Artworks as Expressions Refusing to be Treated as Second Class

Or stubbornness if you will.


The above by Gustav Klimt is titled “Mäda Primavesi.”

I am still reading Anne Frank’s diary and Roger Ebert’s book “Awake In The Dark,” a compilation of reviews and essays.

Roger Ebert wrote the following about the movie “Z,” his highest rated film of 1969:

“There are some things that refuse to be covered over.  It would be more convenient, yes, and easier for everyone if the official version were believed.  But then the facts begin to trip over one another, and contradictions emerge”

I was reading Anne Frank’s diary again today, and continuing to marvel at her level of intelligence, her writing ability, and her independent spirit.  For anyone who has not read the book because they think, “Why would I want to read a sad tale about some girl who was holed up in hiding until the Germans came and killed her?” I would suggest this:

Anne Frank’s diary is not simply one of the best written diaries you will probably ever read.  It is also arguably one of the best works of literature you will ever read.  If an author’s ability is measured by their ability to clearly convey demeanor, truthful feelings, anxieties, and uncommon insight, then Anne Frank can be considered one of the best authors of all time.

Her diary reveals that a tragedy of her undeserved treatment and death was not simply that one more undeserving person died.  Her diary reveals that one more great would-be writer and intelligent voice for her generation was silenced and killed.

An intentional irony in Anne Frank’s assertive choices to tell her own story is:  This “hidden” girl, who was forced to live in hiding, chose an art form that WOULD NOT HIDE WHO SHE REALLY WAS!

Somewhere in Anne Frank’s conscious and subconscious, she realized her diary might have the potential to tell the world some important things that were true.  Writing her diary was the largest act of rebellion a young woman in her circumstances could do.  She was as rebellious as her circumstances would allow her to be without getting herself killed or putting her friends and family at more risk.

I was thinking last week about Anne Frank.  She was only several years older than my mother.  If she had not been killed, it’s very likely she would still be alive today.

The painting atop this post is of a young Jewish girl, Mäda Primavesi.  It was painted in 1912 by Gustav Klimt.  The photo was taken by me, as the painting was lit, on a trip I took a couple years ago to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  The painting is large, probably nearly 5 feet tall. 

I love this painting. 

The girl is clearly defiant.

Klimt, with his artistic priorities, did not force the girl to sit passively or “lady-like” for her portrait.  Rather, he realized she was best revealed, remembered, and represented by painting her own self-chosen defiant spirit and pose.

And so the confluence of reading what Ebert wrote, reading more of Anne Frank’s diary, and considering Gustav Klimt’s artworks led me to form this artistic idea:

Art sometimes turns out to be the things that refused to be hidden, refused to be covered up, and refused to be treated as second class. 

I believe the above artistic principle explains in large part why so many Jewish women wanted Gustav Klimt to paint their likeness.  Antisemitism was pervasive in early 20th century Europe.  Jewish women were members of at least two “second class” groups:  Jews & Women.  And Jewish women, like anyone else, hated being treated as “second class” - and often worse. 

Jewish women saw that Gustav Klimt did not portray Jewish women as second class.  In his paintings, they saw his clear, ornate, and detailed perceptions of them as being the highest and best class of persons.

There is a very good scene in the recent film about Gustav Klimt titled “Klimt,” and starring John Malkovich.  In the scene, Klimt visits one of the many Jewish women with whom he has had a child out of wedlock.  The woman, worried about many religious and cultural prejudices, discusses questions of how they should raise their child.  Klimt cannot understand how this woman, who is mistreated by harsh prejudicial standards, still enforces them and perpetuates them. 

The woman, looking out the window at her son playing in the courtyard, calls out to her son, telling him to not play with the Chinese children.  Klimt’s body language reveals he cannot understand how this woman, who is a member of at least three mistreated classes:  Jews, Women, and Unwed Mothers, cannot also see how she is promoting similar unfair prejudices toward others (the Chinese children).

Some artworks are expressions that refuse to be treated as second class.

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Roger Ebert on Wikipedia

Anne Frank on Wikipedia

Gustav Klimt on Wikipedia

Klimt on IMDB

© All rights reserved by the respective artists.

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On a side note:  I have a complaint about the book jacket design of the version I am reading of Anne Frank’s diary (the more unabridged version with the ‘sensitive’ passages included).  The book jacket includes a review quote from an unnamed source at NEWSDAY that says:  “How brilliantly Anne Frank captures the self-conscious alienation and naive self-absorption of adolescence.”  Those ideas may be true in part and may be quoted out of context.  But I want to make it clear that I don’t find her alienation or self-analysis to be immature or adolescent.  Rather, she had very mature complaints.  She was not wrongfully or immaturely self-absorbed.  She was keenly aware of and argumentative with others.  Her work captures sophistication far more often than naïveté.

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