Battling Horror With the Absurd

Surrealists Fought Nazis With Nose, Teeth and Transvestism

Exposed To Capture: Heisler alluded to the Holocaust with ghostly figures and bodies in distress.
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago
Exposed To Capture: Heisler alluded to the Holocaust with ghostly figures and bodies in distress.

By Menachem Wecker

Published April 25, 2012, issue of May 04, 2012.
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Photographs by an artist who put clock springs and matchsticks in his nose to fool Nazis into mistaking him for an Aryan hang in galleries in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago. Adjacent to them is an exhibit that includes a 1945 self-portrait by another artist, who is posing with the German eagle and swastika insignia between her teeth. Both artists, as one might guess, were surrealists, but Jindřich Heisler and Claude Cahun aren’t household names like those of fellow Jewish surrealists, such as Man Ray, Tristan Tzara and Marcel Janco.

“Jindřich Heisler: Surrealism Under Pressure” (through July 1) and “Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun” (through June 3), which hang simultaneously at the Art Institute, feature works by artists who used absurdity as a technique to access the unthinkable — in this case, the Holocaust. Although Heisler and Cahun “operated often at the margins of the Surrealist movement,” they were admired by its founder, André Breton, and “have been rediscovered only in recent decades,” according to an Art Institute release.

Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

Heisler, who was born in 1914 to an assimilated Bohemian family, studied chemistry but chose art over the family business of pharmacology. In 1941, when he was living in Prague, Heisler received a Nazi deportation order, which he ignored. Instead, he went into hiding for three years, during which he slept in a friend’s bathtub and narrowly evaded capture on several occasions.

He also boldly went out in public once in a while, and during those times he employed the nasal disguise of springs and matches. “The result was probably more suspicious than if he had not done so,” notes Jindřich Toman, a professor of Slavic linguistics and Czech culture at University of Michigan and a nephew of Heisler’s, in the exhibition catalog. Heisler’s fake identification card, however, with the name Karel Dvořák, “the most anodyne of Czech male names,” checked out, Toman adds.

Although melting clocks are scarce in the Art Institute show, Heisler’s works include a 1944 gelatin silver print of a rake with lighted candles instead of prongs (resembling a six-branched menorah), a photomontage (circa 1943) of a town square packed with chickens and fish bladders, and two versions (one seated, one standing) of a nude doll set in a landscape of bones that seem to be growing out of the earth. And, one of the 25 plywood cutout letters in Heisler’s “Alphabet” (there’s no ‘W’ in Czech) consists of a bird atop a minaret, with a large bat’s wing attached to a human hand bearing an ax. The ax, incidentally, threatens to topple the minaret, which lends the entire letter an unstable air. The works don’t directly address the Holocaust, but their ominous visions can’t be separated from the context in which they were made.


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