Exhi­bi­tions: Essays on Art and Atrocity

  • Review
By – March 11, 2024

Exhi­bi­tions: Essays on Art and Atroc­i­ty is a new col­lec­tion by award-win­ning poet Jehanne Dubrow. She writes about a range of art, includ­ing Bosn­ian Mus­lim artist Mer­sad Berber, Pol­ish painter Tadeusz Kan­tor, tin­type pho­tographs, ancient Asian ceram­ics, and cloth­ing made by her grand­moth­er. The var­i­ous works Dubrow con­sid­ers, and the many loca­tions of their pro­duc­tion, make this col­lec­tion a rich discovery. 

Each essay stages con­ver­sa­tions and reflec­tions about the eth­i­cal ques­tions that art rais­es — par­tic­u­lar­ly art that emerges from con­flict, geno­cide, and war. As the daugh­ter of work­ing mem­bers of the US for­eign ser­vice, Dubrow draws from an abun­dant archive of per­son­al expe­ri­ence, includ­ing her time liv­ing in Zagreb, Croa­t­ia and War­saw, Poland as a child. She also calls on her own exten­sive research on the Shoah, the Ser­bo-Croa­t­ian con­flict, and the geno­cide in Rwanda.

Exhi­bi­tions is orga­nized into six gal­leries.” Read­ing the essays mim­ics vis­it­ing an art muse­um and mean­der­ing through the var­i­ous rooms. Dubrow’s essays are vivid and illu­mi­nat­ing, at times ellip­ti­cal, and always poet­ic. In the extra­or­di­nar­i­ly mov­ing essay Lost Ves­sels,” Dubrow describes a vis­it to the Arthur M. Sack­ler Gallery, now part of the Nation­al Muse­um of Asian Art, and med­i­tates on the death of her cousin from an over­dose of the opi­oid Oxy­Con­tin. Ambiva­lent Things,” pre­sent­ed in the style of the Tal­mud, is full of Judaica: a kid­dush cup, a mezuzah, and shab­bat can­dle­sticks. Using these objects, Dubrow reflects on her family’s ambiva­lence about faith, writ­ing, We were Jews with­out belief, but still believed our­selves Jews, angry at a God whose pres­ence we doubt­ed, our faith aban­doned a gen­er­a­tion ago, in the ghet­tos or at the bor­der cross­ings of anoth­er con­ti­nent. This meno­rah seemed to say, belief is rigid and pierc­ing. It will hurt you to believe.” Off to the side, she presents an alter­nate com­men­tary: Used or not, a thing of the old world or the new, she too is made to hold the burn­ing, to lift the light with her sol­dered spikes.” Paired with the equal­ly chis­eled and sub­lime On the Col­or Match­ing Sys­tem; Or, Mar­riage,” Dubrow demon­strates range and inti­ma­cy in her work.

At the core of each of these essays is a med­i­ta­tion on eth­i­cal ques­tions about art and beau­ty. Dubrow invites read­ers to con­sid­er atroc­i­ty when look­ing at objects of beau­ty, and then to grap­ple with the com­plex­i­ties raised. Read­ing these essays against the back­drop of Israel’s war with Hamas is eerie, but Dubrow’s ques­tions and explo­rations are time­ly. Exhi­bi­tions will inter­est art lovers, Jew­ish stud­ies schol­ars, and gen­er­al read­ers who are inter­est­ed in art and enjoy the plea­sures of well-craft­ed prose.

Julie R. Ensz­er is the author of four poet­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing Avowed, and the edi­tor of Out­Write: The Speech­es that Shaped LGBTQ Lit­er­ary Cul­ture, Fire-Rimmed Eden: Select­ed Poems by Lynn Loni­di­erThe Com­plete Works of Pat Park­er, and Sis­ter Love: The Let­ters of Audre Lorde and Pat Park­er 1974 – 1989. Ensz­er edits and pub­lish­es Sin­is­ter Wis­dom, a mul­ti­cul­tur­al les­bian lit­er­ary and art jour­nal. You can read more of her work at www​.JulieREn​sz​er​.com.

Discussion Questions