Paula Buchwald grew up in Vienna between the wars. Her father worked for the government but was an artist at heart–and more than an amateur, Buchwald says. “He studied art privately but was very good: lovely landscapes.” When he went into the Vienna Woods with his watercolors, he took her with him. “Vienna is a picturesque city, especially the suburbs. We had a good life there,” Buchwald recalls. “And my father’s brother, Joseph, who lived in Italy, was a well-known painter, so art was very much a part of it.” By the late 1930s, though, ominous changes were in the air. “We could see what was happening in Germany. I was still in Vienna when Chancellor Schuschnigg gave Austria over to Hitler. I was lucky because I had friends and relatives in America and they sent me an affidavit of support. So I left in 1938. Perfectly legal. Very soon it became terribly difficult to get out.”
Buchwald was 25 years old when she arrived in Chicago. “By coincidence,” she says, “I had studied English in Vienna. So when I came here, accent or no, I could take a job.” She worked as a secretary in a downtown office, brought her parents and sister over as fast as she could, and married a young man she had known in Austria, a fellow emigre, Leopold Buchwald. The simple ceremony was performed on November 16, 1939, by a judge who remarked that he didn’t see many brides carrying roses. The groom had bought them for her–something he did on the 16th of every month that followed for the rest of his life. While her husband worked as a mechanical engineer and product designer, Buchwald took a new job as secretary to the curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. With the help of employee tuition breaks, she enrolled as a student at the School of the Art Institute, earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees there, and went on to teach the history of art and design at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.
During her years at the Art Institute Buchwald says she did a lot of oil painting; later, when she began working in a studio space at the Evanston Art Center, she took up printmaking under the tutelage of Audrey Niffenegger. In the printmaking process, with its laborious stages of drawing, etching, inking, and pressing, and its subtle variations in density and paper, she found her niche. “Drawing was always my strength,” she says, “and that translates best to printmaking.” She started to turn out what she calls semi-abstract images: obsessively detailed graphics that look like reality cranked through a science fiction warp. In Buchwald’s world, minutely detailed cities are glimpsed from high above, menacing black or gold bars hovering over them; open skulls float atop crazy-quilt landscapes, the exposed brains crammed with their own weird terrain. In one of her most specific images, a telescopic view of a death camp is superimposed–like a medallion–on the multiple broken panes of a Kristallnacht window.
Leopold died 20 years ago; there were no children. “I’ve been alone for a long time now,” Buchwald says, the sound of Vienna still caressing her speech. A few months ago, she moved from her home to a small apartment; shortly after that she was in a car accident that’s still got her partially laid up. Because she couldn’t take everything when she moved, she donated a stack of her prints and two oil paintings to Highland Park’s Suburban Fine Arts Center. Now, at her dining room table, she inspects a dozen of the prints she’s kept–thousands of fine lines converging in otherworldly shapes, each one a record not only of how her imagination guided her hand, but of how long acid was allowed to eat into metal, how wet paper got before it was married to ink. She hasn’t looked at these prints since she moved and she’s seeing them with fresh eyes, taking their measure one by one. “Actually, you know what? I like them,” she announces. Then, softly, to herself: “I can’t wait until I get back to it.”
Buchwald’s work and a thousand other items will be offered at the Suburban Fine Arts Center’s 12th annual Recycled Art Sale. It starts with a preview party and auction at 6:30 Friday night at the center, 1913 Sheridan Road in Highland Park. Tickets for the preview party are $12; after tonight admission to the sale is free. It runs through August 26; hours are 9 to 5 Monday through Saturday. Call 847-432-1888.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.