When he met Tereska Adwentowska in 1948, David “Chim” Seymour was photographing ghosts.
Born Dawid Szymin in what would become Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, the 36-year-old cofounder of the legendary Magnum Photos collective returned to find the streets of his youth reduced to rubble. His parents were gone, too, executed by the Nazis in a wooded suburb of Warsaw where they once spent blissful summers.
But closure, or something like it, wasn’t what brought Chim back to Warsaw. After his powerfully received postwar coverage for This Week magazine, UNESCO commissioned Chim for Children of Europe, a photojournalism series raising awareness about the continent’s estimated 13 million war orphans.
That’s how Chim met Adwentowska, a student at a school for “backward and psychologically upset children,” per his caption. Her home had been flattened during a German air raid, her brain permanently damaged by shrapnel. In Chim’s photo, Adwentowska responds to an art class prompt: “This is home.” She scrawls a violent tangle of lines on the blackboard, her eyes wide and bewildered.
Chim, on the other side of the lens, likely knew the feeling.
“Chim: Between Devastation and Resurrection”
Through 2/4/24: Wed-Mon 10 AM-5 PM, Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, 9603 Woods Dr., Skokie, ilholocaustmuseum.org, general admission $6-$18
“Tereska,” as the 1948 photograph is often called, casts its thousand-yard stare over “Chim: Between Devastation and Resurrection,” a retrospective excerpted from an International Center of Photography exhibition and showing at the Illinois Holocaust Museum until February 4, 2024. But for the next several weeks, the pangs “Tereska” elicits from viewers will echo in galleries far beyond the Holocaust Museum’s.
“Children of War”
Through 2/12: Wed-Sun noon-4 PM, Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, 2320 W. Chicago, uima-chicago.org, admission donation-based
Until February 12, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art shows “Children of War,” a collection of 144 paintings spirited out of Lviv by mother–daughter art teachers Nataliia and Yustyna Pavliuk. Later this winter, the Chicago Cultural Center, Newberry Library, and Hyde Park Art Center host exhibitions affiliated with the second Veteran Art Triennial and Summit, entitled “Surviving the Long Wars.”
Through 7/9: Tue-Thu 10 AM-7 PM, Fri 10 AM-4:30 PM, Sat 10 AM-4 PM, Sun 10 AM-1:30 PM, Hyde Park Art Center, 5020 S. Cornell, hydeparkart.org, free
The three exhibitions are more or less dovetailing by chance. The first triennial happened in 2019, with this iteration delayed because of COVID, as was “Chim.” And, of course, few could have predicted the need for “Children of War.” But the resonance of that coincidence is hard to ignore.
“Every time I see these images now, I see Ukraine,” Ben Shneiderman, Chim’s nephew and a pioneering computer scientist, told me as we passed a line of Chim’s Warsaw photos.
“Chim,” by design, privileges one perspective (Chim’s) and one medium (photography, here enlarged digital inkjet reproductions). On the other hand, “Surviving the Long Wars” will feature everything from textiles to performance works to 19th-century ledger art created during the American Indian Wars, which began the moment European settlers set foot in North America and never officially ended. (The U.S. government stopped recognizing Native tribes as sovereign nations in 1871, making it impossible to broker official treaties.) In an expansion of the first triennial, this year broadens the focus from veteran artists to all individuals affected by the U.S.’s longest wars: the American Indian Wars and the Global War on Terror.
“We’re coming at this as community members grappling with something that we all know is beyond our ability to fully grapple with,” says “Surviving the Long Wars” co-organizer Aaron Hughes. “Because of that, it’s really fraught; we’re bringing a lot of different communities together. And often, veterans overwhelmingly come from the same communities impacted by our foreign and domestic policies. What does it mean to unpack those contradictions?”
Hughes and fellow co-organizer Joseph Lefthand have been doing just that—grappling, unpacking—for years now. Hughes, who cocurated last year’s “Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, & Reparations” at the DePaul Art Museum, foregrounds his dual identities as an Iraq war veteran and anti-war activist in his artistic practice; Lefthand delves into his experiences as both a subject and agent of state violence. (Lefthand is of Cheyenne-Arapaho, Taos, and Zuni descent; like Hughes, he participated in the Iraq War.)
“Residues and Rebellions”
Through 5/27: Tue-Thu 10 AM-7 PM, Fri-Sat 10 AM-5 PM, Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton, newberry.org, free
When both spoke to me about “Surviving the Long Wars” over Zoom, words often gave way to pregnant pauses. “I would love to enrich the conversation around war and violence in a way that de-emphasizes the violence,” Lefthand says. “As a performance artist, what are the tools, methods, and relationships that I can use in order to create work around these experiences, so as not to center the violence and subject others to it?”
At the first triennial, Lefthand presented a performance piece entitled Things Are Certainly Beautiful to Behold, but to Be Them Is Something Quite Different. Donning a gas mask, he used symbolic objects which “repurposed, recontextualized, and questioned” the latent violence of everyday life: the emergence of the “nuclear family” and middle-class prosperity from World War II, for example. An audience member—a Marine vet—approached him afterward.
“He told me he was moved by my performance. It made him reflect on his children and how our youth are pulled into this machine of creating violence,” Lefthand recalls.
Later, Lefthand looked the vet up. Years before, he’d been put on trial for war crimes, though he was ultimately found not guilty. “Someone who believed so deeply in the culture of the Marine Corps and that culture of violence was able to watch me perform, and it caused him to then question, even just a little bit, this system that he had been a part of,” Lefthand says.
“Reckon and Reimagine”
Through 6/4: open daily 10 AM-5 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington, chicago.gov, free
What had done it? Was it the setting—a veteran art show in the Chicago Cultural Center’s Grand Army of the Republic Rotunda? Was it Lefthand himself, also a former Marine? Was the man haunted by what he had done? Lefthand doesn’t know. He’ll likely never know.
Where the works in “Surviving the Long Wars” are, by necessity, hyper-individualized, the works in “Children of War”—all paper-based, rendered in acrylic, pastel, or watercolor—make for more diffuse interpretations. UIMA exhibits the artworks sans placards, leaving artist names, titles, dates, and provenance a mystery.
In the disparate and often overwhelming display, some themes nonetheless coalesce. Many children lean into patriotic symbolism, squaring off the Ukrainian blue-and-yellow against the Russian white, blue, and red. (One work, in a bit of sophisticated geopolitical commentary, shows blue-and-yellow silhouettes shielding themselves from missile fire with an umbrella decorated with the Swedish, Polish, and American flags; whether the umbrella symbolizes solidarity or futility is left to the viewer.) In others, anthropomorphic animals stand in as surrogates for the conflict—a terrier in a police vest, a cat curled next to a rifle and a helmet.
Step into the one-room gallery, and you’ll also be confronted by a sea of sunflowers, Ukraine’s national symbol, many Van Gogh-like in their staccato elegance. The most devastating shows a line of sunflowers standing charred and skeletal before an ashen landscape. Like most of the works, it only bears the first name of its painter: “Катерина,” Katerina.
Yustyna Pavliuk knows all these artworks and the young artists behind them by heart. Since the outbreak of the war, Pavliuk and her mother, a professor at Lviv Polytechnic National University, have taught art at hospitals, orphanages, and distribution centers to more than a thousand displaced children, most between the ages of four and 14. Nataliia Pavliuk started the classes just days after the Russian invasion; Yustyna, herself a student at the Polytechnic, joined her once or twice a week between her own studies.
Likewise, when she and Nataliia return to Lviv at the end of the month, they will rest for just one day before resuming classes once again.
“The first day, you are shocked. You don’t know what to do. The second day, you try to deal with your plans. And then, you say, ‘I can’t sit in one place. I need to do something,’” Yustyna says.
Yustyna called me from New York City, where she and Nataliia were sightseeing before returning to Chicago; Nataliia, who understands English better than she speaks it, listened and chimed in occasionally from out of frame. Yustyna said their students usually shared their backstories gradually. Sometimes, color palettes offered their own tell.
“Kids who are the most affected by war, the most traumatized, they use the brightest colors. They don’t use black at all,” she says.
One such drawing depicts two children, one holding a balloon, standing in front of a house. The work is a self-portrait of the ten-year-old artist, Veronika, and one of her friends, Danylo. The colors seem to leap from the page; Veronika’s hair is long and flowing.
In reality, at the time she created the work, Veronika’s hair was cropped short, the result of extensive surgeries after her house in Vuhledar, a coal mining city in Donetsk, was leveled by a Russian tank. Her entire family was killed. So was Danylo, in a separate attack, and many of her friends.
Unlike Tereska, Veronika could imagine “home”: the building in the work’s background. Yustyna says Veronika told her it was a house “where all of her friends who died could be in one place.” But, like Tereska’s “home,” that place does not—cannot—exist.
“It’s a very, very deep work,” Yustyna says. “It’s the hope of meeting her friends again, and also knowing it will never be the same, like it was.”
The most powerful photographs in “Chim” come from his Children of Europe series. The precocity and pain Chim captured still staggers. Two pocket-sized buskers swaggering like troubadours on the streets of Naples. Young boys working in a printing press in Hungary, the composition and light evoking Vermeer. A boy without arms, probably no older than 12, reading a book in Braille with his lips. In one of my favorites, a half-dozen Polish kids ham it up for Chim on a rickety-looking wooden jungle gym. Behind them looms the blown-out skeleton of the Warsaw ghetto; the playground was built to deter kids from exploring the rubble. If not vying to impress him, clearly Chim’s young subjects at least trusted him.
That doesn’t surprise Shneiderman. To him, Chim was the favorite uncle who always brought back books and tchotchkes from his travels. “In terms of why he focused on children, it always seemed obvious to me. He was a very empathic person,” Shneiderman said, during his January 19 talk at the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
Unlike fellow Magnum Photos cofounder Robert Capa, Chim wasn’t drawn to combat images. Instead he favored psychological portraits which, like Lefthand’s work, never let you forget the violence looming just out of frame. The exhibition concludes with the last five years of Chim’s career, spent in the Middle East, much of it in the nascent state of Israel. In one, an Italian settler named Eliezer Trito holds his newborn daughter aloft, beaming. The placard describes her as the first child born in the Alma settlement in Northern Galilee.
What it doesn’t mention is that three short years before, there had been another Alma—an Arab village razed by the Israeli Defense Force, despite being denoted by the Israeli Minority Affairs Committee as a peacefully “surrendered” village. The ruins of the old Alma rest just half a kilometer west of the Jewish settlement.
In another photo, taken in an unspecified region of Israel, a young couple marries under a chuppah held aloft by guns and pitchforks. The subject and composition were so stark that one contemporary accused Chim of staging it. Life, yet again, springs from bloodshed, and the living are left to reckon with the emotional rubble.
“There’s nothing more Zionist than that,” Holocaust Museum curator Arielle Weininger mused, staring at the wedding tableau.
In 1956, Chim was shot by Egyptian troops while covering the Suez Crisis. His family found out on the morning news when Shneiderman was nine.
Today, Shneiderman oversees Chim’s estate, mostly handling licensing and research queries. As he settles into retirement from the University of Maryland, he devotes increasingly more time to managing his uncle’s legacy.
“Robert Capa is known for the phrase, ‘If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,’” Shneiderman says. “A couple of the exhibits about Chim are called ‘Close Enough,’ because Chim got close enough emotionally. That’s just the spirit of who he was.”
It’s all any of these exhibitions can be, grasping at terrors we all cower beneath yet never get an iota nearer to understanding: close enough.
Lisa Tashkevych contributed translation assistance for this article.
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“It’s an invitation,” says Aaron Hughes, cocurator of “Remaking the Exceptional: Tea, Torture, and Reparations,” an exhibition currently on display at the DePaul Art Museum. Marking the 20th anniversary of the opening of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, the exhibit examines the similarities between survivors of torture at the U.S. military prison with survivors of…