We must remember one of the most poignant and terrible collections in the world, that of Terezin’s children’s drawings which is exhibited in the Pinkas Synagogue. (https://www.prague.eu/it/oggetto/luoghi/687/sinagoga-pinkas-museo-ebraico-di-praga-pinkasova-synagoga-zidovske-muzeum-v-praze).
The artistic representation, drawing, graphics are therefore a powerful means to tell the story and the emotions that pervade it, art in its explicit observation is also the denunciation of evil through the ugly. Art pursues beauty, which therefore must also be sought in the aesthetic sense of the horror, in the search for that which strikes the conscience, that which pursues an end of positivity.
The memory of evil is a warning to the highest experience of life, beauty is the life we know in the virtues, in the love of nature and the other, and therefore the awareness of pain and of those who experienced it as a personal and collective tragedy is a hymn to courage. Man cannot be a monster and the evidence of evil is the observation of what is part of humanity, from here prevarication, hatred, is avoided so as not to fall into despair, madness, the abyss of death of all hope.
Ugliness as an artistic expression is described by several scholars, for example Gotthold Ephaim Lessing wrote in his essay on aesthetics Laocoonte: “…in painting, instead, ugliness has all its forces undivided, and has an effect no less strong than in nature…” or Umberto Eco: “…we understand why the art of the various centuries has returned with such insistence to depict the ugly. For marginal that was its voice, it tried to remind us that, despite the optimism of some metaphysicists, there is something irreducibly and sadly malignant in this world”.
The artists of the Nazi concentration camps are witnesses of their “normal” everyday life, they are women and men who transmit to us an experience, an indelible trace that becomes universal through art, through drawing which is the first act of awareness that a child carries out by communicating what he feels in his being to the world, whether or not he is looking at something.
The attestation then of the history that moves around us is a document, an image of reality. Art makes visible the invisible, feelings, values, moral sense, discernment.
The world is art, the world is beauty, the world is bad and all this becomes witness, history creative act not to repeat violence, abuse, prevarication.
Michel Fingesten was an artist, graphic artist and painter who lived in a concentration camp, first in Civitella del Tronto and then in Ferramonti in the province of Cosenza.
The life of this artist has seen various implications, that terrible accent of the horrible and nefarious, of the ugly, of evil, in his art have a satirical expression, an intellectual carat, almost didactic sepur of strong denunciation of what he lived.
Fingesten was one of the greatest authors of “ex libris” bookplates, of a genre therefore miniatural, which are used as labels placed on the second cover of books to indicate the owner, can have various sizes and facts of different material. Over time they have received so much attention that they have been taken into consideration by collectors from the mid 1800s onwards. True masterpieces of engraving which originally come from Germany where not only printing but also woodcut was invented.
Fingesten is the preferred artist by collectors of ex libris bookplates from around the world, his art being pleasant, frivolous, ironic so much so that there is a series of works that are erotic, therefore dispassionate.
He was a wandering man, who also gave the ex libris bookplate a freer and more autonomous connotation with respect to the original function, making it a work of art in itself. He participated in the Viennese secession but always brought the characters of Expressionism and Surrealism into his style.
He trained first at the academy in Vienna where he had as a fellow student the painter and playwright Oskar Kokoschka and then at the “workshop” of Franz Von Stuck, symbolist-expressionist painter, anticipator of Art Nouveau and master of Wassily Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
An artist with such a “powerful” cultural matrix that he is considered the Picasso of the ex libris bookplate by journalist/writer and bibliophile Gianpiero Mughini ( Panorama 11/02/2003).
The historical analysis of the time in which an artist works is the essential point of reference to frame his art, to think about the connections, to enter all the cultural gaps that sometimes escape and that are fundamental to relate to the deep meanings that involve us.
The time that has crossed our artist is the time that develops between the two wars that mark the beginning of the twentieth century, so he is a cultural witness of years of torment, years of tragedy, intellectual speculation, linguistic ferment of different artistic imprints.
Fingesten is a son of a craftsman, a weaver, and he will be very attached to the craftsmanship that is the matrix of xylography, of the mechanics that makes art, that expresses the image. Of Austrian father and Triestine mother both of Jewish origin and both Protestants. A syncretic personality that of our artist, a healthy bearer of a bourgeois Mitteleuropean culture with essential, concrete, and distinctly romantic connotations.
The cultural excursion that pushes us to go forward, to put one step of curiosity after another in the discovery of art, is always linked to the evolution of men who make it explicit.
Our artist therefore has a life that provides answers, that makes us understand through his work how a society expresses itself through feelings and actions of individual people who cannot avoid living in common, the artist’s relationships with the world become universal signs.
Fingesten has its own matrix, its own personality, its own style, its own excellence in technique and shows it in different periods of its existence, you have a kind of artist before 1935 and a different artist after his coming to Italy.
The most important questions we ask ourselves in front of the works of this artist is whether art can be ghettoized, restricted, brought into an enclosure and basically put in brine or whether it has its own continuity.
An artist who educates himself by travelling (Palermo, Trieste, United States, China, Japan, Australia, Spain) is culturally challenged because he is confronted with other languages, he grows, and at the same time the context that has to do with him grows.
What role does Fingesten play in art history before he is made a prisoner of a concentration camp?
Is Fingesten’s art an art of denunciation that leaves a mark for a dormant freedom or for a coveted freedom?
Fingesten experiences the reality of the concentration camps from October 1940 to September 1943, just under 3 years of internment what did they represent for this man? For his art?
This artist expressed his first art by dedicating himself to a particular genre of the ex libris bookplate, a genre of second order compared to painting or sculpture, let’s say a sort of applied art, decorative, “sui generis” precisely because it was very intimate, personal and private.
He therefore initially frequents the best cultural circles in Berlin, is in contact with a bourgeois, refined world, and in fact the same characteristic of the ex libris bookplate is typical of those who customize, those who have an accent on exclusive things, those who have a refined taste and for which he relies on those who guarantee discretion, professionalism, skill, precision.
Fingesten is a man who feels free in his expressiveness and will never give up this characteristic, he chooses the path of the ex libris bookplates also for this reason, because this gave him the possibility to be more autonomous compared to more conventional ways and at the same time allowed more intimacy also for the client. He is an artist who has his own critical place in the cultural context of his time, well defined and of great depth, and in fact he fits into the context of the historical avant-garde. To the first years of his career corresponds a 1920 monograph by the critic Paul Friedrich. His works bring more feelings that take place as denunciation and protest towards a world that is heading towards the abyss of war. So a first act of surreal mystification and existential anguish, chasing the grotesque, the visionary, the decadent satire. A graphic that exudes the Nordic man mixed with the Central European, Jewish and Christian man that shows a story, a Kafkaesque and Shakespearean poetry together. “…In a provocative way, he designed the Menu of the International Conference on Peace in Milan in 1939 by placing a waiter with a skull in place of his head while serving dinners…a bomb ready to explode. Next to it he wrote: “Death is ready to serve its foul-smelling dish”… (Michele Timini, L’arte oltre il filo barbarcino, in Extramoeniart, 27-1-2013).
In his path there is the oneiric game, the vague imaginative world of the circus, female nudes, carousels and harlequins and as you move on to a tragic vision, a Picassian deconstruction, until you reach anguish, as in the former books of Dr. Med. Karl Knauf (1930): death in bourgeois dress, armed with a scythe, holding a naked girl by the hair and bursting through the window into the scholar’s room.
The antiquarian bookseller Andrea Tomaseting curator of the 2005 exhibition at the Palazzo della Regione di Trieste dedicated to the artist states: “his powerful visionary sign, once seen, is never forgotten, digs into the brain. He is an artist attentive to all the most advanced experiences of contemporary art, reworked in his own language, which evolves from the initial Jugendstil symbolism to the constant expressionist deformation up to surrealism and occasional Italian déco results”.
Fingesten courageously sided with the “degenerate” artists and for this reason he was marginalized and helped only by a few collectors. A well-known and sought-after artist who paid not only for his libertarian strength, but also for his dedication to an elitist art that was even more niche than the market. Nazism has destroyed everything it considered degenerate art and cultural accents such as those of Fingestain have gone into oblivion not having the response they deserved.
The ex libris bookplates of this artist are the sign of an exceptional artistic testimony and if we take a good look at what printing is, we can only think of the greatest engraver in history, Albrecht Dürer, and starting from here make a not so absurd passage on an artist like Fingesten. Engraving is a material technique of great emotional impact and was born as tradition in the Central European land where our artist originates. The detail, the finishing are the extremes of art through certain techniques otherwise unsuitable for those who do not know how to use them wisely. The dark lights, shadows, the discrepancies in strokes, the shots between perspective and volumetric differences make graphic art the deepest sense of beauty, the one related to the genius and the primordial move of the creative act, the gesture in the material. It’s like touching the drawing of the soul! It’s pure passion! This strand of Fingesten’s mastery and inner power brings it all to us, overturning the aesthetic greatness of a Dürer in the modern era. This is what Fingesten was before his imprisonment, a great artist who performed about 1500 ex libris bookplates in which he put much of his most spontaneous and true art, this was his fundamental matrix, his first great training. In 1935 he escaped from the Nazis and arrived in Italy with his beloved son Peter (who stayed with him after the divorce from his mother Bianca Schick, who stayed with his sister Ruth) who then emigrated to Germany, from 1936 to 1940 he lived in Milan.
When Fingesten entered the war in 1940 he was sent first to the concentration camp of Civitella del Tronto in the province of Teramo and then in 1941 to Ferramonti in Calabria.
He continued his work, he continued with makeshift means to look at the world and to leave evidence of it, in Ferramonti he was struck by the places and here he had almost acquiesced so much that he also had a shack-atelier where he painted, exhibited and appearently gave painting courses to the children who were in the camp.
In the Ferramonti camp our artist was well, the camp was almost a refuge from the same external conditions and here he was also able to write letters to his friends who did not neglect to give him the necessary to engrave, to paint, to draw: Luigi Filippo Bolaffio, Giovani Botta, Gianni Mantero, admirers, collectors, friends from the Meneghini times.
In the Ferramonti concentration camp there is an interesting collection of Fingesten’s works, among them a painting “Calabrische Elegie”, one of his last works, donated by Riccardo Ehrman (Italian journalist known for the famous question that brought down the Berlin Wall) also interned in Ferramonti. The painting was made for Ehrman’s mother to thank her for her malaria treatment.
The painting is a funeral chant, the declaration of the punishment of man forced to live in restriction and under the anguish of seeing in his future a border, a limit that is the barbed wire fence. Made with Indian ink, here we can notice the peculiarity of our artist’s engraver, the narrow stroke made explicit even in the falling rain and the love and irony always present in the detail of domestic life represented by the kitten on the right and in that of the little man with the umbrella near the shacks.
So here is the art that tells the story, that has a different path, that this path leaves marks in the history of a man who becomes universal as an example for all of us. Art is ethics, art tells pain, beauty is also pain because this is a warning, a sense of existence, a search not to make mistakes.
In Ferramonti therefore there is a museum that preserves memories, that preserves life stories, that preserves life itself.
Fingesten is still an artist yet to be discovered, leading us more and more on the path of knowledge and truth, because it’s truth that makes us really free!