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Issue 224

Erna Rosenstein’s Dreamlike Forms Resist Interpretation

At Hauser & Wirth, New York, a survey of the late artist’s paintings presents a body of work that goes beyond her biography as a woman who survived the Holocaust

BY Peter Brock in Exhibition Reviews , US Reviews | 09 NOV 21

Erna Rosenstein was by no means an outsider artist, but her contribution to the aesthetic discourse of postwar Europe is virtually unknown outside of Poland – the country where she lived and worked until her death in 2004. In fact, Rosenstein’s life placed her amid the atrocities, ideological struggles and artistic movements that shaped European history in the 20th century. Besides being a highly trained artist immersed in the avant-garde circles of her time, she was a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust and was a committed leftist who lived through the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. The impact of Rosenstein’s work, however, extends far beyond the extraordinarily turbulent and traumatic circumstances of her life. Her artistic output demonstrates a playful inventiveness that feels relevant and necessary today – a testament to the vital role of the imagination in personal and political struggles.

Tryptyk ciszy i ognia (Silence and Fire Triptych) Erna Rosenstein 1974 Oil on canvas with hinged wooden frame 100.5 x 159.7 x 0.7 cm / 39 5/8 x 62 7/8 x 1/4 in (overall)
Erna Rosenstein, Tryptyk ciszy i ognia (Silence and Fire Triptych), 1974, oil on canvas with hinged wooden frame 100 × 160  × 1 cm  (overall). © The Estate of Erna Rosenstein / Adam Sandauer. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation; photography: Marek Gardulski

A triptych full of colourful floating blobs welcomes us at the gallery entrance. Both cool and warm yellows illuminate the wings, while a deep blue ground anchors the centre panel. Many different textures and hues of red and orange paint make up the feverish protagonist of Tryptyk cisy i ogina (Silence and Fire Triptych, 1974). Its cool blue counterpart – presumably silence – seems unaffected by the two wisps of red that touch its stoic outline. The energy of the confrontation between the two most intricately rendered forms radiates outward. Rosenstein’s biography makes it easy enough to connect the terms ‘silence’ and ‘fire’ to the persecutions of Jews across Europe, but the force of this painting presents itself viscerally and does not depend on the legibility of this reference.

Many of Rosenstein’s canvases contain depictions of people, faces or sometimes just a pair of closed eyes hovering amid a brushy pinkish haze, as in Bez granic (Without Borders, 1992). Another theme within her oeuvre is fantastical landscapes with stacked sections of colour and richly textured line-work. Poświata (Afterglow, 1968) changes completely as you approach and notice the hundreds of thin dark brushstrokes that cover its surface. Some of these lines appear in tightly ordered parallel groups, while others take the form of looping strands of curlicues that fade in and out depending on how much pigment remained on Rosenstein’s brush. Like a freewheeling form of cross-hatching, this technique darkens areas and establishes a tonal range amid chromatically homogeneous passages.

Erna Rosenstein, Poświata (Afterglow), 1968, oil on canvas 58 × 66 cm. © The Estate of Erna Rosenstein / Adam Sandauer. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation; photography: Marek Gardulski
Erna Rosenstein, Poświata (Afterglow), 1968, oil on canvas 58 × 66 cm. © The Estate of Erna Rosenstein / Adam Sandauer. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation; photography: Marek Gardulski

One of the strangest and most delightful works in the show combines elements of figuration with psychically charged topography. In Chorągiew (Banner, 1975), what reads as a clown face with white teeth surrounding two red lips – giving this cryptic visage an inverted mouth – hovers in the sky above a mountainous terrain. Next to it is an oblong-shape amoeba with a red and yellow core and several clusters of small circles around its edge. These perplexing elements sit amid a glowing white field that is surrounded by warm tones of umber and sienna, forming an irregular border within the rectangle of the canvas. This frame within the picture multiplies the oneiric intensity of the confrontation. The strange facial features and glowing red landscape feel alien – a quality that resists strictly autobiographical interpretation. Instead, we must contend with the haunting presence of these forms without familiar narrative guardrails to constrain their meaning.

Rosenstein’s work feels nourishing precisely because it is difficult to summarize. Engaging with these paintings takes time because she never settles into a uniform graphic strategy, and the shifting beauty of her restless imagination pushes against the reductive tendency and impatience that characterizes the attention economy.

Erna Rosenstein’s ‘Once Upon a Time’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth, New York, until 3 December.

Main image: Erna Rosenstein, 'Once Upon a Time', 2021, exhibition view, Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street. Courtesy: Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation. © The Estate of Erna Rosenstein / Adam Sandauer; photography: Thomas Barratt

Thumbnail image: Erna Rosenstein in her studio on Karłowicza Street in Warsaw, 1958.

Photography: Tadeusz Rolke, Agencja Gazeta

Peter Brock is an artist based in Brooklyn, USA.