On this rainy winter afternoon, artist Bernice Eisenstein shares her large umbrella, as she explains various elements of her evocative art installation, Nothing and All. It can only be viewed from the street, because the work is housed in a storefront window.
Nothing and All, which runs until Feb. 22, is the latest exhibition put on by Fentster, a display-window gallery curated by Evelyn Tauben. The storefront, located at 402 College St. in Toronto, is the home of Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism.
Eisenstein – an illustrator, painter, writer and book editor – is best known for her acclaimed graphic memoir, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.
The book has been translated into 10 languages and was adapted into a animated short in 2010.
Nothing and All reflects Eisenstein’s musings on the complexity of memory, both historical and literary. The installation encompasses her intense dialogue with books and such esteemed literary writers as Stefan Zweig, Albert Camus and Paul Auster.
By painting portraits over the texts and sculpting the pages of the books with intricate folds, Eisenstein has created a palimpsest, whereby the original manuscripts have been altered, but still retain visible traces of their earlier forms.
The palimpsest becomes both a figurative and literal exploration of the layers of memory.
Overlooking the books and various objects on the table is an eerie black-and-white group photo that Eisenstein has recreated in gouache, a form of watercolour, from a photograph dating back to prewar Poland.
She says she only knows who two of the people in the photograph are. About 20 people are seen in the photo posing with a bride and groom. Most of them did not survive the Holocaust.
Eisenstein points out her father, a dark-haired young man who she has inserted into her version of the photo. She says he did not attend the wedding, but she put him in the photograph because he had a connection to many of the people in the original photo.
Eisenstein says the large, open book in the centre of the white table is the “starting point” for viewers. The text of the book has been excised from all of the pages, so that viewers can insert their own memories into the pages, she explains. “It reinforces the theme of nothing and all.”
Eisenstein traces her intense interest in memory and the Holocaust to her background as a child of Holocaust survivors.
Her parents met in Auschwitz, and what is unique about her family is that her maternal grandparents also survived the war.
The mother of two adult children, Eisenstein was born in Toronto and lived in the Kensington Market area, a neighbourhood where many Holocaust survivors first settled, she says.
She studied art privately when she was in junior high, but went on to became an English major at York University. “I didn’t have the confidence to be an artist,” she says.
Her first career was literary. She was working as a book editor, while doing freelance illustrations for magazines, as well as the Globe and Mail. Her two careers melded when she produced I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors.
“The creation of the book was a process of going back and forth between words and images,” she says.
“I started with a painting of my father and the conversations that happened with my father. It grew larger.”
Eisenstein says that the book changed her life: “It put me on the map … and I was graced with its gifts.”
She travelled to Amsterdam, Paris and Berlin to promote the book, and a selection of art from it became part of the travelling art exhibition, From Schlemiel to Superman, which was co-curated by Jewish museums in Paris and Amsterdam.
Eisenstein attended the opening at the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris. “It was beautifully installed and very exciting,” she recalls.
Her solo exhibition, Genizot: Repositories of Memory, which was displayed at Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum in 2015, travelled to the Yeshiva University Museum in New York the following year.
Last year, Genizot was part of a group exhibition called From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art, which was on display at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.