Friday, September 24, 2010

Question, from a Dead Man

Imagine you are a writer or an artist, living in troubled times. Commissioned work is hard to come by and the Powers-That-Be don't look favorably on your verse or art. Someone hires you and leaves the subject or theme of the creation up to you. Would you take this as an opportunity to express, in your art, something that's really troubling you?  This is, in fact, what Silesian artist Michel Fingesten (1884-1943) did.

The Nazis were not too happy with either his lineage or his drawings.  Finding less and less work, he allied himself with persecuted artists, focusing almost exclusively on ex-libris and small prints for private collectors, such as the legendary Gianni Mantero. It was in these productions that he "gave clear expression to his feelings and opinions." [1]  (Click here  to see some wonderful examples of his artwork.)

Fingesten’s memory has been kept alive thanks to the efforts of ex-libris collectors who knew and praised his work before the war. Besides its artistic qualities, collectors are still attracted to the rich imagination, humour, playfulness and diverse symbolism of his work, as well as the at times macabre and erotic elements that constitute part of his artistic expression. In the course of thirty years he made almost 1,000 ex-libris.

Foreseeing the threat of war in late 1938, Fingesten expressed his outrage in a series of 13 etchings--Essai de Dance Macabre (Essay on the Dance Macabre)--which convey a vision of the imminent catastrophe. With this series he sought to warn the public in neutral countries of the true aims of the Nazi regime. [2]

He was arrested on October 9, 1940 and sent to an internment camp in 1941. Shortly after the camps were liberated, in September of 1943, Fingesten sustained an injury and was transferred to a hospital in Cosenca. After the operation he developed a wound infection from which he died on October 8 of that same year. He was 59. 

I look at the above sketch and it could be applied to today.  The suspension bridge on which the man is walking is unanchored (the link on the right-hand side is not attached to anything).   The bridge links could spell "2010" instead of "1938".  "Where are you going?" the artist asks.  The man's journey across the chasm doesn't look particularly safe; the ground is crumbling behind him, there is nothing to hold onto, he walks almost blindly, hands stretched forward,  trusting the connections will hold.  A dark, human-like shadow looms, threatening to surround him.  A hideous monster awaits below, already having destroyed others.  Fascism!, the artist is saying.  Step carefully.  Watch out, you could get enveloped in its shadow.  You could lose your bearings and fall.  You could be swallowed up by this monster.

Inspiration comes from strange places.  Michel Fingesten has been dead for 67 years.  I had never heard of him before today.  A random sidetrack led to the above images--one, erotic; the other, fearful.  I've been asking that same question for some time now--"Quo vadis?"--as I watch the foundations of my birth-country crumbling, the darkness thickening, sense the hardening grip of hatred, intolerance, the monstrous greed, corruption, and sometimes complete disregard for the welfare of its own people and land.  There is a loss of balance, a slipping away of all that is known and cherished.

It doesn't appear, to the conscious mind, in those exact words, of course; or even at all times.  It comes, rather, as flashes of puzzling unease, as if you're in a giant crowded room with a million other voices, now whispering, now shouting or wailing in despair over a planet in distress and endless wars, or loss of job, or love, or house or health.

Painting this, with the stroke of a brush; or saying this, with the words of a poem ... is not fixing it.  And yet.
Yesterday, dancing flowers.  Today: same reality, different vibrations.
Everything still possible.

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