Revisions: contents, artist’s statements
- LUNA WOLA – VIEW FROM THE SOUTHWEST
- LIPSKO – GROUND PLAN
- ZABLUDÓW AND JANÓW TREMBOWELSKI – ROOF FRAMEWORK
- POHREBYSZCZE – SECOND-FLOOR PLAN
- JANÓW SOKÓLSKI – ROOF FRAMEWORK
- NOWE MAIASTO – EXTERIOR
- LUTOMIERSK – GROUND PLAN
- OLKIENNIKI – CORNICE
- WOLPA – GROUND PLAN
- GRODNO – DIAGRAM OF ROOF’S FRAMEWORK
- KONSKIE – ROOF FRAMEWORK
- KOMIONKA STRUMIL with line throughOWA – GROUND PLAN
- PECZYNIZYN – GROUND PLAN
- JANÓW SOKÓLSKI – GROUND PLAN
I have wanted for years to do a work in memory of the Jews killed by the Nazis. The Diary of Anne Frank contributed to a feeling that I could as easily as not have been amount the victims, and that therefore I must consider myself in some sense not merely victimized, but dead. Thus, these drawings were done on behalf of myself as well as those others. At the same time I recognized that I had been spared and that my life has been one of security and opportunity. I am skeptical of synthetic experience as a point of departure for a work of art. Since the media greatly augment our visual experience I make a distinction between first-hand experience and media-gained experience. In doing a memorial work I have tried to take particular care to speak from my own place as a witness who, while identifying with the victims, is reluctant to presume a knowledge of suffering not personally undergone. This reflects no lack of confidence in my imagination but rather a respect for the experiences of others.
The architectural plans and details are all that remain of these Polish wooden synagogues following their destruction by the Nazis. The plans can serve as symbols of what was lost, though at the same time they are complete in themselves as architectural and geometrical concepts of particular beauty. As formal expressions of their communities they survive and provide access to the memory of those lost lives.
I wish to express my indebtedness and appreciation to Maria and Kazimierz Picchotka, authors of Wooden Synagogues (Warsaw, Arkady, 1959). This remarkable work provided the inspiration and the information for my drawings.
The drawings in Revisions were a significant phase in the development of my work. Although I had done portraits occasionally in the preceding years, prior to 1971 my work was predominantly genre and still-life. The portrayal of my children presented psychological and artistic difficulties since it required me to place in composition, or objectify, those people most important and closest to me. The geometrical configuration of the synagogue plans furnished me with a framework, a compositional device, which enabled me to turn this highly charged subject matter into pictures. By the time I had completed Revisions I had overcome the psychological hurdle of treating myself and my children as subject matter. On finishing the series, however, I found that I needed something to replace the synagogues compositionally. Pursuing this I was drawn to fresco painting, Renaissance and particularly Roman, which often places the figures against a geometrical or architectural motif thereby accentuating both elements and creating a distinctive tension. Following the compositional characteristics of fresco painting I began to adapt household settings, windows, doorways and furniture to provide the geometrical elements which the synagogue plans had originally contributed to my pictures. In this way the synagogue plans have greatly expanded the range of my work.
Johnson, Vermont, 1977
Introduction by Rudolf Baranik
Unexpected juxtapositions: architectural drawings of the burned synagogues of prewar Poland with the artist’s frolicking or sleeping children in northern New England. The iconography changes. We encounter a rural landscape, the backyard of Clara Mason, neighbor, set in the floor plan of the synagogue of Pohrebyszcze. Dishes, an affirmation of the dailiness of life, nestle in the floor plan of the destroyed prayer house of Peczyniżyn. Three-year-old Saskia builds with blocks. Ten-year-old Zoe swings from a cross section of the synagogue of Janów Sokólski; the name means “Of the Falcons”: both images of flight—telepathy through languages and decades.
It would be an understatement to say that Sarah Swenson’s art is the fruit of a unique vision. Clearly this is work of a gifted and extremely personal artist. Even when the impact of the iconography is understood, a feeling of recognition does not obviate a sense of disturbance: like all good art it is on the verge.
Swenson’s synagogues (rendered from architectural drawings, themselves rendered in most cases after the fact) are seemingly cool, the drawings of the children meticulous, the landscapes, the bird cages, Vermont living, reticent. A conceptual contemporaneity fuses with an understated expressionism.
An unusual way to voice lament; an unusual way to hold out hope.