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The Everlasting Dichotomy

Anna VanMatre standing next to her installation at the opening of the exhibition “To Those Who Warn” dedicated to Jan Karski, at the International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim/Auschwitz (Photo: Steve Oldfield) Anna VanMatre standing next to her installation at the opening of the exhibition “To Those Who Warn” dedicated to Jan Karski, at the International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim/Auschwitz (Photo: Steve Oldfield)

An exhibit dedicated to Jan Karski “To Those Who Warn...” opened on May 25th at the International Youth Meeting Center in Oświęcim, located close to Nazi Germany’s former concentration camp in Auschwitz-Birkenau. It presents an installation (see images below) by a Polish-American painter Anna VanMatre, who befriended Karski in the final years of his life. The opening event was accompanied by a concert of American saxophone player and jazz composer Rick VanMatre, who presented his original compositions Villanelle and Inside Above, dedicated to Karski as well. Anna VanMatre talked to Bożena U. Zaremba of the Jan Karski Educational Foundation about Karski and her art.


Bożena U. Zaremba: How did you come up with an idea of dedicating your artwork to Jan Karski?

Anna VanMatre: After I was invited to create an exhibition at the International Youth Meeting Center, I started to think about the concept of the project. I thought I knew everything about World War II because I grew up in post-war Poland. I also knew people who survived Auschwitz. My friend’s father, for example, was a “guinea pig” for Dr. Mengele’s medical experiments. Unfortunately, he died young as he came back home totally scarred. Besides, my parents went through various tribulations during the war. Still, I decided to do extensive research on the subject and watched photographs and films. All of a sudden, I realized that this reality was much more terrifying than I had imagined. I was so disturbed that I could not sleep at night. One day, I was talking to Kaya Mirecka-Ploss[1], who has been my friend for years, and I told her that I wanted to dedicate this installation to Karski. When he was still alive—whenever we got together—we always ended up talking about the Holocaust. Karski felt continuous remorse for not having been able to help, for not stopping the Holocaust. This was an obsession of his that haunted him for his whole life. Kaya said it was a terrific idea. I decided to name this exhibition “To Those Who Warn...” Karski was one of the first who tried to alert the world.

How did you meet Karski?

In 1996, I started my collaboration with the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, DC., and Kaya Mirecka-Ploss was its Director at that time. The Center used to organize an annual “Testimonial Dinner” during which some notables were recognized for their contribution to promoting Poland. The first gala that we organized together was in 1998; I designed the invitation and program. Jan Karski, Zbigniew Brzeziński, and Alexander Haig were honored at this event, and it was then that I met Karski. Kaya knew him well—they had been friends for 30 years; she took care of him after his wife’s death and especially at the end of his life. They had a very close, warm relationship, and they supported each other. When I met Karski, he was already sick—he had leukemia, and the treatment made him very weak.

What was he like as a man?

 He was a traditional gentleman—always gallant and kind. He always dressed impeccably. I remember when I used to pick him up (he did not drive), he would go to the car first to open the door for me. Then, barely walking and leaning against the car to avoid falling, he went around to his door. Of course, I wanted to do the other way round, but no, no way. At that time, I was staying at Kaya’s house, in the guest room, and Karski had his own room, furnished to meet his needs. We would spend the evenings together, talking. Karski had already retired from teaching and was glad to have a listener, and I listened attentively. Sometimes we went to a restaurant, where he ordered a Manhattan—his favorite drink. He didn’t eat much. He was always a gentleman—he never complained about how much he suffered. Whenever he collapsed, Kaya took him to the hospital and many times, spent the whole night next to him. Karski was a man of strong moral convictions, where everything needed to be righteous and people honest and truthful. He was also a warm, sensitive human being, although he did not show it, especially to people he did not know.

However, his sensitivity does show in some public appearances. A good example would be the interview he gave for the documentary Shoah.

That’s right. Besides, he was a passionate man and treated a lot of things very emotionally. When he focused on something, nothing else mattered.

What do you think is the most significant element of his legacy?

His message—to make sure this horror would never happen again. This is also what I wanted to convey in my work.

Did you create this installation after you decided to dedicate it to Karski?

Yes, I knew from the beginning that this installation would be dedicated to him.

How did his story influence the subject of this artwork?

It is dedicated to his memory but there is no direct correlation to the war themes that appear in his speeches and his book. This installation presents my interpretation, based on my personal experience and readings.

You mentioned your family’s fate during WWII. Can you elaborate?

My mother survived internment in Siberia—her family was arrested at gunpoint and imprisoned in a death and labor camp in Kazakhstan. How part of the family survived, I am unable to understand. Anyhow, their stories are horrible. My father was a Home Army[2] soldier. During one of the battles in Volhynia, he was critically wounded. Germans found him in the morning, and he asked them to kill him. They thought he was one of them (he spoke perfect German) and took him to a German hospital, where he was operated on, after which he escaped. Was it a coincidence or miracle?

What are you trying to communicate through your exhibit?

I wanted this to be a strong message. The Youth Center is next to the Museum in Auschwitz, which triggers fundamental questions about justice, love, and truth. It was in this place that civilization crumbled; it was here that the whole system of values collapsed. My intention was to stimulate contemplation and evoke the feelings of empathy. In my opinion, such intense art is the best lesson, especially for the young generation—they often know very little, or nothing or they don’t want to know about what happened in this place, about one of the biggest genocides in human history. I tried to create the mood of fear, terror, horror, and annihilation—life between fear and death. At the same time, I wanted to show the ephemeral and fragile nature of human existence. If one can comprehend the suffering of those people and relate them to one’s own feelings, such things will never happen again because nobody would want to be in such a situation. These were my goals.

The whole installation is a 70-feet triptych.

Yes, it is a U-shaped installation on three walls: left, central, and right. The story starts from the left side: this is the arrival at the camp: the night is dark; people are getting off the train, bewildered and shocked. It was horrible—people were disoriented and utterly unaware of what was going to happen. These people, who came here from the “normal” world, suddenly found themselves in a nightmare they had never expected and could not have predicted. Everyone had expected the worst, but no one had expected the unimaginable. And what they faced was unimaginable. I tried to draw this all: the smoke, the flames, the ashes. People were trapped, with no way out. The whole narrative is told through the fire and smoke, which sometimes is black, sometimes grey, foggy, and obscures the view. In the middle panel, there is a small element of a beautiful blue sky. It is a symbol of the only connection to the outside world, to the free world, because while looking at the sky, one could not see the barbed wire or the flames and smoke.

And a symbol of hope?

Maybe, because when people looked into that azure, they thought: “Maybe I will get out from here; maybe it is possible.” Whenever people described their concentration camp experience, their stories had one thing in common: they all tried to live day by day. Nobody was thinking about what was going to happen tomorrow or next month or next year. They wanted to survive until the end of this very day. They tried to collect some crumbs and to keep at least the minimal hygiene. Focus on yourself. They were not able to help others. Of course, there were people who—in spite of this cruelty and degradation—were able to think about another human being. They arranged for extra portions of coffee or soup or medical care; they smuggled the necessities. These actions were heroic. They acted against their own interests because the energy spent on someone else was wasted energy.

Let’s go back to the subject of your installation.

Besides this small fragment of the blue sky, smoke and fire are everywhere. These elements are never-ending because there were no breaks—the ovens worked day and night, and everyone knew about it. They felt that terrible odor and were thinking—today, it is someone else, and tomorrow, it will be me. We move to the right panel, which is probably the most dramatic one—it is the essence of horror. The triptych ends with the inferno—the smoke turns an unusual reddish-purple that I have never painted before. There is no happy-end there, unfortunately. Even though a small group of people did survive, even though they did return to everyday life, there was no normalcy in their lives. I don’t think that it was possible.

The technique you used in this artwork is a combination of digital media and drawing.

That is correct. First, I used digital photography. I acquired about 100 photographs of flames from different photographers and then, using various software, I made layers of the images, creating collages, if you will, and transforming them to create my own art. Then, I printed them onto large synthetic paper. I used graphite and pastels to hand paint the smoke and clouds, and I also used pastels to augment parts of the photographic flames.

In your other artwork, nature seems to be a dominating theme.

Absolutely. Nature is my biggest inspiration. I try to present paintings that definitely focus on the environmental protection. This is my artistic mission. I had, for example, a whole series of paintings about the Chernobyl disaster: gigantic, black-and-white, often 3D panels, made in graphite. Sometimes I feel this is a voice crying in the wilderness, but maybe, someone will hear it, eventually. I also made a series about the World Trade Center. I conveyed the essence of this tragedy in vertical diptychs, which are as terrifying as visually beautiful. I wanted to freeze it in time. There is a certain kind of dichotomy in my art: I show the beauty of nature, but sometimes, this beauty is cruel—the eruption of a volcano is beautiful, but at the same time, it destroys whole neighborhoods and kills people.

You say you freeze time, but by combining the paintings with a related theme together, you give them an opposite dimension—the passing of time.

And it becomes a tale as if there were not enough space on one painting to tell the story. The same thing happened with my Metamorphoses at the Krakow Philharmonic Hall.

This is another interesting story. Can you tell something about this collaboration and your encounter with Krzysztof Penderecki[3]?

I met Krzysztof Penderecki when he was a guest of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which had asked me to create an exhibition to accompany the concerts. Penderecki was curious if I had painted anything connected to his music. So, I decided to make a special series. I chose his Violin Concerto No. 2 “Metamorphosen” and created my own Metamorphoses inspired by his work. When a few years ago, the Krakow Philharmonic announced the Year of Penderecki to celebrate the 80th anniversary of his birth, I was invited to open the season. I brought my paintings and they were permanently installed in the Philharmonic Hall. They also tell a story—there are seven panels, like seven days of the week, seven gates of Jerusalem, seven miracles of the world. The number “seven” also reappears in Penderecki’s compositions. On the subject of story-telling: again, there was too little space to tell a story—in the same way as in Oświęcim, where we have an area of 70 feet and if there was more space, I would continue painting indefinitely! Somehow, I never have enough space to express myself.

We may also run out of space for your fascinating stories [laughs]. Not all artists can talk about their art in such a captivating way.

Thank you but actually, I do what I do so that I don’t have to talk about it [laughs]. On the other hand, most people want to hear what an artist wants to convey because they don’t always see that. For example, I made a series DeNatural Disaster after the US entered into the war with Iraq. It was a great shock for me—we are in the 21st century, and we are having a war? I was so outraged while creating these paintings. I was completely furious! This was an artistic voice in me saying, “Stop! Absolutely no!” When you look at those paintings, you don’t know whether this is the creation of Nature or the destructive force of man who interferes with Nature; whether this is an explosion of a volcano and red lava or the battlefield and bloodshed.

Most of your artwork is monochromatic, but among the shades of grey, from time to time, a contrasting color such as red appears. It creates a compelling dramatic effect.

That’s what I try to do. In the artwork dedicated to Karski, besides the graphite grey, I mainly use the red. There is a little bit of yellow and orange, too. The only contrasting color is in the blue sky. Everything is rolling and billowing; it is in constant motion. Sometimes, the clouds are just the clouds, and sometimes, they are the smoke. The whole image is ambiguous. We subconsciously know where the smoke has come from. There is life here but at the same time, there is death because the smoke and flames devour everything and nothing is left.

What is going to happen to your installation after the exhibition closes?

The exhibition will run through July 22, 2018. I don’t know of any further plans yet. I have received a few offers to show this installation in the US, but nothing has been set.

 Anna VanMatre’s Official Website: www.annavanmatre.com

 [1] Kaya Mirecka-Ploss is a Polish-American activist and author of several books. She was a close friend of Karski’s, and after his death, she became an avid promoter of his legacy. She is a former President of the American Council of Polish Culture and former Director of the American Center of Polish Culture in Washington, DC.

 [2] The Home Army was the armed wing of the Polish Underground State, the most sophisticated and effective resistance movement in Europe during WWII.

[3] Krzysztof Penderecki (b. 1933) is a world-renowned Polish composer and conductor, winner of five Grammy Awards.