As Jews faced persecution in Nazi-occupied Austria, a Jesuit priest baptized the Jewish Lichtblau family to help them obtain passports and flee the country. Among them was 14-year-old Charlotte Lichtblau. In 1938, the family escaped to Yugoslavia, then England and finally New York City, where Charlotte converted to Catholicism. This exodus from her homeland — the salt-mining mountain community around Altaussee, Austria — influenced Lichtblau’s later career as an artist.
A collection of Lichtblau’s paintings and drawings depicting religious themes will be on display through November in the Yale Divinity School’s Sarah Smith Gallery. The exhibit, titled “Exile and Revelation: The Art of Charlotte Lichtblau,” contains a group of Lichtblau’s sacred works dated between 1962 and 2000. The curators, Jack Thomas ’80 and Bruce Payne GRD ’65, who were friends of the artist, are the current managers of her artistic estate. Thomas noted that Lichtblau, whom he fondly referred to as “Lotte,” lived much of her life in a self-imposed exile.
“She felt these dissociations from her homeland,” Thomas said. “But when she vacationed, she returned to Austria. Lotte, for the entire course of her life, spoke with her husband in German.”
This sense of dissociation manifested in the locations rendered in her paintings. In the tradition of Italian Renaissance painters who placed sacred stories in local contexts, Lichtblau depicted stories from the Old and New Testaments in the Altaussee mountain village from her youth.
According to Thomas, Lichtblau drew inspiration from specific sacred stories throughout her artistic career and reimagined those stories various times. Some of the stories that recur throughout Lichtblau’s works are that of Jesus’ death, the marriage of Mary and Joseph and the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. Thomas noted that Lichtblau’s depictions of Jesus in the Garden of Gesthemane praying the night before his crucifixion are connected to the artist’s own senses of abandonment and exile.
During the exhibit’s opening reception, which took place Sept. 5, Payne detailed how Lichtblau’s distance “from her holy places intensified her concentration on them, and how putting the old stories into the mountains and Altaussee enlivened both the stories and the landscapes.”
“In Lichtblau’s case the struggle is not merely to depict emotions, but to embody them, to cope with them, in some sense to understand them,” Payne wrote in an essay titled “The Courage to See.”
According to Thomas, Lichtblau’s style falls within the artistic traditions of German Expressionist painters. He named Max Beckmann, Emil Nolde and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner as notable influences and linked her work to that of Paula Modersohn-Becker, another influential female artist who thrived despite her male-dominated artistic environment. Lichtblau’s style is also influenced by the New York School, which filled her paintings with vibrant color and emotion.
Payne writes that Lichtblau, like her predecessors, is an “action painter” who allows her audience to see the “revisive and even messy processes” behind her works.
“Lichtblau’s work has thus been in large part a quest for meaning, a search to understand and to express the deep emotional parts of her life, a quest to see more truly the world she encounters and to face more honestly those enduring mysteries of death and loss,” Payne wrote. “She is unwilling to abandon the notion that our deepest inner selves have some mysterious connection to the natural world and the mysteries of its ordering.”
Lichtblau’s work also has a history on Yale’s campus. In the spring of 1969, former Pierson Head of College John Hersey invited Lichtblau to show more than 40 of her works in the college. Thomas pointed out that the 50th anniversary of Lichtblau’s first Yale exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of coeducation at Yale College, lending further significance to the presence of her art on the Divinity School’s walls.
Although the paintings will be on view in the Sarah Smith Gallery only through November, the curators are in conversation to donate some of the works to the Divinity School’s permanent collection. According to Thomas, this donation would be part of a larger project to “find permanent homes” for Lichtblau’s paintings and drawings.
The Divinity School is located at 409 Prospect St.
Rianna Turner | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Sept. 12: A previous version of this story misspelled the name of former Pierson Head of College John Hersey.