Banded in Banishment
The opening of the Yale University Art Gallery’s newest special exhibition Artists in Exile: Expressions of Loss and Hope is uncannily prescient. On Fri., Sept. 1, the exhibition opened its doors, and a mere four days later Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. The announcement raised the prospect of 800,000 young people being forced to leave the United States, and incited a dialogue that plays on many of the themes of exile with which the new exhibition engages. Although Frauke V. Josenhans, the Horace W. Goldsmith Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, organized the current exhibition over several years, Artists in Exile is a timely exploration of how art may point a way forward despite traumatic separation from home.
By presenting art work that spans almost two hundred years, Artists in Exile explores not only the different ways that artists have responded to exile, but also how the reception of this artwork has changed. In her introductory essay to the exhibition catalogue, Josenhans refers to the 1942 Artists in Exile exhibition that opened in New York’s Pierre Matisse Gallery. She notes that one of the significant differences between the earlier exhibition at the height of World War II and the YUAG’s exhibition is the representation of a much more diverse group of artists. In contrast to the 1942 exhibition, which featured a slate of fourteen artists who were entirely male and largely European, Josenhans states, “This exhibition was conceived with the idea to present a more global view of exile in the visual arts. Indeed, various exhibitions and publications have often focused on the Eurocentric, mid-twentieth century perspective of exile.”
Indeed, the scope of the exhibition challenges any single concept of exile. For Jacques-Louis David, whose banishment from France in 1816 sent him to Brussels, painting the portraits of other French exiles provided a means of nostalgically evoking the Napoleonic era that had passed. The subtlety of the portraits contrasts with one of the more striking works of the exhibition: Mona Hatoum’s Nature morte aux grenades, a collection of brightly colored glass pieces in the shape of grenades. But as the information label states, their color and size evoke the fruit of Matisse’s still life painting of the same name. By moving from David’s European perspective to Hatoum’s more recent experience growing up amid the violence of the Middle East, the exhibition effectively realizes Josenhans’ original goal: “Another impetus for the exhibition was to also reflect on how war, genocide, and terrorism still today cause waves of refugees and exiles, and thus to expand the existing narrative by juxtaposing artists from different time periods and different continents and to examine how the exile experience has impacted their work.”
Artists in Exile does not limit itself to themes of political exile. Many of the artists featured in the exhibition fled the turmoil of World War II or the oppression of Communism to more stable Western countries, but the inclusion of artists like Elizabeth Catlett, who moved away from the West, complicates a simplistic sense of exile. Catlett’s 1945 print Sharecropper evokes the oppression still facing African-Americans in the South, a factor that contributed to her decision to leave the United States for what she saw as the more accepting environment of Mexico. Her artwork resists any tendency to reduce the experience of exile to the result of major political events. The persistent social and economic pressures Catlett faced in the United States offer a different narrative from the large scale tumult of World War II, which caused a tide of artists to seek safety in the very United States that Catlett left behind. Similarly, Paul Gauguin’s work depicting highly stylized representations of Polynesian life raises further complications. Disillusioned with the European scene, Gauguin left France to visit Tahiti, searching for what the exhibition catalogue terms an “idealized paradise.” His decision to become an exile and his idealization of native cultures breaks down a European-centric conception of exile. Rather than be the sole haven for the oppressed other, the West itself produces feelings of isolation.
By drawing together such a wide range of artists, Artists in Exile is a fitting addition to the ongoing conversation about exile. The exhibition creates a space to break down common conceptions of exile while affirming the ability of art to create a sense of possibility from what can be an otherwise traumatic event.