A picture, they say, speaks a thousand words, creating an unspoken dialogue between the person who captures or draws the image and the person who sees it. So too a letter, which draws an invisible thread between two people from the moment it is written to the moment it is received.
But what about photos that are lost in the wreckage of a war-torn home? Or telegrams heavily censored by the unyielding eyes of Third Reich authorities? Or letters and sketches — written and drawn, but never sent — that instead remain hidden in dusty desk drawers for the duration of war? What do they say about a person, or indeed a family, separated by land and sea and enemies fighting across the divide?
For Jasia Reichardt, they say a great deal — and in fact reveal things that she, at the age of 83, still finds difficult to express.
“In art, music and poetry, stories can be representations, descriptions or metaphors,” she says. “The language of metaphor is freer.”
The art critic, exhibitor and writer has spent more than 50 years now pushing boundaries at the forefront of the contemporary art scene in London. In 1968, she curated Cybernetic Serendipity at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, a groundbreaking exhibition that explored the interaction between art, technology and science and introduced computers to the masses. In 1978 — fresh from her stint as director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery — she published Robots: Fact, Fiction and Prediction, a sweeping study that encompassed philosophy, history, and a prescient future.
But her latest show, for which she has provided all the material and accompanying text, sits far closer to home, telling stories that she struggled to recount for a very long time. Stories not of machines or concepts, but of her family; and not of the present or the future, but of the painful past of the Second World War.
One Family, Three Cities, Six Years of War , which is open now at the Wiener Library in central London and runs until April 28, featuring letters, photographs and official documents shared between Reichardt’s mother, who lay hidden at the time alongside her then nine-year-old daughter and mother in the Warsaw Ghetto, and her sister, Franciszka Themerson, who was living in London. It also features unposted letters, unseen drawings and the empty space of missing photos.
The family were a collective of artists and musicians, all prominent figures on the Polish cultural art scene — from Reichardt’s grandfather, a successful painter to her pianist mother, architect father and illustrator aunt. Franciszka was married to Stefan Themerson, an experimental filmmaker, writer and poet, with whom she left Warsaw for Paris in 1938 in order to inhabit the very centre of the global art world.
But then war broke, and the free-spirited proto-beatniks found themselves trapped by brutally oppressive officialdom. Stefan was enlisted and, although initially stationed in Brittany, was forced to march back to Paris when his general fled and regiment disbanded. He survived the six-week trek by digging raw potatoes and hiding out as best as he could, eventually spending the next two years living in a Red Cross hostel for Polish soldiers and desperately trying to find a way out of occupied France.
Franciszka, meanwhile, had escaped to London, and was working as a cartographer for the Polish government in exile. She lived alone until 1942, when Stefan finally made it to London. Before then, isolated, she communicated with her family via heavily censored, severely delayed written correspondence.
“It took a very, very long time for a letter to reach us in the Ghetto, because they had to go through Lisbon and Romania,” Reichardt explains. “People were so careful to write the date upon receipt, because it meant the letter had actually been received.”
Such telegrams feature in the exhibition — some with heavy lines crossed through them by prying censors. But what are, perhaps, even more striking, are the pieces that were never even dispatched — namely, Unposted Letters, a series of drawings created by Franciszka as a means of self-expression and asserting identity in a time of great uncertainty. Each drawing is a haunting mix of simple sketching and complex metaphor. Among them, a woman, wearing a gas mask, struggles to smell a flower; a dog nurses a dying cat as doodlebugs fill the sky; a young girl, with missing limbs, looks vacantly into the distance beneath attacking planes. Below her, a simple message is scrawled: “Help!”
“Franciszka was a painter, but she didn’t paint at all during the war, because, somehow, she couldn’t,” Reichardt says. “She didn’t somehow believe in the future. She had no idea what was going to happen, and she didn’t know what was happening to her family in Poland or if she would get Stefan out. These drawings were the most immediate way of saying something about her life. Some have titles, some don’t.”
Metaphor, she says, “was the Themersons’ language. Both Stefan and Franciszka said everything in their work that could be understood if one looked and thought about what was written and painted.
“They knew that their work was important and, without anybody saying anything about the subject, I also knew that. This is why I spent 20 years working on their archive, which is now in the National Library in Warsaw.”
On the subject of her avant-garde aunt and uncle, Reichardt is vocal and effusive. But turn the talk to her own story within the family narrative, and she speaks with modesty and hesitance, despite having experienced tremendous upheaval herself. In 1942, as Stefan landed on British shores, Reichardt, then nine, fled the Warsaw Ghetto, and spent the next three years living in Catholic orphanages under an assumed alias. She never saw her parents again; in 1946, when news of her survival finally reached the Themersons, she was brought to London to live with them. In an unknown land, she took solace in the smell of oil paint that filled their home — a reminder of her grandfather’s studio in Warsaw. Then, having enrolled at boarding school and still not confident in speaking English, she found familiarity by attending music concerts, recitals and art exhibitions — reminders of her artistic upbringing.
Having been a young girl who, in her own memoir Fifteen Journeys, she describes as being too afraid to be left alone, she quickly became fearless, independent, and unquenchably curious, taking herself to the theatre or off to the Royal Albert Hall to hear the proms at the age of 12.
“I just wanted to see life,” she says. “I wanted excitement and I wanted to learn. I was an intellectual. I am under-educated and never went to university, but give me a subject and I will learn it. I am still learning today.”
Reichardt’s early education was, it seems, most strongly informed by living with her resolutely free-thinking relatives. In the late 1940s, they launched Gaberbocchus Press, the first avant-garde press in Britain, which published the first English translations of many experimental European writers. Then, in the 1950s, they launched a members club for artists and scientists to meet and share ideas. This, as it turns out, was a pivotal time for Reichardt, who found herself fascinated by “the border lines of visual arts.”
She explains: “In the 1950s, when I first started writing about art, you could imagine the art world as a circle where, in the middle, sat sculpture, drawing and painting. On the edges, you had theatre, literature, dance, science — it was those edges that I was interested in.”
This show, she says, is vastly different from anything else she has ever produced, and — despite telling a very personal narrative, has at times proven to be her most challenging. For example, the very use of the word “Holocaust” in relation to her family’s experiences is something that, until now, has made Reichardt feel both apprehensive and uneasy.
“I would have done such an exhibition without mentioning the word ‘Holocaust’ because facts speak for themselves,” she says. “If, for instance, you have a timeline of the war, you don’t have to elaborate. I like understatement.”
It is no surprise, then, that she believes the strength of the show comes from its “lack of certain elements, because everything was lost.” Indeed, the very fact that there are hardly any pictures of Reichardt as a child, or that some letters were never sent, tells volumes of a once tight-knit family ripped apart.
Understatement is, after all, a powerful tool. If a picture speaks a thousand words, just imagine what a censored telegram, or an unsent missive, or an unseen drawing is trying to say.
'One Family, Three Cities, Six Years of War’
Until 28th April 2017at The Wiener Library,
29 Russell Square, London WC1B 5DP
Opening hours: Monday-Friday 10am-5pm