An outdoor exhibition has opened at the University of Aberdeen’s Cruickshank Botanic Garden.
Titled ‘I open my eyes, there’s no one’, the exhibition tells the story of copyists from the Białystok ghetto who were forced to recreate work by the great masters of European painting.
The copy shop was set up in 1941 by Oskar Steffen, a German officer and industrialist and around 20 Jewish artists worked around the clock and in painstaking detail, for no pay or increased rations.
Only one member of this ‘cheap labour force’ survived the war, Izaak Celnikier who entered Białystok with his family aged 16 and was used to stretch and prime canvases and take care of the supply of paints and tools in the studio.
Celnikier went on to become a successful artist and, after surviving time in the concentration camps of Stutthof, Auschwitz, Birkenau, Flossenburg and Dachau, the main theme of his work was the cruelty of the Second World War.
His memoirs provide the narrative for the exhibition – the result of a collaboration between the University of Aberdeen and the Polish Association Aberdeen, a Polish diaspora organization established in 1993, whose ambition is to create and strengthen a positive image of Poland and Poles, promote democracy, human rights, including the rights of ethnic minorities.
‘I open my eyes, there’s no one’ is the first of a series of projects known as the ‘History Zone’ created by the Polish Aberdeen Association to disseminate the cultural heritage of Poland.
It has been authored and curated by Marta Surowiec and draws on Celnikier’s unpublished manuscripts and his post-war works, which were made available by the artist’s family for the project.
Marta Surowiec said:
” The knowledge about the artists from the Białystok Ghetto is very fragmentary, therefore the exhibition was preceded by months-long research through the collections of museums, archives and private collections in Poland, Germany, Israel, the United States and France. Many of the photographs and reproductions made available during the exhibition have not been published before.
“The exhibition will present the artist’s works from the collection called La mémoire gravée, ‘Engraved in memory’. Many of the presented artworks relate directly to the events in the Białystok ghetto.
“It will be possible to experience the events of the Białystok ghetto through the artist’s words and art, gaining the true perspective of a participant in the events.
Professor Peter Edwards, Vice-Principal Regional Engagement and Regional Recovery at the University of Aberdeen said:
“This is an important exhibition telling a little-known story of the copyists from the Białystok ghetto and we are honoured to be able to host it in the Cruickshank Botanic Garden.
“The manuscripts and the series of graphic works by Izaak Celnikier presenting the events in the ghetto are a moving reminder of the Holocaust and the exhibition provides a space for reflection and an opportunity to engage in learning about this dark period of our history.”
Mark Paterson, Curator of Cruickshank Botanic Garden, added:
“The Cruickshank Botanic Garden is a space where the arts and sciences meet and there could not be a better demonstration of this than this thoughtful and moving exhibition.
“The garden setting as a place of renewal, growth and of the changing seasons provides an appropriate backdrop for this harrowing story of human suffering and hope.
“Placed on free-standing displays, the exhibition will create a kind of open museum, allowing people to take in the skilfully created works and the stories behind them.”
Mateusz Łagoda, Chairman of the Polish Association Aberdeen, says this first step in the ‘History Zone’ project will support mutual learning and greater understanding of Polish culture and heritage in Scotland.
“In each of the ongoing projects we focus on issues related to the history and culture of Scotland,” he said.
“In this way, we will gradually create a series referring to the historical legacy of both countries. Our ambition is to create a long-term project which, using modern language and communication channels, will promote the knowledge of Poland’s historical identity regarding its heritage and traditions.”
The exhibition project was made possible thanks to the support of Big Lottery Awards For All, Aberdeen City Council, the Consulate General of the Republic of Poland in Edinburgh and the Polish Cultural Institute in London.
It has been arranged in zones, each with a different layout but unified by iconography, making up a full picture of the history of the Białystok Ghetto copyists’ workshop.
‘I open my eyes, there’s no one’ will run from December 12, 2021 to February 28, 2022 and includes QR codes that redirect visitors to the work of copyists on a specially designed website
As an art historian who for many years researched the subject of slave labor of painters in the Białystok ghetto, which, interestingly enough, no one had dealt with before, I am very happy with the current interest in it. The issue of using the talent of outstanding Jewish painters was previously described by me and my friend J. Szczygieł-Rogowska in a scientific article in the journal of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Museum (“Pro Memoria”, 2009) and shown in the film “Kopści” (which – as far as I know – inspired Mrs. Marta Surowiec). Currently, the problem of artistic copy workshops in the Białystok ghetto has become the subject of interest of many researchers around the world (an exhibition is currently under preparation, which will be exhibited in another country along with a large publication), which gives hope to clarify many unknowns. Recently, new, very interesting characters and new plots have appeared, allowing us to clear up the unknowns. And there are a lot of these, starting with the fact that we do not know what happened to the production, or if the fake paintings do not pretend to be real ones in private and museum collections around the world. So the problem is not trivial at all.