. He hoped there to obtain information on the fate of relatives and friends, deported. Reality imposes itself on him. When he returned to New York, he would never stop denouncing the atrocities of war by using his art.

Trained in drawing in Berlin by Mordecai Ardon (born Max Bronstein), pupil of Paul Klee, Vassily Kandinsky and Klaus Richter… If Lewen, in fact, very early on asserted his desire to be an artist. “When he was a toddler, he used to tell his father that he liked going to the museum because he spoke to paintings. In his dreams, the canvases were in dialogue with each other, ”slips Art Spiegelman.

Demobilized, Si enrolled in the Art Students League which included, among its students, the visual artists Georgia O’Keeffe, Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. He will make his first exhibition in 1949, but his dark universe does not immediately meet his audience. “His gallery owner often told him: ‘Paint colorful things, light patterns. Otherwise, you won’t sell anything. ” If Lewen didn’t care. He was haunted by his subjects and could not represent anything else ”, confides his friend who reveals that the artist will try to commit suicide several times.

The two met in a “miraculous” way, according to Art Spiegelman. In the early 2000s, the Pulitzer Prize-winning designer began to develop a passion for the precursors of the graphic novel. He discovers the book by Si Lewen, entitled Parade in 2012. “I stumbled across it on the Internet while in Australia for a conference,” he says.

Drawing as an outlet

Published in 1957, the artist recounts, through this book composed of 63 drawings, the Second World War as he lived it. We first see a group of children playing at war, then passers-by watching the military parade (hence the title of the book). The jubilant crowd waves small flags; the soldiers go into battle to the sound of the bugle. Everything will capsize in a few boards. Very quickly, civilians will run under the bombs, protected by paltry umbrellas. Death will then arise with its great scythe.

“The pulsation of the pages grabbed me. There was an incredible rhythm there which was, from my point of view, free-jazz. Its white pages which gradually darken as they are covered with warlike motifs really impressed me. I saw allusions to the cinema of Eisenstein as to the paintings of Marcel Duchamp ”, enthuses, the author of Maus.

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Spiegelman contacts Si Lewen’s daughter to obtain permission to republish this book and receives, in response, an email from the artist himself indicating that he accepts her proposal. “Si was still alive. It was, in my eyes, a miracle! »Emits Art who then rushes to see him in the retirement home where he lived, in Pennsylvania. “There was a small workshop there where he still drew, at more than 93 years old”, indicates Spiegelman who will keep in touch until the end. The two men will exchange a lot by e-mail.

Custodian of the painful history of the artist, Art Spiegelman is sorry that upon his death, on July 25, 2016, the Times did not devote an obituary worthy of him to him. “Yet he is a major artist of the XXe and XXIe century ”, say Paul Salmona and Pascale Samuel with one voice.

“All the same, I would have had the great joy of being able to show Si his book, which has been reissued in English. We wanted to make a Leporello (an accordion-book) 26 meters long, ”he says. An atypical work, just like the artist. “On the front are the drawings of Parade, as well as a full biography of Si Lewen. On the other, paintings by the artist which thus dialogue with each other, ”concludes Art Spiegelman, who is delighted that this work is now available in French **.

*Exposure Si Lewen – Parade, until May 8, 2022 at the Museum of Art and History of Judaism, 71, rue du Temple, Paris 3e.

** The Parade, the Odyssey of an artist by Si Lewen, introduction by Art Spiegelman, 150-page Leporello, Flammarion editions, € 65.

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The moving tribute of Art Spiegelman to his “master” Si Lewen