Chasing Portraits–Powerful documentary wrestles with cultural repatriation, provides a new vision into losses from war

Review by C.J. Bunce

From an educational standpoint and an historian’s eye, the Holocaust is the most important subject of study for anyone to understand why humans look to the past for answers.  Every aspect of historical scholarship can be found in studies of the subject, understanding politics, religion, power, discrimination, survival, and the worst potential of mankind.  A powerful new documentary takes a new look at the Holocaust through the eyes of a grandson and great-granddaughter of one artist, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), whose vivid, stunning expressionist and minimalist paintings document a broad look at life, tradition, and culture in Jewish Poland prior to World War II.  Produced, directed, and written by his great-granddaughter Elizabeth Rynecki, Chasing Portraits illustrates the competing challenges in the debate over the repatriation of cultural artifacts, as it also pulls in issues of borders, the distance of time, and the critical importance of studying art history.

Once you get past the first minutes, which seem to be filmed on an old camcorder, this amateur documentary steps up into a compelling journey, thanks in part to a musical score that ties it all together, by Matthias Zimmerman.  The German Nazis murdered Moshe Rynecki in a concentration camp in Warsaw in 1943.  Many of his more than 800 paintings and some of his sculptures and carvings were smuggled out.  Hundreds were taken out by his son and her wife, who escaped Warsaw with their young boy, the documentarian’s father.  Other works fall into the categories of gifts, works purchased legally, and works that may have been stolen and resold.  Elizabeth Rynecki first meets with her father in her documentary, whose house walls are lined with his grandfather’s paintings.  She also points to a closet where several works are rather haphazardly stacked, no doubt viewed only by few people over the past 70 years.  In one moment her father replaces a framed piece that falls to the side with a thunk.  This becomes a key scene–although it’s not clear that the director realizes it–as she does not circle back to it later.  It’s key because she begins a journey of discovery that takes her from the U.S. to Poland and Jerusalem, inside major museums and private collections, in part to reclaim what she believes are paintings that rightfully belong to her family today.  By the end of the film she acknowledges that tens of millions of visitors have admired her great-grandfather’s works in the museums, and she interviews museum directors that have clearly given the paintings the care any curator would give to his/her collections.

The question for the viewer becomes one of moral rights and legal rights–the debate over repatriation of cultural and artistic works.  And the crux of the debate over where these cultural works belong today–to descendants in private collections or on display in national museums as educational tools for a vastly wider audience.  Eventually Ms. Rynecki files a claim for three works held by a private person in Jerusalem, whose method of acquiring the works is questioned.  But ultimately she retracts the claim.  Along the way she interviews her father, who says he clearly would prefer to forget his memories of Poland during the war.  Yet he complies with his daughter’s requests to document his memories, until it becomes too much for him emotionally and physically.  Clearly there is importance to the works, to his experience, and to sharing both with future generations, and Ms. Rynecki encounters numerous crises of conscience as she takes each step forward in her pursuit.  How far should she go?  How far is enough?  Her time travel to the past explores these questions and much more.

Art preservation, objects vs. meaning, history and healing, generational viewpoints, and the incalculable harms to humanity and society caused by war–all of these concepts intertwine in Ms. Rynecki’s journey to discover more about the life of Moshe Rynecki, Elizabeth’s parents, and her grandparents–whose opportunity to document their experience would also be gone but for a manuscript by her grandfather Elizabeth discovers in his old home, including a message he left specifically for her.

Ms. Rynecki includes images of dozens of Moshe’s paintings in her film, each jaw-dropping, revealing a middle class life before the War, happy times like celebrations including a wedding, carnival, and Yom Kippur observance, plus the day-to-day life in Poland, including street life, markets, artisans, religious observances, arts and crafts, and even Moshe’s self-portraiture.  Toil, anguish, contemplation, and happiness are infused in his works, a unique viewpoint into a group of people who were diminished over a few months from millions of people to only a few hundred thousand.  Ninety percent of the Jewish population was murdered by Nazis during the war leaving a void in transfer forward of the culture and legacy of these people, plus that of the tens of millions of lives of what would have been their offspring, which is enormous and incalculable.

Toward the end of the film, in contrast to her father’s assemblage of paintings in his closet, is a preservationist wearing gloves, carefully attempting to ensure the survival of Rynecki paintings in a museum in Jerusalem.  This documentary is only one part of capturing the lost past and preserving it before it’s too late.  Ms. Rynecki has published a book of her project, also titled Chasing Portraits, available here at Amazon.

Chasing Portraits is a gem of a film for anyone mesmerized by fascinating documentaries and personal journeys of discovery.  Thought-provoking and important, it’s your next compelling tale of art, history, and meaning.  Chasing Portraits opens April 26, 2019, and in New York City, May 17, 2019, in Los Angeles.  See the First Run Features website here for more locations across the U.S.


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