Blog

Encountering a Lost World: A Conversation Between Michael Frank and Maira Kalman

Posted on 17th January 2023 by Mark Skinner

One of only a handful of Jews from Rhodes to survive the Holocaust, Stella Levi has experienced a full and eventful life - which she recounted to Michael Frank over a hundred afternoon encounters. The resulting book, One Hundred Saturdays, is a vibrant and inspirational meditation on survival, storytelling and a life well lived. To mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Friday 27 January, we present an enlightening conversation between Frank and the seminal artist Maira Kalman, who provided the breathtaking illustrations for this very special volume.    



“Why paintings and not photographs?"

I’ve been asked this question a number of times about the twelve striking paintings that Maira Kalman made for One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World. The answer, I think, has to do with the kind of book One Hundred Saturdays is—which is what exactly? One Hundred Saturdays is not a biography, although it recounts the life story of its subject, Stella Levi, who is one of the last people alive today who grew up in the Sephardic Jewish community on the island of Rhodes and was among the more than 1,700 people forced to leave their homes when the entire community was deported to Auschwitz in July of 1944. It’s not a memoir, although certainly it draws on, and is built out of, Stella’s remarkable, elastic, ever-giving memory. I like to describe One Hundred Saturdays as an encounter between a storyteller and her listener: over an extended period of time, like a modern-day Scheherazade, the storyteller reviews, revisits, and tries to make sense of her nearly century-long life as the listener absorbs, learns, and does his best to reformulate and transmit her story.

Maira Kalman’s paintings, to my mind, are another kind of encounter, another chance to try to capture at least aspects of Stella’s story. Where photographs are fixed, unmediated, and tend, sometimes, toward the literal, paintings, even when they are based on actual photographs, as Maira’s are, feel more porous and open to interpretation—to my mind more like stories themselves.

Recently Maira Kalman and I sat down to have a conversation about this different kind of encounter she had with Stella’s life and how it came about.

Michael Frank: I was about halfway through my six years of talking to Stella when I described the experience to you, and you said, “If you like, I’ll make paintings for the book.” What made you say that without having read it—before, in fact, there was even a book to read?

Maira Kalman: Well, Stella’s life encompassed an era, an arc of time, that resonated with me, deeply—from the beauty of Rhodes to the terror of Auschwitz to a life restored. I am interested, and moved, by large trajectories of time. Also I assumed there would be compelling photos from the thirties to work with. And I was right.

Michael Frank: It’s amazing that the photographs even exist. They were mostly pictures that traveled with Stella’s older siblings when the left the island to seek their fortunes, and fates, abroad. I think of them as accidental survivors of this lost world.

Maira Kalman: Exactly. And without intending to they hint at, provide evidence of, wholeness. Everything had a wholeness to it: the tables, food, fashion, the cabina with its festive decorations. The hats. There is a kind of innocence to these images.

 

Michael Frank: I think that may be because we have a perspective on the photographs that the subjects never could: we know what happened to these people afterward, whereas they are fixed in the past, which was of course their present. An eternal present, you might say.

Maira Kalman: And so every detail holds meaning, which is what drew me to them: the swimmers sitting on the beach, the stiff bows in the children’s hair, the musicians and their instruments. The unsuspecting joy.

Michael Frank: One thing that stands out to me in the paintings is the way you can so effortlessly—at least effortlessly from my point of view—evoke the colors, scents, sounds of that world. I can describe, say, Stella’s yellow summer dress; when you paint it, it transmits without language, it is yellow, in a single brush stroke.

Maira Kalman: Well, more like ten strokes, but yes.

Michael Frank: My sense is that we look at the paintings in two different ways: one as the story unfolds, as they support or expand on Stella’s memories, and the other looking back, or thinking back, from the end of the book, when they acquire a different significance. 

Maira Kalman: It’s crushing, when you know what happened to the entire community, to all this vibrant life. 

Michael Frank: Auschwitz was the one painting for which, of course, there was no personal photograph. What made you feel you could—should—paint that place? As you know, I was hesitant. To me it felt almost forbidden.

Maira Kalman: I strongly felt we had to include it. I didn’t use color. I didn’t include people. Just the train tracks and the buildings. Hell exists in this story and it exists on earth, and I felt you had to look at it. Or, rather, try to look at it.

  

Michael Frank: You also imagined, and embroidered, a family tree for the book’s endpapers, which I think of as a could-have-been object that never existed. Most young women of the Juderia—though not Stella, who rather vociferously refused—began preparing their trousseau when they were fifteen, sixteen. They were expert needleworkers.

Maira Kalman: Of course not Stella! But still, I felt a kinship with the handwork of these women and was drawn to the idea of women’s work telling the family history.

Michael Frank: Another encounter.

Maira Kalman: And tactile, evoking the Shabbat cloth, something that was passed down from generation to generation.

Michael Frank: You change thread colors at one point and leave a thread dangling.

Maira Kalman: The colors are instinctive. I change the color because I feel it should change. The dangling threads mean it is in process—they help remove it from the nostalgic. Mistakes are made. Life goes on.

Michael Frank: As did Stella’s. Jut the other day she said to me, “Despite everything, I chose life.”

Maira Kalman: She did, and with a force, an animation and fierce intelligence, that radiate from her.

Michael Frank: It’s not the whole story, though. There is no such thing.

Maira Kalman: How could there be? The embroidery, the photographs, and the paintings based on them are all just individual moments.  

Michael Frank: It’s all we can do: slow time down long enough to pause and do our best to look and listen.

 

Comments

There are currently no comments.

env: aptum
branch: