An artful tribute to an eventful life

A young artist's exhibition in Portland examines a witness of history, her grandfather, through a moving mix of images and words.
Crosscut archive image.

From "Ludwig Salzer: Man of Letters" by artist Lauren Anne Pressler.

A young artist's exhibition in Portland examines a witness of history, her grandfather, through a moving mix of images and words.

If there's any downside to being in an art-rich city, it's the clear futility of trying to keep up with all available goodies. The sheer number of choices tends to keep student artists off the mainstream-critics' radar, but now and again a talented person of tender years offers up an exhibit, theater production, self-published prose, or music that catches the spotlight.

One such show should be the Oregon Jewish Museum's latest: "Ludwig Salzer: Man of Letters – From Exile in Shanghai to Life in the United States," by artist Lauren Anne Pressler, a senior at Willamette University majoring in art and history. Salzer, the man at the heart of the mixed-media show, is Pressler's late grandfather, one of some 20,000 Jews who by 1940 had found a rare open port in the Nazi storm.

Good timing, if not everything, definitely doesn't hurt. Pressler's show went up in the small gem of a museum a few blocks from the Gerding Theater at the Armory, the sleek new space where Portland Center Stage is performing an extended run of Cabaret. The musical, built around Christopher Isherwood's Berlin Stories, is set in that city in the 1930s, when sexual freedom (some would say decadence) was at full throttle, and the approaching shadow of Hitler's machine loomed. Having seen the provocative play and multifarious Pressler show within four days of each other, I was freshly reminded of the depth of Portland's art offerings. Judging by comments overheard at the museum, I was not alone in my gratitude.

Pressler's show is built around Salzer's letters and journals, beginning as he prepares to leave Austria for Shanghai in 1939 at age 18, continuing through the harsh, hungry war years, when many members of his family perish. The writings continue for years, ending as he is about to marry Pressler's grandmother in 1954.

Fragments of the entries are reproduced in calligraphy on panels throughout the space, guiding visitors through display cases of correspondence, government documents, and other artifacts from Salzer's war years. Pressler's paintings, inspired by her grandfather's story, create the multi-generational story she wanted to tell.

The exhibit is unusual in the number of entry points it offers. As always, official papers charting the close escape or lost lives of the Holocaust are powerful in their ordinariness. The journal entries concisely capture the upheaval and trauma of displacement. Many patrons came to the exhibit's opening show fresh from reading the Sunday newspaper, that day crammed with domestic immigration issues and the plight of displaced persons around the globe, including the growing number of refugees created by the Iraq war. Against that backdrop, Salzer's youthful anguish is especially real and wretched.

Pressler's paintings are key portals; compelling as stand-alone works and poignant, sometimes even triumphant when seen as material proof of Salzar's survival, despite Hitler's intentions.

Asked about her methods, specifically in the case of the dramatic painting, "Family of Letters," Pressler says: I used a number of different mediums in the series at OJM. Pen and ink, acrylic, collage, and oil. The works themselves begin as visual descriptions of passages from my grandfather's journals. The series also explores family diaspora, specifically in "Family of Letters." While Salzer's face is clear and precise, the images of his family, loved ones and friends have become blurred. His family has become the correspondences and letters. The shifting presence of his family that remained in Vienna (the skyline depicted in the background) or disappeared to unknown fates, are represented by the collaged letters, stamps, and envelopes.

Finally, one of the show's most powerful portions has the least artistic packaging: bound copies of representative selections from Salzer's letters and journals. More than one visitor paused, intending to leaf quickly through the books, but ended up engrossed, shifting from one foot to the other while reading.

Next to the entrance of the museum, an introductory panel written by the artist, serves as an apt coda as well:

We each have inherited a past, a multi-generational story playing on the state of greater world events. Our stories have the power to reveal where we came from, how we make choices, and to guide us towards the future.

Sometimes, it seems, a student artist is the best teacher.


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