Erna Rosenstein

Erna Rosenstein’s post-war work is an attempt to find an artistic idiom capable of describing the horrors she had witnessed during World War II. A founding member of the Kraków Group in the 1930s, Rosenstein believed it impossible to make the leap from the idiom of avant-garde painting to socialist realism, especially after having experienced the nightmare of war. Her artistic output in the 1940s and 50s can therefore be interpreted as the memory of the Holocaust encoded in paintings: the pieces depict severed heads, dismembered arms and legs, death and human remains, and recurring recollections of the Rosenstein’s murdered parents. Among the paintings that explore this theme directly is "Extermination Train" (1947–48). Rendering a traumatic scene of people being shipped off to death camps, the artist employs the emotionally-charged style typical of anti-war imagery. Rather than being naïve representations of reality, Rosenstein’s artworks grapple with the dilemma between carrying painful memories and attempting to get on with one’s life. More than just synopses of the wartime period, they are also attempts at a moral reckoning. "Polish Workers’ Party Proclamation", the other painting displayed in the exhibition, is a reference the party’s 1942 manifesto, which called for the creation of a broad national front that would unite all the anti-Nazi groups operating in the country. The painting depicts the proclamation posted on a clean, white wall: a symbolic tabula rasa, a new beginning after the total annihilation brought by the war. Behind the wall, the ghosts of war—bodies swinging from the gallows—still loom.

Erna Rosenstein (b. 1913 in Lwów, d. 2004 in Warsaw) – Polish painter and poet of Jewish descent, member of the pre-war Kraków Group. Imprisoned in the Lwów ghetto during World War II, she later stayed in hiding in Warsaw and Częstochowa. After the war, Rosenstein formed part of the Kraków avant-garde milieu until the end of her life. She cofounded the Second Kraków Group alongside Tadeusz Kantor and Maria Jarema. Her work features frequent returns to wartime memories and develops a characteristic Surrealist poetics.

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