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"You can't stay out of the war"

"That's how I feel, April 19, 2021" is the title of a painting showing a naked woman with her upper body bent forward.

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"You can't stay out of the war"

"That's how I feel, April 19, 2021" is the title of a painting showing a naked woman with her upper body bent forward. Her head hangs heavily on her blood-red breasts, her hands clenched in fists. "This is how I feel, April 19, 2021" is a self-portrait by the artist Miriam Cahn. She ruthlessly makes her state of mind, her desperation and her anger public. But it's not just the individual Miriam Cahn that the painting depicts. Due to the strongly abstract painting style, the figure symbolizes the state of the world - comparable to Edvard Munch's "The Scream".

For her show, Miriam Cahn has put together 14 rooms with important groups of works from the past 50 years. With the exhibition title “My Jews”, the 73-year-old focuses on her existence as a Jew. Cahn, the daughter of a Jewish father and therefore not a Jew for “Orthodox Jews”, as she puts it, concentrates on the question of her identity. And, as she says in an interview, it is diverse. On the top three places of their existence are: "artist, woman, Jew".

She first came to grips with her personal Judaism and anti-Semitism during a scholarship stay in Germany. Because she actually has nothing to do with faith, but she will always react as a Jew if she has to, especially if she encounters anti-Semitism, Cahn said. Just like last year, when she decided to buy back her works from the Kunsthaus Zurich. Their reasoning: the anti-Semitic attitude and the origin of the works of art by the late arms manufacturer Emil Bührle, whose collection is now attached to the Kunsthaus Zurich, have not been sufficiently clarified. She also comments on the anti-Semitic works at the Kassel Documenta 15: "Why don't you take a closer look?" asks the artist, who now lives in Graubünden.

Miriam Cahn's guiding principle is the unobstructed view, which takes a closer look at areas such as feminism, flight and violence. “Carrying my luggage with my grandmother's arms” is what she calls a painting in which a naked woman is carrying a heavy bundle on her head. The painting is a memory of her grandmother who had to flee Nazi Germany. She fled to Switzerland with her two sons. As in Cahn's self-portrait, the unprotected body in this picture is also an expression of one of the existential threats to mankind - flight. In many pictures, Cahn radically describes the effects of such violent situations on the vulnerable human being. A mother tries to save her child from the floods, a figure lies on the beach covered with a blue cloth. With such representations one immediately thinks of current images of women, men and children who set out to save their lives from natural disasters, war and displacement. Miriam Cahn wants to take a stand because "you can't stay out of the war".

However, she is not a documentarian. Her answer as an artist is the symbolic representation of those who are suffering and those seeking protection. She does not present her characters as anonymous victims, but as self-confident individuals. They register their situation with alert, wide-eyed eyes. Accusation and anger could be interpreted into the looks. Even if the circumstances appear hopeless - as in the painting "quickly away! 27. 30.1.2021!”, in which a father flees with his exhausted child.

In Miriam Cahn's work, the people are usually shown naked and unprotected. This applies to both men and women. The painter prefers the female body. She depicts women giving birth, sleeping, in despair, or having sex. While the bodies are shown in outline, the eye area and the genitals are emphasized. As a feminist, she sees it as her task to deal with aspects of femininity that have not been dealt with before, "because all art up to now has been more or less made by men," as she explains in an interview with Deutschlandfunk. These include pictures with women giving birth, such as "le milieu du monde looks back, 2021" - a replica of Gustave Courbet's sensational work "The Origin of the World", in which he painted the vulva of a woman with her legs apart in 1866.

Miriam Cahn takes sides for her fellow women, but does not ignore the fact that injustice can also come from women. In “falsche farben 4.10.2021” she shows a white woman who violently and lustfully takes possession of a black man. In Miriam Cahn's world of images, suffering is a constant in human history - regardless of gender, skin color, religion. She believes that world peace is an illusion.

With this attitude she also approaches the subject of being Jewish. In the self-portrait “I as a Jew, January 7th, 2022”, the black color of the lines that form her head runs as if she were wearing sidelocks. And the bold orange brushstroke between the eyes can be interpreted as a caricatured response to a hooked nose's Nazi slur. The self-portrait was created in those days when the discussion about the collector Bührle had reached a climax. In Cahn's terse diction, that means: "I'm becoming more Jewish."

In her role as an artist, Miriam Cahn presents a world full of conflicts and power relations. She sees her task as openly addressing the adversities in this world in their universal patterns and structures. This can also be an impertinence for the viewer of the works. For an unsentimental view of the world, it is a gain, for art a tremendous event.

Until October 23; Museum of Contemporary Art Siegen, Lower Castle 1

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