Guest Post, Deborah Bogen: Writing to the Paintings of Akiba Emanuel

akibadaughterlynnIt was complicated. Isn’t it always? I know the daughter (Lynn Emanuel) of the painter (Akiba Emanuel) and I enjoy and admire her poetry. Beyond that I have envied her background because Lynn comes from a family of artists. She’s intense, accomplished and often identified as postmodern. If you know her work you know her images occupy the page with authority and the readers’ minds with staying power.

But when I read Lynn’s book, Then Suddenly, I was most taken by the poems at the center of the book, the poems about her father, Akiba. He died while she was writing Then Suddenly and the poems about his death split the book right down the spine. The forceful emotion those poems are built on – especially in a poet who is so keenly intelligent, so intellectual – provide a powerful base for the rest of the book. They give dimension and force to the postmodern imagery that has so often been called out when writers discuss her work. Because the poems are artful, filled with tour jetes’ and flashes of brilliance that stay with you, I started thinking about art and image against the background of actual life and loss. I wanted to explore what art can and cannot do, and of course, I wanted to know more about Lynn’s dad. Her father, her fellow artist. I decided I should see his work.

It’s not that easy to see Akiba Emanuel’s work. It’s not hanging in my local museum. Emanuel was an artist who did not quite become famous; he lived on the edge of fame. He knew famous artists, he sometimes worked with them and even posed for Matisse. He was in shows with many of them and he lived in New York where he was a contemporary of Rothko et al.

But the art world is cut-throat competitive – there’s actual money at stake. People who are most interested in you are usually those who think you can help them. Akiba was ardent about his work, but he probably didn’t qualify as help to other artists. Looking at his painting and reading about him, he seems fully occupied, compelled by both modern life and Jewish history to paint. At any rate, this man began to fascinate me – a puzzle, an enigma. An artist.

Luckily along the way Lynn and I became actual friends. Because that happened I got to see some of Akiba’s paintings in the flesh (the paint.) And they astonished me. Fable-like and furious, angular and gorgeously composed, more than a little disturbing Akiba’s paintings gripped me when I saw them and stayed with me when they were out of sight.

There’s too much variety in Akiba’s work, too much development and range for me to describe it adequately here, but fortunately there is a catalogue of his paintings that you can still get on Amazon (Akiba Emanuel 1912- 1993) – and I did. I got the book.

Right away I noticed that I could not put it down, and yet I could not keep looking at all his paintings. Many of them bother me. And not a little, but a lot.  The night train poems I wrote  responses to are among the ones that troubled me most. This series of paintings clearly reference the holocaust, but they do it with an abstract edge that creates an illusion of “no emotion.” There are trains, body parts, winter, and mechanical connections that terrify the imaginative. There are cold clocks, colder snow and the occasional distant moon, but mostly there is the hugely disfiguring heartlessness of the events he is portraying. Not the ghastly and horrific nature of the efficient murders the holocaust accomplished, but the mechanical meanness of machines and of people “just doing their jobs” and of others for whom “the jobs” provided an outlet for latent sociopathic impulses.

akibanighttransportiAkiba achieved this effect by using cranky lines, strange color manipulations, and almost no other editorial comment.  He uses kindergarten hues, primary colors with a couple pastels thrown in. Looking at the bright yellows and reds you might think there’s something jolly, or at least jaunty, going on. The result is that these paintings of trains taking Jews and Gypsies to slaughter wake some memory you have in the back of your brain of a toy train set. A toy train set? No, your psyche wants to scream. This has nothing to do with me. But there it is, your half-remembered Christmas present somehow complicit with genocide.

I began my journey into Akiba’s art by looking at the catalogue for short periods of time. It hurt. I built up slowly to where I could spend significant time with some of the less painful paintings (some are simply gorgeous works but even they hold information about his inner thoughts.) I started to feel as if I knew Akiba – I mean, I found myself calling him Akiba. I could feel him trying to reconcile his life in New York or in Denver as a safe artistic Jew, while the disaster that was World War II in Europe played out in his head, as it had in his family. And I had to write about those poems. I had to grapple with Akiba’s demons because they are also mine. And they are also yours.

Consider this: each morning I turn on the computer and try to head safely to Facebook, because the headlines are, well, the headlines. Today “Sochi forces hunt for potential suicide bombers” while “ice storms plague homeless families.” Closer to home a 4 year old girl is shot by her 6 year old brother. This is all happening while I decide if the snow is so bad that the icy streets make a car trip unwise – but my car trip has nothing to do with potential terrorist attacks or gang fights or freezing to death in a storm. My trip is to a local art store so I can buy supplies for a class I’m taking at the local Art Center. This is the crazy world we are all living in – the world of the lucky and the unlucky.

Akiba found himself on the lucky side of the planet, but the grief from the other side bled into his, was also his. He had to paint it. He had to find a way to incorporate it into the western world where his family had taken refuge. – and he did. He found a way to do that. It works. Look at his Night Transport paintings. You are both intrigued and unhappy, aren’t you?

It’s a gift to be drawn this deeply into the art of another person. I have Charles Simic to thank for pointing me in this direction. In his 1992 book “Dimestore Alchemy: the art of Joseph Cornell” Simic makes prose poems in response to Cornell images, and in doing so he increases the magic of both Cornell’s boxes and prose poetry exponentially. Simic’s book is one I re-read regularly. I think about art that, instead of producing criticism and classwork, creates more art. What a good idea.

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Akiba Emanuel’s art along with Deborah Bogen’s poems can be found in Superstition Review’s Issue 12.

Deborah Bogen

Deborah Bogen’s poetry books are Let Me Open You a Swan (Antivenom Prize, Elixir Press, 2010) and Landscape with Silos (National Poetry Series Finalist and winner of the X.J. Kennedy Poetry Prize, 2005.) Her YA Novel, The Wych of Lepyr Cove will be available on Kindle and other E-book sites in Dec. 2013.

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