Tyrants always fear art because tyrants want to mystify while art tends to clarify,” Iris Murdoch wrote in her arresting 1972 address on art as a force of resistance. “Those who tell you ‘Do not put too much politics in your art,’” Chinua Achebe told James Baldwin in their great forgotten conversation at the close of that decade, “are the same people who are quite happy with the situation as it is… What they are saying is don’t upset the system.”
A generation earlier, in the final years of his life, Albert Einstein sat down at his desk in Princeton, New Jersey, to compose a letter of consonant sentiment — a stirring letter of appreciation and assurance to the Polish Jewish artist Si Lewen (November 8, 1918–July 25, 2016), who had just quietly released a staggering work of art and resistance.
Born days before Armistice Day, Si was five when he decided to become an artist — or rather (as such elemental self-awarenesses tend to bubble up) when he knew he was one. In those formative years, his family fled from place to place as the situation for Jews in Europe was darkening by the minute. During a period of refuge in Berlin, while ostracized and bullied at school for being Jewish, he began receiving his first formal art lessons from Paul Klee’s disciple. His young imagination and his understanding of the world were being imprinted as much by his refuge in art as by the thickening political atmosphere of hatred that would soon erupt into the world’s grimmest war yet.
Lewen was still a teenager when his family fled to America as Hitler usurped power. When he arrived in New York, he was at first elated at the prospect of a new life full of art and free of persecution. He began taking drawing classes and going to the Metropolitan Museum every day. But when an antisemitic policeman beat him nearly to death, the terrifying thought that he would never be free from biased brutality and that the life of art could never be separate from the troubled life of the world drove him to a suicide attempt. And yet, like Lincoln, Lewen rose above the self-destructive impulse and turned the darkness into a motive force for action, for revising this broken and brutal world with his particular light.