Lewen died one year ago yesterday, at age 97, and in his final years, he fortuitously befriended the “Maus” graphic novelist. Spiegelman had learned of Lewen while researching his traveling “jazz art lecture” show “Wordless!” (accompanied by the Phillip Johnston Sextet), and in digging deep into the life of woodcut narrative artist (and proto-graphic novelist) Frans Masereel, the New Yorker became immersed in the work of Lewen, born Jesaja Simon Lewin in Poland.
As a boy, Lewen lived largely in and near Berlin till 1935, when Hitler’s rise compelled his entire family to move to the United States. He would not escape war, though, as he enlisted in the Army and trained at Camp Ritchie, Md., two years before he landed at Normandy and, in 1945, made it to Buchenwald as it was liberated.
Lewen resumed his art studies after the war, and his oils and acrylics, his collages and his triptychs often brimmed with vibrant color.
In the ’50s, the stark black-and-white tones took hold, as he delved into “Parade” and its themes of the profound pain and sacrifice of, and still insatiable appetite for, war. Beneath the pageantry and artillery, Lewen never releases his riveting narrative grip on the humanity of a scarred soul.
Einstein was so impressed by Lewen’s work that he wrote in 1951: “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. … Our time needs you and your work!”
In that era, “Artist’s Odyssey” tells us, Lewen could fetch five figures for his paintings, and what Spiegelman is lovingly aiming to do with his beautiful book is to help Lewen be remembered with appropriate prominence. Spiegelman and Will Eisner are often hailed for their crucial contributions to the so-called graphic novel, which only further fuels Spiegelman’s mission to shine a spotlight on his less-celebrated narrative-art forerunners such as Lewen and Masereel and Lynd Ward.
And what Spiegelman has done here is neatly divided the presentations between “Parade” (in all its large-format power) in one accordion side and a monograph spanning Lewen’s output (including his beguiling and late-stage “Ghosts” paintings) on the other.
The cumulative result is a compelling testament to Lewen’s gifts for stirring our souls with the silent grace of painted panel after panel after panel. As narrative, it is music by which to mourn Man’s fate.