Erna Rosenstein’s dreamlike forms resist interpretation

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Erna Rosenstein was by no means a foreign artist, but her contribution to the aesthetic discourse of post-war Europe is virtually unknown outside of Poland – the country where she lived and worked until her death in 2004. In fact, Rosenstein’s life has placed her in the midst of the atrocities, ideological struggles and artistic movements that shaped European history in the 20th century. As well as being a highly skilled artist immersed in the avant-garde circles of her time, she was a Jewish woman who survived the Holocaust and was a committed leftist who experienced the collapse of communism in Europe from ballast. The impact of Rosenstein’s work, however, extends far beyond the extraordinarily turbulent and traumatic circumstances of his life. His artistic output demonstrates a playful inventiveness that seems relevant and necessary today – a testament to the vital role of the imagination in personal and political struggles.

Erna Rosenstein, Tryptyk ciszy i ognia (Silence and Fire Triptych), 1974, oil on canvas with hinged wooden frame 100 × 160 × 1 cm (overall). © The estate of Erna Rosenstein / Adam Sandauer. Courtesy of: Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation; photograph: Marek Gardulski

A triptych full of colorful floating drops welcomes us at the entrance to the gallery. Cool, warm yellows illuminate the fenders, while a deep blue background anchors the center panel. Many different textures and hues of red and orange paint make up the feverish protagonist of Tryptyk cisy i ogina (Silence and Fire Triptych, 1974). Her cool blue counterpart – presumably silence – doesn’t seem to be affected by the two strands of red touching her stoic outline. The energy of the confrontation between the two most complex forms radiates outward. Rosenstein’s biography makes it easy enough to relate the terms “silence” and “fire” to the persecutions of Jews across Europe, but the strength of this picture comes through viscerally and does not depend on the readability of this reference.

Many of Rosenstein’s canvases contain depictions of people, faces, or sometimes just a pair of closed eyes hovering in the midst of a pinkish, bushy haze, as in Bez granic (Without Borders, 1992). Another theme of his work is fantasy landscapes with sections of stacked color and richly textured lines. Poświata (Remanence, 1968) changes completely as you get closer and notice the hundreds of fine dark brushstrokes that cover its surface. Some of these lines appear in tightly ordered parallel groups, while others take the form of curls of curls that fade depending on how much pigment remains on Rosenstein’s brush. Like a form of freewheeling hatching, this technique darkens areas and establishes a tonal range amidst chromatically homogeneous passages.

Erna Rosenstein, Poświata (Afterglow), 1968, oil on canvas 58 × 66 cm.  © The estate of Erna Rosenstein / Adam Sandauer.  Courtesy of: Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation;  photograph: Marek Gardulski
Erna Rosenstein, Poświata (Afterglow), 1968, oil on canvas 58 × 66 cm. © The estate of Erna Rosenstein / Adam Sandauer. Courtesy of: Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation; photograph: Marek Gardulski

One of the strangest and most delightful works in the exhibition combines elements of figuration with a psychically charged topography. In Chorągiew (Banner, 1975), which reads like a clown’s face with white teeth surrounding two red lips – giving this cryptic face an inverted mouth – hovers in the sky over mountainous terrain. Next to it is an oblong-shaped amoeba with a red and yellow core and several groups of small circles around its edge. These confusing elements sit in the middle of a crisp white field surrounded by warm tones of shadow and sienna, forming an irregular border in the rectangle of the canvas. This frame in the image multiplies the dreamlike intensity of the confrontation. The eerie facial features and the glowing red landscape seem alien – a quality that stands up to strictly autobiographical interpretation. Instead, we must fight the haunting presence of these forms without familiar narrative safeguards to restrict their meaning.

Rosenstein’s work is nourishing precisely because it is difficult to summarize. Engaging in these paintings takes time as she never settles into a uniform graphic strategy, and the changing beauty of her restless imagination works against the reductive tendency and impatience that characterizes the economy of attention.

Erna Rosenstein’s’Once upon a time’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth, New York, through December 3.

Main image: Erna Rosenstein, ‘Once Upon a Time’, 2021, exhibition view, Hauser & Wirth New York, 69th Street. Courtesy of: Hauser & Wirth and Foksal Gallery Foundation. © The estate of Erna Rosenstein / Adam Sandauer; photograph: Thomas Barratt

Vignette: Erna Rosenstein in her studio on Karłowicza Street in Warsaw, 1958.
Photography: Tadeusz Rolke, Agencja Gazeta


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