It seems fitting that paintings of rich hues and emotions grace the walls of a local gallery during the typically love-filled month of February.
On Feb. 14, Squirrel Hill’s Christine Fréchard Gallery will host a Valentine’s Day opening reception for Jewish painter Susan Winicour.
In 2013 at the age of 74, Winicour passed away, leaving what her family calls a breathtaking archive of works.
Her artistic spirit was present while she battled four unrelated cancers and treatment therapies over the course of 15 years.
“Art was her escape and therapy, so she was extremely prolific,” said Winicour’s daughter, Robin Simon. “She painted until days before her death, even keeping an illustrated journal of her illness.”
Finding light in the darkness of fighting cancer mirrored her time of taking on the world’s emotions while visiting post-World War II Europe. Her husband, Jeffrey Winicour, received a research fellowship in Germany and said his wife was at first skeptical of living in the former Nazi-run country.
“Susan was reluctant to go, but she joined me regardless,” Winicour, who researched astrophysics and cosmology at the University of Pittsburgh, said. “Susan grew up in a Jewish family in Brooklyn whose relatives and friends were affected by the Holocaust.”
He said that Susan would hike through the woods in Berlin wondering what atrocities had taken place there. It was during her walks that she took to doing grave rubbings in the Jewish cemeteries, forever emblazoning the Hebrew words and lives of those lost.
“One time she was so engrossed in the grave rubbings, the cemetery closed, and she was forced to climb the fence,” Wincour recalled. In time, she acclimated to Berlin and soon began creating a creative community.
“Susan organized a weekly sketching group that would meet in a museum, coffee house or park and spend the day sketching,” her husband said. “Other days she would go to her printmaking studio at the Bethanien Center, which was a major attraction for artists all over Europe.”
In the United States, Winicour worked with German expressionist painter Max Beckmann, who was part of a movement during the Nazi regime that was exiled or forced underground when artists became targets for their free will and creative thinking, said Bronislava Miloslavskaya, curator for the exhibit at the Christine Fréchard Gallery.
Miloslavskaya explained the style of expressionism is figurative, not realism, and Winicour’s expressive pieces reflect the period when art combined existential thought with that of a brush stroke.
“In her works we see not an imitation or student’s copy of the style of a beloved teacher,” said Miloslavkaya. “We may feel something like reincarnation of the very soul and method of artistic thinking of the combined movement of expressionism, [which is a] strong interest in psychology and deepest emotions of humans.”
It’s characterized by “the figurative art with no trace of realistic approach, adorned with a heavenly beauty and brightness of colors,” she added, “which is [the] undeniable influence of Chagall, who also belonged to the expressionist movement in a part of his life in Europe.”
And while Winicour’s family provided the gallery with an image of a young woman, sketched in black, next to the words, “Died in the Holocaust,” Miloslavkaya said the late artist’s Jewish heritage is not always obvious in her works.
“In the art works of Susan you may not find direct references to any Jewish subjects or symbols,” Miloslavkaya said. “This would be up to you and me and other spectators to find words to express the connection of her delicate art style and subjects to the very core of Jewish spirituality.”
Winicour’s daughter decided against including the Holocaust piece in the current show because the subject matter didn’t mirror the rest of the happy and bright canvases.
“We did not put these pieces in the show because they are not really salable,” said Simon. “People generally do not want such sad work hanging in their homes.”
Winicour held solo and group exhibits around the globe, including at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and the National Gallery for Women in the Arts in Washington, D.C., and illustrated for media outlets such as The Jewish Chronicle and Pittsburgh Magazine. She won a myriad of awards including the Associate Artists of Pittsburgh Award and the Three Rivers Arts Festival Jurors Award.
The exhibit will run through the month of February.
Bee Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.