2. Concept for the Exhibition
The intention of this project is to present Malva Schalek`s life and artistic work in the context of her times. Her art is not only the work of a skilled and sensitive painter who had the ability to grasp the essence of a person or the special light of an interior. Her art can also be regarded as documentation, as a precise representation of the life and texture of her times. In the pre-war period, which Stefan Zweig has called "The World of Yesteryear“, Malva was able to capture the essence of this particular moment in the life of the Jewish bourgeoisie of Central Europe. With great attention to detail, her work communicates the style, the illusion of assimilation, and the sense of stability or „normalcy. This is particularly true of her portraits of women and children with their rich, warm interiors. One example is the painting of a woman - it is actually her sister - decorating the Christmas tree; another a tender beautiful young mother with her small children sitting in a park (they were actually her nephew and niece).
The unique aspect of the proposed exhibit will be its close combination of art history and social history. The family from which she came and the social circles in which she functioned belonged to the carriers of Jewish intellectual and artistic life in Central Europe before the Second World War. On the basis of family photographs and documents it will be possible to describe the social and intellectual milieu of upper bourgeois Jewish life in Prague and Vienna. The contrast between her work and her life in this phase and then in Theresienstadt will bring into dramatic focus the way in which a culture was forever destroyed by the Holocaust.
In a perverse twist of fate Malva Schalek may very well have portrayed some of the same people twice: many of the very same individuals painted at the height of the Viennese success story for middle class Jews can be found once again in her Theresienstadt portraits, now in impoverished misery. It is almost as if Malva had been destined to record the same milieu at the age of sixty which she had portrayed earlier, now however, not in bourgeois comfort but in a Nazi concentration camp. It seems likely that many of the portraits were made during the concerts and lectures, which took place in the "virtual university" which had been organized in Theresienstadt in this period. As we know today, there was a very lively cultural life going on in the camp. Parallel to the Nazis´s attempt to humiliate and destroy them, the inmates were involved in a most creative and ambitious intellectual and cultural endeavor.
There is something almost shocking about these portraits- when one considers that they were created in a concentration camp: Here, where people have been deeply shattered by the experience of bereavement, separation, humiliation and crushed hopes - not to speak of the harshness of living conditions - the subjects appear serene and dignified. We can see that they - and the painter Malva - are able to preserve a sense of human dignity and even in some cases, a spiritual strength.
Further, the exhibit will present Malva Schalek´s entire work for the first time. Unquestionably a significant painter, Malva Schalek´s work is characterized by great sensitivity and professionalism. Tom Freudenheim, managing director of the Jewish Museum in Berlin until August 2000, called her work in Theresienstadt “the most important oeuvre of the Holocaust”.