Once Upon a Time
The triptych that opens Erna Rosenstein’s exhibition “Once Upon a Time” at Hauser & Wirth blooms with jewel-like colors arranged in a constellation of spattered and burst forms. Peek around the bend of the wings, though, and you’ll see a set of ashen faces—effigies of the artist’s parents, who were murdered during a skirmish during the second World War. Rosenstein’s paintings and sculpture constitute a dark fairytale distilling a lifespan of rage, processing and longing.
Born in Poland in 1913 to a secular Jewish family, Rosenstein came of age in the wake of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In defiance of her upper-class upbringing, she became a vocal Communist activist around the same time that she became an artist. She remained in the country, committing to rebuilding Poland, and joined the Kraköw Group, one of the country’s foremost avant-garde art collectives at the time. At Hauser & Wirth, Rosenstein’s abstract landscape paintings from 1950 to 1968 are fanned out in an accordion formation inspired by scenography that Tadeusz Kantor, a fellow member of the Kraków Group, proposed at the National Gallery of Art. Prześwit (Clearance) (1968), has the pink-red palette of the cartilaginous underside of flayed skin. A striated white shape at the center recalls a dawn breaking, a dual-winged angel or a ribcage.
Like many women, Rosenstein blurred the line between art and life. Her Warsaw apartment doubled as her studio. Accordingly, Szafa (Cabinet) is dated not to a single year, but a 40-year range. Over decades, the work became an ever-evolving assemblage including postcards, a comb, reproductions of paintings and the sole of a shoe. Upstairs, the artist’s alchemy reaches its apotheosis: in a correspondence with a friend, she described herself as “Fairy Rosenstein” who transforms garbage with her “magic wand.” In her whimsical sculptures, a gutted telephone unfurls a claw; a matchbook grows teeth.
This fairytale-like aura permeates even her darker works. Północ (Portrait matki) (1979) is a portrait of the artist’s decapitated mother, who smiles slightly and serenely. Indeed, the portrait’s power lies in its uncanniness; beyond mere horror, it marks Rosenstein’s mother as a subject of awe. She is more than her gored corporeal form, beyond the conditions of her tragic demise, more powerful and perhaps even more terrible. One is reminded of the feminine and not entirely earthly figure of Lady Lazarus as imagined by Sylvia Plath: “Out of the ash / I rise with my red hair / And I eat men like air.” —Lisa Yin Zhang
Erna Rosenstein, Osobna pora (Separate Season), 1971. Oil and mixed media on canvas, 29 x 23 7/8 x 1 inches, 30 5/8 x 25 5/8 x 1 1/2 in (framed). Photo: Thomas Barratt