Simon "Si"Lewen: An Artist of Pain and Resilience
Si Lewen (his professional name), was born in Lublin, Poland, on November 8, 1918, was an internationally known artist who put his indelible imprint on 20th Century art and the Modern Art Movement in American. Even in his 90s, Si continued to create artworks daily. For almost his entire life, Lewen found exceptional skill in his art. At the age of 12, he declined a traditional Bar Mitzvah, but instead illustrated the Bible in a work called "Genesis".
Portion of Lewen's Genesis, a project that was in the works for decades.
As a child, Lewen and his family fled Poland to escape the violence of ethnic pogroms in his native country. Later Si, age 14, and his older brother fled to France and then to America to escape Nazism. The entire family was reunited in the United States in 1935. At the age of 16, Si began art classes in New York City, determined to make his mark as an artist. Within a year of his arrival in New York, exploring Central Park, his dream of a safe haven in America came, however, to a sudden, terror-stricken end. Robbed, beaten, and assaulted and finally threatened with a gun, "I'll find and kill you if you ever say anything!" His assailant was a New York Policeman. Having fled from Poland to Germany, to France, and finally, to America, Lewen saw no further escape than into attempted suicide. His dream of "America" had turned into a nightmare. On his release from a mental institution, afraid of any stranger, any human contact, fearful to be recognized, his hope for an artistic career was aborted once again.
With the outbreak of World War II, Lewen enlisted in the U.S. Army. Lewen and other émigré European Jews like himself, fluent in German, were trained in psychological warfare, intelligence gathering, and interrogation techniques at Camp Ritchie in Maryland. Lewen was then sent to Camp Sharpe for specialized training as part of the Third Mobile Radio Broadcasting Company. Once overseas, the Ritchie Boys saw the war from the front lines, and was among the first soldiers to arrive at Buchenwald concentration camp after its liberation - an experience so disturbing that he suffered a breakdown and was returned to the United States, where, after the war, he resumed his art.
Si Lewen, Ritchie Boy
After a hospital ship brought him back to America, he was determined to expunge all traces of past trauma - by resuming his art. Only through art, he felt, could he ever heal again. Gallery shows, sales and "good" reviews, national and international exhibitions followed, two volumes of his graphic work were published. Lewen seemed to be succeeding. However, he could never shake free from his fears to be recognized. "I'll find and kill you...!" kept following him. His experience of war and holocaust - horrendous as they were - did not leave the same crippling psychic scars.
Lewen's most notable work ,The Parade, was greatly appreciated by Albert Einstein who said of The Parade, "I find your work... very impressive from a purely artistic standpoint. Furthermore, I find it a real merit to counteract the tendencies towards war through the medium of art. Nothing can equal the psychological effect of real art -- neither factual descriptions nor intellectual discussion... Our time needs your work!"
Image from The Parade
In 1976 Lewen began to withdraw from the "art world" into self-imposed exile, and in 1985 declared his work "no longer for sale", ending any further pursuits of a career. But as he withdrew, increasingly into his own private world and into obscurity, his art appeared to grow and bloom into some of most exotic forms. Free, at last, not only of "the market", but also "identity", nor restricted by any one style, manner, or pre-conception, he now felt free to pursue and explore wherever his art (or muse) might lead.
Si and his wife Rennie in, 2004.
In 2006, Lewen donated his paintings and the rights to his books, including The Parade and A Journey, to the Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) to support the organization's mission to "restore and build community in an increasingly disconnected world." His work can be viewed at the IIRP's Si Lewen Museum in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and at the Kardon Galley run by Lewen's daughter in Doylestown, Pennsylvania.
In 2021, Si's daughter Nina donated an original "The End" which is on permanent display at the Ritchie History Museum.
Si Lewen passed away, on July 25, 2016, at the young age of 97.
Biography Adapted from https://www.silewen.org/about-si-lewen