Shy Abady - Hannah Arendt Project - by Erik Riedel 2005

In 1980, Andy Warhol created the screen print series Ten Portraits of Jews of the Twentieth Century, which presented images of Jewish personalities such as Franz Kafka, Martin Buber and Sigmund Freud using well-known photographs. Hannah Arendt, though certainly one of the most significant political philosopher in the last century, does not appear in the series. This is probably no accident, because – as a result of her closeness to Heidegger, whose speech on assuming the rectorate in Freiburg embodies the fall of the German intellectuals during the Nazi era, and primarily because of her own polemic on Eichmann in Jerusalem - Hannah Arendt, to this day, has a polarizing effect on her readers.

Like Warhol, Shy Abady uses photographs as source material for his portrait series The Hannah Arendt Project. Some of these are well-known portrait photos, to be seen on book jackets and in blurbs; others, however, are less-known images of Arendt as a young woman. By contrast to Warhol, however, Abady's work engenders no pop icons. Rather, he attempts to use the photos in order to approach the person, to create intimacy. He especially and intriguingly succeeds in doing this in his portraits in sfumato technique, reminiscent of the Old Masters; their washed-out color scheme creates a quasi-monochrome effect. These tranquil, almost meditative images contrast with several highly colorful and expressive portraits, along with a series of seven also near-monochrome pictures painted on wood with vignette-like motifs. The latter illustrate objects and figures which represent emblems of Arendt's biography and works.

These ambiguous symbols – the stubbed-out cigarette butt characterizes Hannah Arendt as a chain-smoker, and at the same time represents an unpretentious vanity symbol – create a subtext whose commentary is partly ironic, partly empathetic. The picture entitled Muttersprache [Mother Tongue] shows the miniature figures of a mother and child, whose faces are blacked out and unrecognizable. "There is," said Hannah Arendt in a television interview in 1964, "a vast difference between the mother tongue and all other languages. (...) There is no substitute for the mother tongue. It's possible to forget one's mother tongue. That is true. I've seen it. These people speak the foreign language better than I do. (...) But it becomes a language of one cliché after the other, precisely because the productivity which a person has in his or her own language was cut off when the person forgot that language."

December of this year marks the 30th anniversary of Arendt's death; her 100th birthday would have been in 2006. Shy Abady's cycle of images can constitute an inspiring artistic contribution to the discussion of the many faces of Hannah Arendt: the thinker, the activist on behalf of Youth Aliyah and the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Organization, the political analyst and the emigrant, which will surely attain a new intensity in her jubilee year.

Erik Riedel, Jewish Museum, Frankfurt am Main, 2005

From: TV interview with Günter Gaus, October 28, 1964, quoted from Ursula Ludz (ed.), Hannah Arendt. Ich will verstehen , Munich 1996, p. 58f.