On Exhibit: a Jewish artist confronts the swastika | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Exhibit: a Jewish artist confronts the swastika 

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"I used to make art I could sell," says Chicago artist Edith Altman. "Now, I make political art."

Two years ago one of her installations --three rooms of large pieces connected by Holocaust themes--was scheduled to be exhibited at the State of Illinois Art Gallery. But the show was canceled because state officials feared that her use of swastikas would offend area Jews.

Altman, who had just received a $20,000 NEA grant to complete the project, says, "I felt like I was back in Germany and they were burning books again. Censorship is very destructive. We can't overcome the power of images simply by hiding the images. We must confront them."

She got help from the ACLU and appeared on WBEZ's Artistic License, and five months later the gallery rescheduled her exhibit. Almost 200 viewers came every day. According to Judith Lloyd, then the gallery's educational director, their response was "overwhelmingly positive."

Altman was eight years old on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938, when SS troops came to her family's home in Altenberg, Germany, and led away her father, along with the town's other Jewish men, to the Buchenwald concentration camp. By May 1939 her father, who was a Polish citizen, had been imprisoned and released three times. Altman remembers watching her mother bandage the welts on his back.

The family obtained one forged passport, and Altman's father fled to the United States, planning to send for his family when he'd established a home. Of course conditions for them only worsened. "My brother and I were expelled from the German public schools, and the government confiscated Jewish-owned property at will. Soon Jews were forbidden to walk on public streets except for the few days each week declared 'Jew days.' People disappeared during the night."

Altman's mother decided to flee to Amsterdam with the children. But when they walked up to the Dutch border guard he refused to let them cross. Her mother planted nine-year-old Edith and her ten-year-old brother on the railroad tracks and ordered them to cry. She told the guard she wouldn't let them move if he wouldn't allow them into Holland. When a train appeared in the distance the guard backed down.

Later Altman's father learned that all eight of his siblings had died in concentration camps. "My father lived the rest of his life angry. He trusted no one. He never resolved the torment of being the one who survived."

It pains Altman to think that her art might distress fellow Jews, but she believes her use of the Nazi insignia is unavoidable. "An artist doesn't always choose her subjects. Sometimes the time and place in history demands that certain work be done."

Many of her Holocaust works are now on display at Loyola University. The most controversial--and most riveting--piece in this installation is a gold swastika, nine feet by nine and tilted slightly upward. Lying on the floor beneath it, like its dark reflection, is a black swastika of the same size. "My work attempts to transform the swastika, " says Altman. "It's an ancient symbol which many traditions have used to signify regeneration. Turned on its side the emblem resembles the Hebrew letter 'aleph,' the start of the Hebrew alphabet. I want to neutralize the swastika, to remove its association with evil, so that no one need fear it anymore."

Two other symbols are also explored in the installation: the Star of David, the symmetry of which is said to represent balance in the universe, and the cross. In one work three different photographs are repeated and arranged to form a cross: one photo is of emaciated concentration-camp victims, another of a crematorium, and the third of the gates of Auschwitz. Printed on the black picture frame are the words "Who took these pictures? How can these photos exist?"

"I use the cross to question the church's role in the Holocaust," says Altman. "Hitler was Catholic--neither he nor anyone in the Reich hierarchy was never excommunicated. Pope Pius's silence encouraged Nazi brutality."

She says her art is intended to heal. Her first political installation grew out of what she saw as she daily brought food to a homeless man who lived beneath a bridge near her Pilsen loft. The work was primarily photographs of how the man lived. Another work examined the relationship of criminals to victims, and the ways in which one can easily become the other.

A later work included a six-foot canvas tent painted bright gold that was paired with life-size silhouette figures of her father and her covered with ancient symbols of protection. They were exhibited at a museum in Berlin, and Altman sat inside the tent, inviting people to sit and talk with her about the war. Some of those people were the children of Nazis. She took photographs of people she spoke to, and made those pictures part of later exhibits.

Altman's exhibits include large amounts of text and videotape, and she often has scheduled speakers as diverse as a Jungian analyst, a professor of philosophy, and an "ancient symbols" expert with a doctorate in Sanskrit. "As an artist," she says, "I believe my purpose is to raise the crucial questions of the day and to open dialogue."

Reclaiming the Symbol/The Art of Memory can be viewed through December 6 at Loyola University's Fine Arts Gallery, Edward Crown Center for the Humanities, Loyola Avenue at the lake. Gallery hours are 8:30 to 4:30 Monday through Friday, and admission is free; call 508-2820.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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