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Wartime Terror

A powerful traveling exhibit features art focusing on the refugee experience

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A rare print by artist Marc Chagall has found its way to Tucson.

On the surface, the lithograph has all of the artist's usual cheeriness and folk charm. Blue, red and green passages brighten up a drawing of a young female nude. Beside her, charming village houses and a farm animal stand under a crescent moon.

But there's something amiss.

The young woman stands in the middle of the picture, dividing the paper between the Old World village at the left, and empty space at the right. And she has two faces: One looks back at the life she has left behind—or has been wrenched away from. The other looks out toward a void, an uncertain future, still to be filled.

Exhibited in Flight: Mid-Century Masters Interpret the Escape for Survival, a small traveling show at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, the print depicts a young woman suffering from the plight of all immigrants and refugees. She's torn, haunted by the longing for home, while facing up to making a new life in a strange land.

Chagall knew the feeling. He made the litho in 1968, more than a quarter-century after he fled the Nazis. With the help of a young American journalist name Varian Fry, the Jewish artist escaped from France in 1941 and lived to create art for another 44 years.

Flight exhibits 12 original prints, mostly lithographs, by a dozen blue-chip artists—including four whose lives were saved by Fry. Besides Chagall, there's Jacques Lipchitz; Wifredo Lam, a Cuban; and Frenchman André Masson. Among the other biggies in the show are Alexander Calder, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb and Joan Miró. In the artists' classic modernist styles, from abstract expressionism to surrealism, the work travels the whole terrain of wartime terror, from fear to flight to firebombs.

The show is a reminder of the creatively charged moment in art history when fleeing European artists descended on America, cross-fertilizing our own avant-garde and helping turn New York City into the capital of the art world. The exhibition also revives the dramatic story of Fry, an otherwise-forgotten footnote to the history of World War II.

In 1940, just months after Nazi troops marched triumphantly into Paris, Fry arrived in Marseille with a surreptitious mission: to help refugees flee France.

Fry had witnessed Nazi attacks on Jews in Berlin as early as 1935, and he willingly returned five years later to a Europe already at war. The private Emergency Rescue Committee had enlisted him to save prominent artists and intellectuals at risk of imminent arrest by the Germans.

When he landed in Marseille, outside of the occupied zone, Fry had a list of some 200 names, but he was soon besieged by hundreds and even thousands of people desperate to escape. With the help of a U.S. consul, he managed to get many onto ships out of Marseille and others over the Pyrenees and into Spain and Portugal.

After just 13 months, Fry was expelled from France, but not before he had managed to save somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 people (most, but not all of them, Jewish). Among those who owed him their lives were writers the likes of Hannah Arendt and André Breton, and artists Marcel Duchamp and Max Ernst.

Back in the U.S., Fry tried to alert his countrymen to the impending Holocaust, writing a 1942 article titled "The Massacre of the Jews in Europe." But he was treated with suspicion, and an FBI file on him prevented Fry from getting government jobs, according to a bio written by his widow. Fry died forgotten in 1967.

In his last years, though, he had the idea of using art to raise money for the International Rescue Committee, successor to the Emergency Rescue Committee that had engineered the rescue of so many artists. In 1964, nearly 25 years after the dramatic escapes from France, Fry asked the artists to create work around the theme of flight. The artists were happy to help out the IRC, which still does the work of resettling refugees from around the world.

Each of the dozen artists made 250 hand-pulled prints of a single image, and then destroyed the plates to increase the value of the artwork.

A traveling set of the prints has made its way around the country in recent years, says Melissa Wieters, director of development in the IRC's Tucson office. After leaving the JCC, the prints will be exhibited at the Joel D. Valdez Main Library downtown until Dec. 30; at the Oro Valley Public Library during the month of February; and at other venues yet to be announced.

"The goal is to raise awareness of refugees in the Tucson community," Wieters says. "It's education about what we do."

Many of the prints are grimmer than Chagall's, depicting the grisly realities of war more graphically. Jacques Lipchitz (well-known to Tucsonans from the University of Arizona Museum of Art's collection of his drawings and 3-D models) has brought his sculptural skills to the paper, using the lithographic crayon to draw two monumental figures fleeing flames and heading into darkness.

The figures are muscular and elongated, the distortions of their bodies expressing their perilous emotional state. One carries the other. Burdened by the weight of his companion, the lower figure seems to be walking slowly and heavily. Escape is not at all guaranteed.

Wifredo Lam's piece conjures up a military air attack. Black, menacing, mechanical forms hover over a background of pale-yellow dots. Shadowy bluish figures among the dots suggest writhing figures begging for mercy, their arms raised beseechingly.

Portuguese-French artist Maria Helena Vieira da Silva escaped Europe in 1940, evidently without Fry's help. She ended up in Brazil, where she became a noted modernist. Her litho on display here was made in 1968 in Paris. (It's satisfying to see that many of the displaced artists returned to work in liberated France.)

Apparently printed on cloth rather than paper, it's one of the most successful—and disturbing—works in the exhibition. An undulating line of figures, all assembled out of rectangles in black or brown, winds its way across the surface, getting smaller and smaller in the distance, disappearing into infinity. The sinister procession, stretching as far as the eye can see, apparently consists of soldiers: You can see the occasional rifle and bayonet held aloft. But you gradually realize that in between the military men are prisoners: men, women and children being herded under guard across a barren landscape.

It's a vivid depiction of the human fallout from war. Forced marches of civilians certainly took place in World War II, but the anonymity of Vieira da Silva's figures makes them universal. To an American, the chilling cavalcade suggests the long, deadly marches in our own checkered history, from the Cherokee Trail of Tears to the Navajo Long Walk.

Likewise, Adolph Gottlieb's searing red sun above a black mass of bodies conjures still another American tragedy. Gottlieb was an American who studied in Europe in the 1920s, imbibing the sensibility of the European avant-garde, but he also spent two important years in Tucson, as was memorably demonstrated by then-curator Joanne Stuhr in an important show at the Tucson Museum of Art. Prickly cacti, and indigenous pottery and textile patterns recharged his art.

For an Arizonan, it's hard to see Gottlieb's piece and not think of the dangerous desert sun, the fatal orb that has killed thousands of economic refugees traipsing across our own soil. Flight is flight.

Flight most directly recalls the vast civilian dislocations and deaths occasioned by World War II and the Holocaust. The cry of "Never Again" has sounded ever since, but genocidal slaughters have happened again and again since the years of the Germans' war on the Jews, in Rwanda, Guatemala, Cambodia, Darfur and elsewhere. It's what keeps the International Rescue Committee in business.

Wieters says the Tucson IRC has lately been serving refugees from Bhutan ("They've been living in Nepali camps for 25 years"), Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Eritrea and the Congo. The wars keep going, and the refugees keep fleeing. As Chagall knew, and as Fry saw, the work, unfortunately, is never done.

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