Perhaps your grandfather shared stories of his life in New York before you were born. These family sagas, filled with a colorful cast of characters, drama and heartbreak, became so vivid in your mind that his memories turned into your memories.
It’s as if you were living through the Great Depression, World War II or the Army-McCarthy hearings, as if you were present at Zayde’s bar mitzvah on the Lower East Side and his and Bubbe’s wedding in the rabbi’s study.
But of course you didn’t experience any of these things — because all of these personal and historical episodes took place decades before you were born.
That’s the force of familial memory. It creates a narrative of your identity and your place in the world, and links you inextricably and powerfully to those who have meant so much: your parents, grandparents and ancestors whose fateful decisions have, to a degree, determined your destiny.
And that’s the subject of a new exhibition at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum. “From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Art,” co-curated by CJM assistant curator Pierre-François Galpin and independent curator Lily Siegel, focuses on the work of 24 artists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, whose drawings, installations, photography, sculpture and other creative art forms represent outward manifestations of powerful memories they internalized.
Take, for example, Eric Finzi, whose family is related to the Italian Jewish Finzi-Contini aristocracy depicted in the groundbreaking Holocaust novel “The Garden of the Finzi-Continis.” Giorgio Bassani’s book, which was turned into a critically acclaimed film, recounts the quiet yet shattering decimation of the Italian Jewish community under the Mussolini-Hitler alliance.
As a youngster in New York, Finzi became increasingly interested in his father’s escape from fascist Europe.
“I would sit down with him on the couch after dinner, and it was like a slow recovery [of memories],” said Finzi, 59, a plastic surgeon in suburban Washington, D.C., and an artist known for his use of epoxy resin, a potentially toxic substance that he uses to great effect in his multimedia work.
Finzi was intrigued to learn of how his father and paternal grandmother hid their identities in an Italian hamlet during much of World War II and of their harrowing escape on an Army ship, the Henry Gibbins, which brought Holocaust survivors to Oswego, New York. There they were housed as prisoners in a decommissioned military camp — a trauma that journalist Ruth Gruber, who died last month at 105, movingly exposed in “Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America.”
“After my father died,” said Finzi, “I felt a greater calling” to share his story.
In the epoxy resin-based “Tennicyle,” Finzi’s piece in the CJM show, the artist merges a glass tennis racket — a representation of the shattering of glass during Kristallnacht — to a rimless bicycle, a reminder both of the carefree conveyance the Finzi-Continis enjoyed before the war and the getaway vehicle his father used to reach the Henry Gibbins.
“A story and family memory can assume as much importance as anything that happened to you,” Finzi said. “The collective memory can be incredibly powerful.”
From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art
Nov 25, 2016–Apr 02, 2017
Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street
San Francisco, CA 94103