AGO Exhibition: Terror And Beauty

The Art Gallery of Ontario, AGO, is a must-see whenever I visit Toronto. Not only because I’m a Frank Gehry fan who never gets tired of looking at the centre spiral staircase in there, but the exhibits are always intriguing and thought-provoking. Spent a few days in Toronto last week and this time, I was much gratified to view the current show at AGO: “Francis Bacon, Henry Moore: Terror and Beauty”.

Terror and Beauty, the motif resonates with the idea of Wabi-sabi. I’ve explored visually the notion of Wabi-sabi before. Two seemingly incompatible states juxtaposed against each other, beauty and sadness.

“You can’t be more horrific than life itself” says a quote from Francis Bacon on the AGO’s Artist page. The exhibits speak to that by extracting from the horrors of WWII and other forms of human sufferings and struggles depicted in the works of these two 20th century Irish/English artists who were contemporaries of each other.

The exhibit is a wealth of surrealist works from Bacon, and sculptures and drawings from Moore. But I was particularly captivated by the WWII items. While Moore is well-known for his abstract sculptures of the human body in larger than life poses, here’s a rare chance to see his more personal, wartime drawings.

Going home one evening in 1940, as he entered a London subway station, Moore discovered crowds of people sleeping on the platform to take shelter from an impending German air strike, the Blitz. He was taken aback by what he saw and his later drawing was a ghastly interpretation:

Tube Shelter Perspective 1941 by Henry Moore OM, CH 1898-1986

Photo Source: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/moore-tube-shelter-perspective-n05709

That’s Moore’s view of the underground subway station used as impromptu bomb shelter. But what was it really like in those tube stations? That’s when I was totally captivated by the photos of the renowned photojournalist Bill Brandt displayed alongside Moore’s shelter drawings.

Rather than horrific depictions, I was utterly surprised by the actual photographs by Brandt, who acted as official war photographer. His noir and darkened perspective is haunting and yet, full of mystique and beauty.

What I saw was an opposite interpretation of the subway scene: rather than terror, I saw resilience. Indeed, the London populace came out in droves to seek shelter in the subway, a much safer haven than their own homes. What I saw in many of Brandt’s photographs was the strong sense of ‘life goes on’.

Two photographs in the exhibition will forever remain in my mind.

First is the Liverpool Street Underground Station Shelter during an air raid in November, 1940. The photograph shows a family sleeping soundly, bedding against the grooves in between the steel structures of the tunnel. But look more carefully, there’s even a bunk and blanket for a doll beside the child. They all look peaceful and calm.

For the archive in my mind, let me call this photo: “The Doll in the Subway”

Sleeping in the subway bunk-child & doll

© IWM Non-Commercial License http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194652?cat=photographs

The second picture by Brandt is in the Elephant and Castle London Underground Station Shelter. Here, people sleeping on the crowded platform while taking shelter from German air raids during the Blitz.

But look how they were dressed in. The mid-heel pump the woman in the foreground was wearing caught my attention. Looks like she was dressed for work. Blitz or no Blitz, after she woke in the morning, she had to go to work. Life as usual.

In my mental archive, this photo will now be entitled “The Mid-heel Pump”.

 

The mid-heel pump

© IWM Non-Commercial License http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194638

What more, after civilians had crowded into the subway stations against government’s advice, the officials had to respond with helpful measures by installing chemical toilets, first aid facilities, and providing drinks, while the people created their own entertainment. With all due respect to the victims of the Blitz, the resilience and adaptability of the Londoners are most inspiring.

After I stepped out of AGO, I wanted to go back in to take a more careful look at the exhibits again. But that was not feasible so I had to write this post from memory (no photos of the exhibits were allowed) and from some online digging. Glad to have found these two  memorable images from the Imperial War Museum website. Thanks to AGO, these two historic photos will remain in my mental archive for a long, long time.

CLICK HERE to see 9 Incredible photos of the London Underground as Bomb Shelter.

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Related Posts on Ripple Effects:

The Frank Gehry designed Art Gallery of Ontario

Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005)

Art Gallery of Alberta

 

 

 

The Railway Man by Eric Lomax: Book Review

This is an important book in that it chronicles the real-life experience of a prisoner of war in the hands of the Japanese army after the British surrendered in Singapore during WWII. The Pacific War is a part of WWII history that has often been ignored, other than the Pearl Harbour chapter. The British Empire in the Far East was dealt a deadly blow by Japanese invasions, and, British POW’s suffered not a bit less than those in Hitler’s death camps.

Japanese atrocities and war crimes have often been muffled in this our North American society. I don’t want to speculate why but yes, I do have an inkling which I will not discuss here. But as someone who had grown up in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a teenager, I can tell the difference in knowledge and perceptions when I compare the generally uninformed public of the West and those who themselves or their elders’ generation had lived through in Asia during the war.

Because of the general lack of knowledge on the Far East during WWII, Eric Lomax’s first person narrative as a POW in a Japanese labour camp and later military prison is all the more valuable. The memoir starts off with his love for the railways in childhood and how it turned into a youthful passion for engineering and radios that later led him to the Royal Signals Corp of the British army during the war in Singapore. As the colony fell to Japanese hands, Lomax’s life was torturously demented in subsequent decades until the very end.

The Railway Man Book Cover

Eric Lomax was a young 22 year-old when he was captured and moved with tens of thousands of POW’s to Kanchanaburi, Thailand, to build the notorious ‘Death Railway’ in 1943. It was a passage way for military transport from Thailand to Burma, and the route of a possible Japanese invasion of India. The conditions of forced labour were horrendous. Many POW’s died building the railway. This part of the world was the subject of the famous movie Bridge on the River Kwai, an unrealistic (even farcical now that I’ve read Lomax’s memoir) depiction of British POW’s inside Japanese military camps.

With his skills, Lomax and several others built a radio secretly to get news of the war. The radio was later discovered, together with a map Lomax had carefully drawn up of the railway line. Six of them were interrogated and savagely beaten by The Kempetai, or goon squad, as Lomax described them. Both his arms, wrist, several ribs, teeth, and his hip were broken. Two died from the beatings. While Lomax survived, more tortures and horrendous treatments followed in the days after. The experiences had left him permanently damaged psychologically for the rest of his life. Decades after the war, Lomax was still being tortured by terrifying flashbacks. The nightmares continued until he met his tormentor and forgiveness replaced hatred and vengeance.

So all in all, a significant story to tell. But while the book’s description is straight forward and clear, it leaves me ungratified as to its writing style and lack of deeper exploration, with all due respect to the author and his horrific, nightmares of ordeals. Yes, he had done a detailed job in reporting his personal journey from childhood to the war, the tortures and his suffering, other victims and their fate. As well, he recorded the aftermath of his horrific experiences as he re-entered ‘normal’ society, and sadly still, to a family that he no longer knew. His mother had died of a broken heart and his father had remarried. I was particularly engrossed with the after war effects in the last chapters.

However, the internal change of heart for the reconciliation with the Japanese interpreter had not been explored. After the bulk of the book describing his painful ordeals, the very last chapter of a happy ending looks off-balanced. It all started with the Japanese officer and interpreter, Takashi Nagase, who was present at Lomax’s torture, publishing his autobiography in his seventies. In there, he even mentioned the torture of Lomax, but due to his remorse, he felt he had been ‘forgiven’. Lomax’s second wife Patti, upon reading the English translation of the book, decided to write to Nagase regarding her husband. Patti’s letter opened up a chance for the later meeting between the tormentor and the victim.

Nagase had shown deep remorse, and dedicated his life after the war to help the Allies locate graves of POW’s, to ‘make-up’ for the wrongs the Japanese army had done. In his meeting with Lomax fifty years later, both in their seventies, near the bridge on the River Kwai, Nagase offered his visibly acute and sincere regrets for what the Japanese army had done to the British soldiers. A forgiving spirit suddenly took hold of Lomax and the two became friends. However, Lomax did not go deep into how his ingrained hatred and vengeance were alleviated, except noting that Nagase was a changed man now.

Further, the book had not answered a question I’ve always pondered. No, I understand it was never intended to delve into that issue as it is a personal memoir and not a political or philosophical treatise. But this question has been unsettling for me. What if the tormentor had no remorse, could reconciliation be possible? Other than Nagase, we know that many in Japan today still worship their dead WWII soldiers including war criminals as national heroes, unlike Germany’s denunciation of the Nazi regime. History textbooks had even been changed to tone down Japan’s aggression in the war. Even as recent as January 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited and paid his pilgrimage at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The controversial Shrine is a clear symbol of, in Lomax’s words, “an unashamed celebration of militarism”. In the book, we also read that Nagase had taken the unpopular and even dangerous stance of denouncing this war monument. To victims and their descendants of Japanese wartime atrocities, the chapter has not ended; in international politics, the issue remains.

It is always a triumph to see true remorse and subsequent reconciliation. Lomax’s personal story is extraordinary for both himself and Nagase. In that sense, readers are gratified with a light at the end of a long, dark chapter of one life, a bright stroke on the large canvas of WWII history.

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The Railway Man by Eric Lomax, first published in Great Britain, 1995 by Jonathan Cape. Movie tie-in edition by Vintage Books, London, 2014, 322 pages.

** Movie Adaptation: I saw The Railway Man the movie at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. So far, there has not been a general, major release of the film here in North America. As much as I’d like to share my view on the film, with Colin Firth as Eric Lomax, Nicole Kidman as his wife Patti, and Jeremy Irvine as young Lomax, I intend to wait till there is a public release of the film before I post my review. Let’s hope I don’t have to wait much longer.

Related Links:

Pride and Pain of Patti Lomax

Railway Man’s Forgotten Family

What Japanese History Lessons leave out by Mariko Oi 

Sarah’s Key: Book into Movie

“When a story is told, it is not forgotten…”   — “Sarah’s Key” the movie

The Background: Vel d’Hiv Roundup

The story has to be told, because it is based on a historical event that has long been ignored. On July 16 and 17, 1942, the French police in Paris rounded up more than 13,000 Jews in Paris, among them 4,000 children, and confined them in the Velodrome d’Hiver (Winter Velodrome), an indoor bicycle racing track and stadium not far from the Eiffel Tower. There in the Velodrome the Jews were kept under French police guard for five days with no food and just one tap. They were subsequently sent to internment camps outside of Paris, where children were torn apart from their parents. Apart or together, they shared the same fate. From the internment camps, young and old alike were later transported by train to the Auschwitz extermination camp. The Velodrome, which was situated in the 15th arrondissement of Paris, has since been torn down but the event remains a dark page in France’s history.

The Vel d’Hiv roundup had been ignored for decades in the classrooms of the nation. Post-war French leaders from de Gaulle to Mitterrand had kept mum on the issue of France’s role in deporting Jews to the death camps. It was not until Jacques Chirac became president in 1995 that the French state accepted its official complicity, in particular, the Vel d’Hiv roundup. Here’s an excerpt of Chirac’s historical speech taken from a TIME magazine article:

France, homeland of the Enlightenment and of human rights, land of welcome and asylum; France, on that very day, accomplished the irreparable,” Chirac said in his speech, using the Vel d’Hiv roundup as a metaphor for all Vichy crimes. “Failing her promise, she delivered those she was to protect to their murderers.

A story based on this true event ought to be noticed. The French drama based on true accounts, “La Rafle” (“The Round Up”), was released in 2010 to a large audience in the country. And for us in North America, we have the novel Sarah’s Key (2007) and its movie adaptation (2010) to inform us of that horrific event and the imagined scenario of its impact on the lives involved.

(Spoiler Alert from here on.)

The Book

Written by Tatiana de Rosnay and published in 2007, the book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 120 weeks. It has sold 5 million copies world wide and been released in 38 countries. de Rosnay has published works in French. This is her first English language book.

The book weaves two stories together 60 years apart. 10 year-old Sarah Starzynski’s family is one of those being rounded up on July 16, 1942. On the spur of the moment, Sarah hides and locks her 4 year-old brother Michel in a cupboard in the wall of their bedroom, thinking there he will be safe until she comes back for him. It was horrific for her and her parents to find out later that they won’t be returning at all.

Sarah and her parents are kept in Vel d’Hiv in appalling conditions, only to be deported to an internment camp where she is separated from them. Her determination never wavers though in getting back home to let her brother out of the locked cupboard. She has kept the key, guarding it with her life.

Fast forward to 2002. Julia Jarmond, a U.S. expatriate married and working as a journalist in Paris, delves into the research of the Vel d’Hiv roundup for a magazine article commemorating its 60th anniversary. She is totally absorbed by the little-known event. What’s more, she finds out that the apartment that used to belong to her French husband’s grandparents and which is now under renovation for her to move in was the very home of Sarah and her family.

At the same time, Julia struggles with a personal dilemma. At 45, mother to 11 year-old Zoé, and after two miscarriages, Julia is excited to find out she is pregnant. Her husband does not share her sentiment however, pressing her to abort. The poignant story of Sarah inspires Julia’s decision as the story unfolds.

While I whole-heartedly admire the author for her intention to honor the victims of Vel d’Hiv and her eagerness to expose the atrocities afterwards, I have reservations about the literary quality judging from the style and structure of the book. At several points, I feel the writing redundant. And for a novel written for an adult readership, it gives me the feeling of being talked down to, told what to think and how to feel.

Structurally, it presents the two stories in alternating chapters. The shifting is abrupt as the chapters are only three pages long. This lasts till the middle of the book when the story of Sarah’s key comes to an end. That occurs when Sarah makes it back to her apartment and discovers the heart-wrenching horror. The rest of the book is the continuation of modern day Julia’s story, her persistence to discover Sarah’s trail after the war and dealing with her own personal dilemma. Compared to Sarah’s story, this latter part seems trivial and anti-climatic.

The Movie

One year after it premiered at the TIFF, I finally have the chance to see this movie as it is being screened only recently in one theatre here in town.

Screenwriter director Gilles Paquet-Brenner has gleaned the essence of the novel and tightened the plot in an engrossing way. By virtue of its form, the movie has the advantage of showing rather than telling.  It can condense paragraphs of words into a cinematic moment frozen in the mind’s eye. The film is captivating, telling the story with vivid and haunting images.

We see the recreated Vel d’Hiv and its appalling condition. We see a woman plunging to her death from a high level in the Velodrome, an apparent suicide. We see the horror of children torn away from their mothers in the internment camp. We see too the desperation of Sarah finally running up to her apartment, pounding on the door of the new family living there. We see her barging into her bedroom and unlocking the cupboard. And from inside there with the camera pointing out, we see the terror on Sarah’s face as she looks in. We hear her scream.

The storytelling is carried out by the excellent performance of the two main actors, Mélusine Mayance as Sarah and Kristin Scott Thomas (“I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) as Julia Jarmond. The structure of the plot limits young Sarah to only the first part of the film, albeit her portrayal is memorable, her unseen presence lingers through the movie.

Kristin Scott Thomas always delivers. Her role as the persistent journalist Julia is convincing and a pleasure to watch. Her cool demeanor conveys the fact that it takes intelligence and professionalism to find the truth as a journalist, and yet, once exposed, the truth can have the affective power to inspire and turn one’s life around. Scott Thomas has aptly portrayed this change.

Nevertheless, the weakness of the film lies in the lack of character development in the ‘minor’ roles. If given more depth, they can sharpen the conflicts and enhance the story. I’m thinking of Julia’s relationships with husband Betrand (Frédéric Pierrot, “I’ve Loved You So Long”, 2008) who insists on her abortion, and with her daughter Zoé (Karina Hin).

And since I’ve been looking for ‘intrusions of grace’ lately, there’s a scene here that is of note. It is not in the book, but screenwriter/director Paquet-Brenner has aptly created a poignant cinematic moment with it.  When Sarah and another girl are trying to crawl under a barbed wire to escape from the internment camp, they are caught by a guard. But upon the urgent appeal of Sarah, he softens. Using his bare hands to hold up the wire, he pushes the girls through. The camera then closes up on his bleeding hand, pierced by the barbs, an apt allusion. How we need these ‘intrusions of grace’ to shed a glimmer of hope amidst overwhelming darkness.

“Sarah’s Key” may well be one of those examples where the movie speaks more powerfully than its source material. If you are time-pressed, go for the cinematic rendition.

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To read more about the Vel d’Hiv roundup and related articles, click on the following links:

Behind the French Ruling on WWII Deportations of Jews“, TIME.

“Remembering the Vel d’Hiv” The Economist.

“Letters from Drancy” The Guardian.

“Vel d’Hiv Roundup” Wikipedia

The Savior: Book Review

The Savior is the debut novel written by Eugene Drucker, the founding member of the renowned Emerson String Quartet.   It is a fictional Holocaust story, but what it depicts is not far-fetched.  Based on his father Ernst Drucker’s experience as a violinist in Germany during the 1930’s, and mingled with his own performing episodes in hospital wards and infirmaries, Drucker has created a riveting and believable narrative. Most importantly, he has packed into the short 204 pages some questions that humanity has long found impossible to solve, the problem of human depravity and personal redemption.

In the book, the protagonist Gottfried Keller is a young German violinist during WWII. Due to a weak heart, he cannot serve his country in the front line, but he is drafted into the Nazi war machine by the SS for an experiment in a Holocaust death camp. Under the cultured yet ruthless Kommandant, Keller is to play four solo violin concerts to selective Jewish prisoners. The expressed purpose is to test whether music has the power to revive languishing souls.

As I read the summary on the book cover, the image of the movie Shawshank Redemption (1994) came to mind. When the character Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins) sneaks into the prison control room and broadcasts Mozart’s Sull Aria from The Marriage of Figaro over loud speakers out to the prison grounds, the inmates are instantly mesmerized by the beauty of the duet, the music transporting them from their confinement to lofty realms.

But what readers are confronted with here in The Savior is a drastic contrast. When Keller plays the Bach sonata in G minor for the inmates, he witnesses the horror of despair. The melodies act like whips on their flesh, cruel reminders of the hopelessness they are in. The intricacies of the fugue evoke searing pain rather than the expected comfort and relief, driving them to eerie moans and groans, exasperated in unrestrained sobs and anguish.

The irony is apparent. The redemptive power of music is but a myth. The violinist, acting as a life-giver or at least a boost to waning souls, is but a pawn in a game of cruelty. As the story unfolds, the violinist, the savior himself, finds desperate need for self redemption. Memories of his past, the choice of security over love, come back as torrents pounding on his conscience.

In the discussion of St. Matthew Passion with the young prison guard Rudi, Keller struck the chord of betrayal and remorse. As pathetic as attempting to pull one’s weight off the ground, both Keller and Rudi find It impossible to redeem themselves. The part a person plays in the overall scheme of atrocity needs to be dealt with. Being a pawn in the game does not excuse one from responsibility, even though the issue is a complex one.

As an expert in musicology and a professional musician, the author is able to effectively weave the music of Paganini, Ysaÿe, Hindemith, and Bach into literary form, an expertise only a violinist like himself can provide. The book excels in these detailed renderings of musical and literary tapestry.

However, the mere 204 pages of succinct narrative could be expanded to better handle the complexity of the issues and characterization the book is dealing with. The unfolding of Keller’s love affair with his Jewish girlfriend Marietta could be told in more details to allow the poignancy to linger.

Overall, a captivating story and a springboard to further pondering.

~ ~ ~ Ripples

The Savior by Eugene Drucker, Simon and Schuster, 2007, 204 Pages.

 CLICK HERE TO VIEW A VIDEO of Eugene Drucker playing Bach’s “Chacone” from Partita No. 2 and his explanation of its role in the book The Savior.

 

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