Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery
The Yale University Art Gallery’s new exhibit “Artists in Exile: Expression of Loss and Hope” is a meditation on the experience of leaving home, either by volition or compulsion, and how different artists process the act of leaving. The exhibit explores the commonality in these “expressions” of exile, which represent vast spatial and temporal planes. The collection spans over 200 years and includes artists from Europe, the Americas, Southeast Asia, East Asia and the Middle East.
“Artists in Exile” is organized not by chronological or geographical logic, but rather by four central themes: “Nostalgia,” “Transfer/Adjustment,” “Home/Mobility” and “Identity.” The effect is at first disorienting when one sees classical 19th century portraits hanging next to abstract 20th century Modern pieces; however, in making this choice, the exhibit leads the viewer to feel like a voyager, thus mirroring a type of exile present in the works.
“Transfer and Adjustment,” a section largely populated by Abstract Expressionist and Surrealist works, features a number of painters who were exiled for creating subversive art, like Kurt Schwitters, a German artist who fled Germany in 1937 after being condemned for creating “degenerate art.” His piece, “47 20 Carnival,” a collage of media clippings which communicates his attempt to assimilate into the new British culture he entered, also creates, through a layering of disjointed pieces of paper, a sense of detachment. The general trend toward abstraction in “Transfer and Adjustment” conveys the alienation felt by these exiled and largely suppressed artists, as well as a sense of a life disrupted. They show how one can feel in limbo between home and a foreign place. Despite the darker themes, Schwitter’s piece also contains humor in his appropriation and comical arrangement of advertisement images, which touches on the theme of hope.
The exhibit transitions into “Identity,” one of the most successful in representing a myriad of experiences. This section examines the artist’s perception of self in light of drastic change. In this area, the stylistic differences between pieces become more evident. It opens with a series of formal portraits painted by Jacque Louis David during his exile in Brussels in the early 19th century. Though his classic, academic style does not betray a great deal of emotional toll, it connects him his French culture as he continues to paint fellow exiled supporters of the Napoleonic regime.
For some artists, exile forces an adjustment in self-perception or a need to find a new visual voice. This adjustment can be disturbing and jarring, as is the case with Alsoudani’s 2008 untitled painting of a face distorted by mechanical parts and improperly placed features, calling out in agony. Born in Iraq and living in America, Alsoudani’s untitled piece shows the effect of an individual torn apart and pieced back together as brutally as the individual once was. Paul Gauguin’s soft storied “escape” and “self-discovery” in Tahiti make an appearance as well, but the piece that, to me, was most notable was Syrian artist Mohamed Hafez’s “Baggage Series #4.” The piece is an antique suitcase out of which rises a building in miniature that appears to have been destroyed by a bomb. Within the wreckage there are vestiges of beauty: a blue bauble chandelier, dainty orange flowers. The piece tells a clear and powerful narrative of a violent loss of home, and evokes a visceral reaction which makes the viewer mindful of the modern implications of the exhibit.
“Home and Mobility” is characterized by sentiments of displacement and disorientation. Homes transform into unrecognizable places and paint seems to be in constant flux as these artist cope with their relocations and losses of comfort. Cuban born Abelardo Morell’s “Camera Obscura: Image of the Sea in the Attic” depicts his home in Massachusetts as an alien and foreign place. Sparse, black and white, with the shadows of the outdoors brought inside and flipped upside down, the space appears as a Surrealist nightmare. When “home” is synonymous to comfort, Morrell shows how the loss of it can be jarring and even disturbing.
In “Nostalgia,” the last section I entered, the walls are cloaked in a mournful blue, an apt companion for feelings of yearning and estrangement produced by the works. Here, the artists often incorporate stylistic elements of their native culture to invoke a sense of home, while at the same time suggesting a distance from it. The atmosphere is wistful and longing. Feininger’s “Old Gables V” is a simplified depiction of his home in Germany that he was forced to leave under Nazi rule. It shows a longing for his home and the memories there that he missed, as well as a clear distance from the place.
The exhibit is capped by a wooden world map covered with pins. Here, visitors attach a string and tag to the location from which they originate to the place they have arrived. It tells, alongside the depictions of historic and artistic emigrations, the current stories of exile, loss, and hope of the people among us. The exhibit becomes universal and personal all at once. This map removes the art out of a theoretical space and draws attention to the exiles — both compulsory and voluntary — that have been happening for centuries and which are still happening today. The world becomes an amalgam of colorful strings and tags: a world in motion, and of finding home.
Savannah DiGiovanni | firstname.lastname@example.org