An Uncommon Journey
From Vienna to Shanghai to America
A Brother and Sister Escape to Freedom During World War II
By Deborah Strobin and Ilie Wacs

A Gathering Storm - The Vienna Papers, 1938

My mother, Mutti, thank GOD, kept every passport, visa, birth certificate, and pass that had ever touched her hand. She had to have them. She couldn’t afford to lose them. Without those papers, we didn’t exist. Without them, we would have ended up in a concentration camp and not survived. She remembered the sound of the soldiers demanding, “Papers, papers.”
     --Ilie Wacs

Ilie Wacs’ art is both sensuous and intellectual. Below his richly patterned surfaces, deep veins of historical and personal references, associations, and ideas wait to be found, mined, and processed.

Underpinning almost every piece in the collection is a grid pattern. By its nature, a grid organizes and stabilizes space and information. Repeat patterns are generally comforting in life and in art. Pushing against the comfort of familiarity is the regimentation of conformity. The particular dimension of Wacs’ grid is that of an Austrian passport. From here we begin to comprehend the opposing forces both on the surface of the artwork and in the culture of Europe at the dawn of the Holocaust, the era in which this series was born.

Papers, papers: a cry symbolizing who is in and who is out, who has rights and who does not, who will live and who will die. Fremden = Foreigner. Ungiltig = Not valid.  J = Jude (Jew). The state issuing these papers made them very official looking. Imperial eagles and lush, sweeping typefaces are the hallmark of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. These give way to Art Deco-inspired angular eagles and rigid Modern typefaces of the Third Reich. Wacs has rendered these motifs with grace and energy in the primary colors of officialdom. His overall palette comprises inky blacks, smoky grays, and sallow yellows—the colors of chaos, the colors of memory.

These are very satisfying works, at once simple and complex, delicate and robust. A mark of Wacs’ artistry is that the political and social content of his work does not overwhelm its poetry. His art is neither shrill nor righteous. Rather, it reveals a thoughtful mind and a willingness to engage with complex issues that help define our humanity.

      —Mara Williams
          Guest Curator

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