After 70 Years, Si Lewen’s Wrenching ‘Parade’ Marches On

At the very beginning of Si Lewen’s “The Parade,” the series of untitled antiwar works on artist’s board that forms the pulsing heart of a new exhibition curated by the cartoonist Art Spiegelman, four sketchy, ecstatic boys and girls stride into the endless possibility of unmarked white gesso. In the second panel, a family leaning out their window catches sight of someone waving a flag.

The flag itself is also faint and white, but the family is surrounded by an ominous black shadow. And as that single flag turns into a parade, and the parade acquires rifles, swords, black banners and German helmets, Lewen’s painting and drawing — he made “The Parade” around 1950 with a mix of crayon, ink, paint and graphite — gets denser and darker.

As Spiegelman notes, the work is full of allusions. There’s a dog from “Guernica” and direct quotations from the notably antiwar German artists Otto Dix and George Grosz. “The Parade” has been exhibited in galleries, projected in a theater, and published as a book, each time in a slightly different edit, though this particular set of 63 images, hung around James Cohan Gallery in a single narrative line, is the first appearance of the originals in nearly 70 years. And just about every one of those 63 bears examining as an art work in its own right.

But one of the chief glories of the piece overall is seeing what happens to painting styles meant to be looked into when they’re dropped into a cinematic sequence that moves inexorably from left to right. Jagged rows of bayonets may borrow from Cubism’s fractured perspective, but here they chiefly mean clamor and noise. As the boys from the first panel become teenage cannon fodder and the dogs of war howl, a Jackson Pollock-style splatter is a jazzy nod to the art of the day, but also reads unmistakably as blood left behind by a firing squad.

Whether it’s a movie, a symphony, a story, or a line of small paintings, part of the appeal of a narrative is the way it mimics the sequence of moments and days to which we’re all subject even as it offers a temporary respite from them. The exhilarating sense of motion in “The Parade” easily keeps Lewen’s beautiful drawing balanced against his disturbing content. A dismembered woman in a wheelbarrow may upset you, or a graphic line of goose-stepping legs might look more stylish and striking than you’d care to admit. But before you feel any real dissonance, you’re on to the next picture.

Lewen’s own life may have destined him to this approach. A Polish Jew raised in Germany, he was already a fan of movies and altarpiece polyptychs when, at 13, he was given a copy of “Passionate Journey” (published multiple times since 1919) by Frans Masereel, the Belgian woodcut artist who pioneered the form he called “novels without words.” The same year, Lewen, an atheist, made a series of biblical watercolors in lieu of a bar mitzvah. His family made it to New York in 1935, but after enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1942, he spent the war in Europe, advising Nazi soldiers to surrender from a sound truck at the front, and saw Buchenwald shortly after it was liberated. Back in New York, he forged a successful painting career with brightly colored, Cubist-inflected scenes, a few of which are on display here — but he couldn’t get over his memories of combat and the death camp, and he finally had to put them in order.

Si Lewen

Through April 27 at James Cohan, 52 Walker Street, Manhattan; 212-714-9500,

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