|"Reflections and Repercussions" -- the memoirs of Si Lewen||
A restlessness remains in your very bones if, still soft and malleable, they were formed in restless flight. It is a restlessness formed long before, not only in the bones but in the very marrow of race and history. Arriving in Berlin in 1920, an infant cradled in my mother's arms, I would flee from it again thirteen years later. In the intervening years, we would move, and move again and again: from Berlin to Fichtengrund, to Karlshorst, to Zehlendorf and from one place to another. I was delighted with the constant moving and happiest when I could leave home altogether, for whatever reason or no reason.
At the age of perhaps six, I decided to leave home and "see the world". We were living at the time on a small farm in the village of Fichtengrund, north of Berlin. I had announced that I would begin my much heralded journey early the following morning. My father advised me to dress warm. When the roosters began to crow, I started on my journey, fortified with a sandwich my mother had prepared and my father's pocket knife. I set out, toward the local railroad station, planning to catch one of the trains whose distant toot had often beckoned. Perhaps, it would take me to America, “America!” which had begun to fire my fantasies with feather crowned Indians. But farm dogs barked at me, strange noises came out of the marshes along the nearby Havel River, and getting cold feet in the still dark dawn I turned around and stabbed at a tree on the way. I had discovered and vanquished the world.
But this escapade was short lived and not as serious as the first when we still lived on August Strasse, a poor working class district of Berlin. I was four years old, and Isaac, two years older, was charged with keeping an eye on his younger brother. But at one unguarded moment, while Isaac had his back turned, I trundled off. My goal was a park fronting the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, and to chase pigeons. Through often confusing streets and traffic, I did find the goal of this my first solitary journey. As it was getting dark and I became scared and hungry, I tried to retrace my way, but this time became lost. After many hours of roaming about in the now dark city, sobbing and crying, a passing woman tried to help, but I had no idea where I lived. Suddenly, I found myself swept up into the arms of my parents. They had been searching all day, but there was no punishment, ¬not on this occasion or ever. "You'll see enough pain in this world", father would often say, "I will not add to it." My parents did not believe in punishment, especially physical abuse, no matter what the provocation.
It may be said that curiosity is but another form of restlessness, or that one may beget the other. In my life they have always gone hand in hand - from the earliest beginning. We were still living on August Strasse in Berlin on the top floor of an ancient office building when I let a hoop roll down one of the long, steep flights - to see what happens. "What a wonderful idea", I must have thought as I placed myself inside the hoop to roll down with it. I regained consciousness, lying on a table, staring up into the frightened faces of my parents and Isaac. Curiosity, evidently, can provide not only its own momentum but its own punishment.
My parent's decision never to inflict punishment on their children was, probably, taken long before I was born - while they grew up amid pogroms and hostility in Poland. "There must never be a hint of violence in our new home in Germany" may have been their resolve as they fled their native land, and they kept to their resolution. Beyond the shelter of home, growing up in Germany I would encounter the full brunt of hostility as “that Polish Jew boy”. "It was worse, much worse in Poland", my parents kept insisting. But home was shelter and oasis, and painting became my means of escape. Being taken to museums and galleries, even before I could properly walk on my own spindly legs, was what increasingly I came to regard as “paradise”.
The day I had walked off for the first time, it was not only pigeons I wanted to chase. I also tried to get into the Kaiser Friedrich Museum, that immense and forbidding looking former Imperial Palace, but "paradise" on the inside. The guard took one look at me and said to come back with my parents. My lifelong antagonism toward guards and uniforms may have started then. Going to a museum was entering an enchanted and hushed world. The few people of whispers and small steps could not intrude upon painting after painting opening up worlds of far away fantasies. I liked everything, but especially the Breughels and the Klees. Scholarship would question what connection could possibly exist between a 16th and a 20th Century painter. But how could a scholar know about the relationships a small child sees? I felt related to Breughel, Klee and all their kin, as intimately as to my parents and my brother, reflecting, perhaps, some kinship of spirit, a familiar voice. In my encounters with paintings I was certain that they seemed to speak, literally. Every painting spoke with a different voice, and also to each other.
To discover dialogs as well as relationships and connections eventually would become an obsession. Change, progression and transfiguration, no matter whether in art, nature, history or my own life, turned into a recognition of greatest consequence. It often seemed less rational than mysterious, but “transfiguration" made perfect sense to me, and this ¬must have started early. Soon after arriving in Berlin, still confined to my crib of white arabesques, I woke one night to see the dark room transformed into moving and dancing lights; it was a spectacle of incomprehensible wonder.
Many years later, as a father, I would wonder about the price exacted from the innocence of children, teaching them "reality", set and frozen into concrete facts. I envy children for their worlds beyond description and the wondrous things they could teach their elders if only they would listen and understand. As father and grandfather now, I wonder how well I truly understood my own children, especially before they could talk. But I continue to sense a special kinship to children; as perhaps one of them.
Confined to a crib, I remember surveying a world which consisted of a mostly bare room, lit in the evening by one bare electric bulb which insulted my eyes. Twilight, dusk, dawn, were the times of day I continue to prefer. I was fascinated watching the bare room transformed with the ever changing light, but especially two pictures fastened high to the wall above my crib. They were two lithographs by one of my parent’s friends in Berlin, the painter Fanya Blumberg. She had come to Berlin from Latvia and many years later I would meet her again in New York as the wife of Ben Kopman, the painter.
The two lithographs represented barely recognizable figures done in a style I later learned to be "semi-abstract". In time more pictures kept adding and filling the bare walls. My first attempts at “painting”, while still crawling about was to “decorate” the walls with, what my mother would later describe as “not exactly paint”. When finally I learned to walk and stand and climb, I climbed a chair and reached up to add my touches to pictures on the walls. “Make your own pictures” my father said, and provided me with blank paper and crayons.
In the winter of 1924, during the "magic" train ride from Berlin to Switzerland, I must have stood on my toes, eyes glued to the window for most of that unforgettable journey. Watching the ever changing scenery, I became convinced that it was the telephone poles, houses and trees which flew by and then hills and mountains. "I was standing still and everything was passing by", I insisted when I arrived in Davos, and announced to become an artist. It may have been childish bravado, but I would continue to wonder about the relationship of time and space: what if "time" merely reflected the limitation of our minds? "Facts" seemed less important than the reality of perception: "I can only paint what I see! It must be my own authentic view and vision!" Authenticity, however, as I learned later, could be neither learned nor taught.
My first teacher, in a way, was Fanya Blumberg whose pictures I had defaced in one of my first attempts at "self-expression". On her many visits, she would go over my pictures and say - mostly nothing, but urge me to stop trying to copy the pictures on the walls. I, however, found them so much more interesting than anything else, within and beyond our drab little apartment. This, perhaps, is how inspiration sometimes begins: not with reality but as an escape from it. Stubborn always, I continued to copy the pictures on the walls, as well as illustrations out of picture books. I copied until that day when I discovered the mountains in Switzerland, and these I painted not snowy white but on fire.
After Fanya, I had two, more formal instructors, both at almost the same time. I was about 8 by then and living in Karlshorst, a suburb of Berlin. One was Max Bronstein who had studied with Paul Klee at the Bauhaus and eventually, in Israel, became known as "Ardon". He insisted on "color, color, and more color". My other teacher, Klaus Richter, a professor at the Berlin Academy, insisted on discipline and "clear design" and to paint only what the eye saw. By this, Professor Richter must have meant only what his own eyes saw. Had I known then what I had since learned, I might have argued that every eye sees differently.
Towering over me like the true Prussian he was, I was awed not only by Professor Richter's credentials, but also by his studio with its huge, slanting windows. It was the kind of studio I dreamt to inhabit some day as an equally "famous and rich" artist. What, however, impressed me most was Herr Richter's collection of "primitive" artifacts. Especially, the African sculptures struck me with their "awesome power". I tried to beg and coax at least one small piece, but to no avail. Determined, I began to scheme ways to steal one. Even though I and my brothers were brought up to live by a strict code of "right and wrong", I could never see why in a situation where "the other had everything and I had nothing" I should not try to redress the obvious unfair imbalance
No matter how I schemed to acquire one of Prof. Richter's artifacts, I was unsuccessful. But I did get an education from both the Professor and Max, even though their teaching were totally at odds with one another. I tried to please both, aware that there could be many ways, one as valid as the other. It fitted my own temperament as well as that of the times. Berlin, in the Weimar years of the 1920's, was not only a hothouse but a boiling cauldron, spilling over with artistic styles, ideas and directions. Expressionism, Abstraction, Social Realism, Surrealism, Dada, Cubism - these and all their hybrids fermented and proliferated. Taken to every possible exhibition and exposed to the constant discussions at home, I absorbed it all in wide-eyed wonder and bewilderment. It could dazzle a young artist. However, the unpretentious black and white graphics of Kaethe Kollwitz probably touched me most. Her pathos for human misery provided the one steadying influence on my own work, reflecting not only her time but transcended it in a universal and very unique, maternal way.
The revolution called Modern Art was more than one of form; it was also one of content: Descending from the depiction of Gods and myths, down to earth - to kings and aristocrats, and then further down to ordinary life and burghers, art finally descended to portray even the lowest, the poor, the misbegotten and the victimized. To insist that the revolution - or rather evolution - of Modern Art was only, or primarily, one of form is to deny its possibly most virulent aspect. It was in Germany, following the trauma of the first World War, that this aspect of content found its most potent expression. The prime moving force of Modern Art, however, has been its almost explosive dynamics, and I found myself propelled by that velocity. "Where do you see consistency?" I eventually asked my own students. Could it not be said that the one consistency of all of Modern Art was its restless inconsistency - an art seemingly rushing on, in all directions, and in conflict even with itself? If art truly reflects its time, then the pace and inconsistencies we live in now must be seen reflected in the art of the 20th Century. And who can say which is art and which is life and which begot which? No matter which begot which, my earliest beginnings in Berlin would leave a profound effect, not only on the ever restless changing forms and contents of my art.
To “redress an unfair imbalance” was, surely, a rational added much later to my first successful thievery. At the age of four or five, in a kindergarten in Berlin, every child was expected to bring lunch money and deposit it into a box on the teacher’s desk. At about that same time I had wished for a toy pistol. “All the other boys have pistols”, I had pleaded with my parents. I wanted, desperately, to be “like all the others”. My parents were adamant; “no”; A gun, even as a mere toy, went against all their principles. There was only one recourse:
One day, on leaving kindergarten, I managed to be the last out of the room. Quickly I reached into the money box and scooped up whatever my small fist could hold. Later that day, I stole away from Isaac’s always watchful eye, bought the toy pistol and hid it on top of a tall water pump in the courtyard of our building. Then it dawned on me: “how could I ever play with that pistol if I had to keep it hidden”? I finally confided in Isaac about my “treasure” and showed him the secret hiding place. I climbed to the top of the pump and reached for the pistol; it was gone. Isaac pointed out the obvious: anyone from an upper story window could easily have discovered the gun and probably retrieved it. His was the analytical mind which many years later would see him through college and medical school and a bright career as an oncologist. But in 1976, he would die of lymphoma, and a lifetime of sharing each other’s confidences came to a sudden end.
At about the same time I had begun to collect postage stamps. I was fascinated with these small, colorful pictures and reminders of far away places. Friends of the family invited me to view their collections. It did not take me long to begin adding to my collection from that of others. Over the years, as my skill of heisting stamps became ever more refined, I managed to build up a considerable collection. No doubt, my skill as an “artist” had developed an eye-hand coordination which probably could have turned me into a most accomplished pickpocket. But “Justice” triumphed in the end. Upon my return from the war in Europe, my entire collection had “somehow” disappeared.
But in the midst of that war, I had hatched more audacious plots - to get rich. I had brought back from the war a captured German pistol, a Mauser - to hold up banks. I had the necessary training, the proper tool and most of all, the rationale. Banks, I reasoned, were insured against robbery, which meant that actually there was no real loss. It never got to the point where I held up any bank., and felt relieved when Rennie talked me out of my plans. But I had become almost desperate to “make money” when I got out of the army. The stockmarket beckoned. Legal and respectable, it seemed the least attractive and romantic. I had been tipped off about a new upstart company, Solitron Devices, which had invented some new type of transistor. I knew even less about transistors than the stock market but I gambled everything, even the contents of two piggy banks. Almost immediately, miraculously, the stock began to move up, higher and higher and still higher. It doubled, again and again; the stock was split and split again. Emboldened by my success as “speculator and gambler”, I plunged ever deeper into the stock market, especially after money also started to come in from sales of my paintings. Assets, revenues, debt-ratio: these were things I did not understand or care about. I invested in companies involved in solar energy, small upstart computer and high-tech companies and especially, new laboratories in genetic engineering. I was convinced that within a short time, one or another of the bio-engineering companies would discover a cure for cancer.
By the time, Paul, my son-in-law, died of cancer (a week before his 38th birthday) in June 1985, I concluded that a cancer cure was still a long way off. So, apparently, also was that “bright future” I had invested in, now selling failing and disappointing stocks. My dreams of riches came crashing down. It was pure and simple greed which made me plunge into “the market” again and again. To get rich was a dream which had started long before, but I finally had to acknowledge: it was all a “crap game.”
Eventually, I would go to prison - not as a convict for any crimes I might have committed, but as a teacher. As part of the Prison Education Program of New Paltz College, I had been asked in 1974 to initiate an art course at the nearby Wallkil Prison, later renamed “Correction Facility ” - a more acceptable name, but misleading. But to find myself in prison, even if only for a few hours a week as a teacher, to pass the tight security system, literally locked up with my prisoners and supervised by guards, proved unnerving. Most of the prisoners were colored and probably poor. Recalling my days in Germany as a “Polish Jewboy”, I identified with what it felt being a “Nigger”. Originally, I hoped to bring some color, fantasies and dreams into the grimness of prison, but limited to crayons (scissors - for collage - were not permitted), it finally proved too frustrating, as well as traumatic. I quit after one semester. While my stay in prison was short lived, the experience and the questions it spawned continued to follow: “where is Justice within the judicial system?” Evidently, there exists a different system for the poor and for those who have the means to afford high priced lawyers. The worst criminals may never go to jail.
What might happen, I began to wonder, if all prisoners, everywhere, were to be released, and all prisons - as well as punishment - abolished, together with the entire Justice System. The (legal) system did not appear related to justice. Within the symbiotic relationship between “crime and punishment”, might not crime, eventually, begin to subside and finally cease to exist without the promise of punishment? Dreamer that I was, a world without “crime and punishment”, seemed to me as plausible as a world in which criminal behavior appeared more encouraged by circumstances than discouraged, and crime seemed the ultimate “Free Enterprise”. Whether you are caught or not was more a matter of chance, particularly in a world which appeared as “nothing but a crap game”.
In retrospect - always and only in retrospect - I continued to wonder that had I been brought up a true believer and in fear of God, might I not have avoided many of the seductions of “sin” and cynicism. Perhaps. But sooner or later I would, surely, have questioned and finally rebelled against a God so totally at odds with all evidence and rationality. How could I have believed in a God, the personification of ultimate perfection, when worship of that God degenerated, again and again, into fanatic and bloody mayhem. I could accept the dire need for belief and faith - it can make human existence, this often pitiful span called life, more bearable and colorful. And why try to rationalize faith and belief? What if rationality on one hand and faith on the other are words and worlds apart and neither can explain the other? But if I were to explain my sins by a lack of faith, how then do the faithful explain theirs? And if not for sins and sinners, could there be saints?
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