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Artists Reflect On Experiences Of War, Oppression, and Occupation

Exhibitions by three artists at the Block Museum of Art this fall address traumatic events of the 20th century.

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August 5, 2008
EVANSTON, Ill. --- From paintings and drawings reflecting the devastation of the Holocaust and repression of Communist Poland to photographs documenting the end of World War II in Japan, exhibitions by three artists at Northwestern University's Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art this fall address traumatic events of the 20th century in uniquely personal ways.

Renowned artist Magdalena Abakanowicz (born 1930) came of age during World War II and under Communist rule in postwar Poland. Her art manifests the brutality, suffering, and oppression she has overcome while demonstrating her fierce individuality and vitality. Abakanowicz is best known for large-scale installations in cities across the world (including the colossal "Agora," installed in Chicago's Grant Park in 2006), but the exhibition "Magdalena Abakanowicz: Reality of Dreams" brings a fresh perspective to the artist's oeuvre by concentrating on drawings created during the last 30 years. These highly gestural and expressionistic works address the same polarities of life as her sculptures: the individual and society, nature and humanity, life and death. The exhibition, which is organized by the Block Museum with the cooperation of Marlborough Gallery, New York, also features the large sculptural grouping "Flock." It is in the Block Museum's Alsdorf Gallery from Sept. 26 to Dec. 14.

John Swope (1908–79), a Hollywood photographer who had previously collaborated with the writer John Steinbeck on a book about aviation cadets, traveled to Japan in late summer of 1945 with the U.S. Navy to photograph the release of Allied prisoners of war. Driven by a desire to understand the country that Americans perceived as a threat, Swope also took pictures of Japanese civilians during his three-and-a-half-week journey, utilizing his personal charm and his unusual Navy-issued camera (a Rolleiflex which was held at waist level, leaving the photographer's face unhidden) to interact with his subjects. In a running letter to his wife, the actress Dorothy McGuire, Swope wrote, "With a camera and a desire to take pictures it is very difficult not to talk with them, befriend them, and try and find out more about them." Swope's correspondence with his wife provides commentary for more than 75 photos from his trip displayed in "A Letter from Japan: the Photographs of John Swope." Organized by UCLA's Hammer Museum and accompanied by a 256-page catalogue ($45), the exhibition is in the Block Museum's Main Gallery Sept. 19 to Nov. 30.

Born in Eastern Europe in 1933, Samuel Bak suffered the ravages of the Holocaust as a child. His paintings and drawings continually address the traumas experienced by Bak and other European Jews of the time. "Drawn from Memory: Holocaust and History in the Art of Samuel Bak" in the Block's Print, Drawing, and Photography Study Center from Sept. 19 through Nov. 30, focuses on the artist's incorporation of iconography from historical and modern art, such as his frequent invocation of the brooding winged figure from Albrecht Dürer's 1514 print "Melencholia." Bak's appropriations evoke displacement and loss and become metaphors of the ruptures he has lived through, as well as universal symbols of suffering. This exhibition is organized by the Block Museum with cooperation from the Pucker Gallery, Boston.

The Block Museum has organized a number of programs to complement these exhibitions; unless noted, all of the following are free of charge.

• Block Museum docents lead guided tours of the John Swope exhibition at 2 p.m. on Saturdays from Sept. 27 to Nov. 29.

• Tours of the Magdalena Abakanowicz and Samuel Bak exhibitions will take place at 2 p.m. on Sundays from Sept. 28 to Nov. 30. Tours of the Magdalena Abakanowicz exhibition only will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, from Dec. 6 to 14.

• At 5:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 26, "A Letter from Japan" curator Carolyn Peter, director of the Laband Art Gallery, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, will address John Swope's work in the context of photographic war documentation. Peter's talk is titled "The Artist at War: John Swope and the History of War Photography."

• Block Museum curator Corinne Granof will present "Abakanowicz and Chicago," at 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 6, a program about the Magdalena Abakanowicz exhibition and the artist's work "Agora," which is permanently installed in Chicago's Grant Park.

• At 8 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8 and Nov. 12 the Museum and Block Cinema will screen rarely seen war propaganda films created for the U.S. government.

• At 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29, Jeffry Diefendorf, Pamela Shulman Professor in European and Holocaust Studies at the University of New Hampshire, will speak about the artwork of Samuel Bak.

• During the family program "Pinhole Camera" from 1 to 3 p.m. Oct. 12, children and their parents will tour the John Swope exhibition and create their own pinhole cameras. The cost for the family program is $5 per family (free for Block Museum members) and reservations are required. E-mail blockeducation@northwestern.edu.

"A Letter from Japan: The Photographs of John Swope" and its catalogue are generously supported by Gail and Jerry Oppenheimer, with additional support from Mrs. Sidney F. Brody, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Shirlee Fonda, and Jane Wyatt. Support for the Block Museum's fall exhibitions and programming is provided by the Terra Foundation for American Art, Rubens Family Foundation, Alsdorf Endowment and Myers Foundations.

For more information regarding Block Museum exhibitions, programs or location, phone (847) 491-4000 or go to the Block Museum website at www.blockmuseum.northwestern.edu.
Topics: Campus Life