From April 21–Sept. 3 at the Menil Drawing Institute in Houston, for the first time ever, all 63 drawings that served as the maquette for Si Lewen’s 1957 graphic novel The Parade will be on view. This long-overlooked body of work debuted nearly seven decades ago and remains relevant to this day, as its wordless narrative explores the cycle of recurring war. The book is an epic of anti-authoritarian ideas, first published in 1957 on the tail end of Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare assault of democracy. The drawing style combines the polemical aesthetic of Weimar German graphic commentary with a children’s book sensibility. Dark and foreboding, it speaks to the manipulation of the masses and mob. It addresses mobilization as manipulation. Sadly, more than a half-century later, it underscores the war that rages in Ukraine.
A Polish Jewish refugee, Lewen grew up in Germany, where he observed the political and cultural upheaval happening around him. In 1933, when Hitler came to power, Lewen fled to France with his brother and later immigrated to the United States, enlisting in the U.S. Army and joining an elite unit of German-speaking special forces called “The Ritchie Boys.” He saw action in Normandy and visited the Buchenwald concentration camp shortly after its liberation in 1945; he was devastated by the atrocities of the Holocaust.
After returning to America, Lewen resumed his art in an effort to heal from his trauma. Completed around 1950 and published in 1957, The Parade was the culmination of this phase of his work. Although Lewen transformed his personal memories into these drawings, he knew they could not express the real-life terrors he witnessed. He asked, “Did I succeed? Can others now see what I saw? The answer is ‘no.’ No matter how well articulated or skillfully created, ‘horror,’ for instance, means little except to those who have also experienced it.” The book, which today is little remembered, received numerous accolades when it was published. Through his gallerist Lotte Jacobi, Lewen sent an early mock-up of The Parade to Albert Einstein shortly after it was completed. Einstein wrote to Lewen, “I find your work, The Parade, very impressive from a purely artistic standpoint. … It has often been said that art should not be used to serve any political or otherwise practical goals. But I could never agree with this point of view. Our time needs you and your work!”
All drawings: The Parade, ca. 1950. Crayon, ink, paint and graphite on gessoed board. Image: 12×18 in. (30.5×45.7 cm). Sheet: 14×20 in. (35.6×50.8 cm). Collection of the International Institute for Restorative Practices