February 13, 2011

Art Review: Kalischer at Colby: Not to be missed


WATERVILLE - As usual, the Colby College Museum of Art has a bunch of great shows on display. Between its scale, collections and accessibility, I think Colby is currently Maine's greatest champion of visual arts. And it's hard to compete with the fact that Colby is always free to the public.

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Alex Katz, “Subway Series,” c. 1944–49, pen and ink on paper, 47⁄8 by 77⁄8 inches.

Colby College Museum of Art. Gift of the artist

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Clemens Kalischer, untitled, from the “Displaced Persons” series, 1947–48.

Colby College Museum of Art. The Lunder Collection. Image courtesy of the artist

Additional Photos Below



WHERE: Colby College Museum of Art, 5600 Mayflower Hill, Waterville

WHEN: Through June 12

HOURS: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday to Saturday; noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday


INFO: 859-5600; www.colby.edu/museum

WHAT ELSE: Kalischer will give an artist talk at 7 p.m. April 20 at the museum.

There was a busload of schoolchildren at the museum when I was there last week -- hardly unusual for a museum. What distinguishes Colby, however, is that those kids can come back with their parents whenever they want -- no parking meters and free admission.

The students were at the museum primarily to see a show of photographs by Clemens Kalischer (born in 1921) depicting World War II refugees waiting for immigration processing in New York City in 1947-48.

It's simply a great show. The images are strong, the scenes are interesting, the prints are of terrific quality, and the subject is of fundamental importance to American cultural history.

"Displaced Persons" is one of the most moving exhibitions I have seen in years. Four of the 19 images depict people hugging or kissing, and marking a sort of personal conclusion to what was one of the most horrific odysseys of Western history.

One shows an old woman clutching a man whose face is buried in her neck. The gnarled grip of her hand on his shoulder is in a different realm from the iconic sailor dipping a pretty nurse for a stolen kiss in celebration of the end of the war: the end of missing a loved one in mortal peril as opposed to a moment of exuberant relief.

Another image seems to show a mother embracing her son. Her hair is swept back in the fashion of the day, and she holds a hand up to his cheek -- his dirty cheek under unkempt hair. His fingers are filthy sausages around her back. His smile is exhausted but gracious, and her face reveals an emotion for which we don't have a word: a combination of relief, love, the parting of doubt and tearful joy -- but, oh, the joy!

Another image shows an embracing couple so lost in each other they have created their own sovereign space. She stands upright in her dark suit and fashionable hat while he bends to clasp his hands as firmly as possible around her back and bury his face in hers -- his fedora blocks their faces from ours. They could be kissing or whispering their love or sobbing. Whatever might have been the case, it was their moment.

Assembled from the amazing Lunder Collection, the Kalischer images are sure-handed but sympathetic. They are peopled with Jewish refugees arriving from Germany, exhausted from being pushed beyond what any normal person should have to bear.

But the pictures are just as much great photographs as great images of people in extraordinary circumstances. They are beautifully printed. Their compositions are strong enough to clearly echo the work of the great social photographer Lewis Hine, but Kalischer has a way of using the forms of the individual's clothing and fashion to imbue the works with unexpected jolts of visual and cultural sophistication.

A particularly excellent photo shows a beautiful young woman slumped on a staircase. Oddly (to us), she's holding a complete fox fur, so she may be well enough off, but she seems to be the very image of hopeless fatigue -- until you move in close to realize her eyes aren't closed but rather fixed on the ring on her left hand. The tiniest flicker of hope, it seems, can change everything.

My favorite Kalischer is an image of two young girls whose noses are maybe an inch apart and their hands even closer. They are electric with happiness. One talks quickly, and the other looks like she's about to explode with gleeful excitement.

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Clemens Kalischer, untitled, from the “Displaced Persons” series, 1947–48. Gelatin silver print, 11 by 14 inches.

Colby College Museum of Art. The Lunder Collection. Image courtesy of the artist


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