The figures in Isaac Celnikier's (b.1923). paintings articulate the conflict
between the reverent silence of grief and the aching need to bear witness.
Following the liquidation in 1943 of the Bialystok ghetto in which he had
sought refuge, Celnikier was subjected to a barbarous and prolonged internment
in a series of Nazi camps at Stutthof, Birkenau, Buna (Auschwitz 111),
Sachsenhausen and Flossenbürg, believing all the time that he would be
shot .26 Re-establishing a life after the war in Prague, and then in Warsaw, he forged a distinctive pictorial
language, steeped in the traditions of European figurative art, with which
he hoped to communicate the universal experience of human suffering.
The cycle of monumental canvases painted in the 1980s, of which Révolte, 1983-84, is one of the most powerful, expresses his outrage and sorrow at the killing of innocent civilians by the occupying armies of the Reich. Révolte recalls the destruction of the Bialystok ghetto and the inhabitant's courageous uprising in August 1943. One cannot entirely free these images from the memory of other popular uprisings, in particular, the struggle played out on the streets and barricades of Paris, enduringly portrayed in Eugène Delacroix's (1798-1863) Liberty Leading the People, 1824 (Louvre, Paris), as well as the knowledge of more recent conflicts .27 It was Delacroix who insisted: 'painting is above all, an art of silence'. But the shallow foreground of Celnikier's Révolte is anything but silent, filled with the cries and frenzied movements of the human throng. The calligraphic speed and intensity of the marks result in a rich surface complexity that cannot be taken in at a single glance but only after repeated attempts. Only then can we begin to distinguish the individuated human forms from the confusing orgy of violence. Yellow ochres and red earths are activated like coloured shards. The surface is encrusted with jewel-like daubs of paint glistening cadmium red and alizarin. The appearance is that of wounded flesh, scars inflicted on the surface of the canvas. These physical striations (made with a painter's trowel and heavily loaded brushes) are a corollary of the graven marks produced by the metal burin and the corrosive effects of acidbiting on the copper etching plate. Celnikier has successfully transposed onto the language of painting the techniques of etching developed and perfected in the making of the suite, La Mémoire Gravée, which he begun in 1969 and continued working on over the next twenty years.
The winged, brandishing figure at the centre of Marc Chagall's vision of The Falling Angel, 192 3-47 (Kunstmuseum, Basle), is an instrument of history, warning of catastrophe. Celnikier too combines the record of recent historical events with Biblical exhortation. Averting catastrophe, the towering Judith, 1980-86 (Collection the artist), watches over the frenzied throng, a child in one arm while, with the other, she strikes at the dark figure of Holoferness, a metaphor here for Amalek, a dagger held firmly in her hand. The painting intones the Jewish injunction to remember: Remember what Amalek did to you (Deuteronomy 25:17, acknowledging the important link for the Jewish people between Biblical narrative and twentieth-century history. The composition is reversed in one of Celnikier's most memorable etchings Gina Frydman, 1982, which pays tribute to the courage of the artist's companion, establishing her kinship with the physical prowess of the Spanish women, wives and mothers, in Goya's etching Y Son Fieras (And they are like Wild Beasts) from the suite Disasters of War, c. 18 10. However, the memory of close relatives, specifically of his mother and sister, and of Gina, anchor these works in both time and place.