A tribute to our mother Erna Vamos: her cultural and artistic legacy

The intellectual legacy we owe to our mother has been evoked by our brother Elie. Each of her three children has, in their own way, integrated her explicit and subliminal messages and each of them has respectively conveyed them in commitments and choices of values. In order to complete the non-material legacy transmitted by our mother, we need to add its cultural and artistic components. Erna Vamos was an artist in the full meaning of the word, giving as much as receiving, able to enjoy as well as to express herself in diverse artistic domains: literature, music, visual arts… Apart from her relations with beloved ones, nothing could bring her more intense joy than contact with an art masterpiece, be it a Bach cantata, a Rembrandt picture, or a novel by S. Zweig. In this repect, she perceived the 20 years spent in the Congo as an exile, depriving her of cultural events (concerts, theatre, exhibitions), but more importantly, of contacts with artists and intellectual friends such as pianist A.Foldes, anthropologist G.Roheim …
In the years following our father’s death (1940), which happened to be the war years, she was also desperately short of material needed for her artistic work.
In a letter to her friends from London, dated 1946, she expresses an immense, quasi childish joy at the reception of a parcel containing material for oil painting as well as a wide set of pastels they sent at her request.
Music was to her almost as necessary, as an amateur player as well as an informed music lover. Our radio as the only source of music provided us with poor quality of sound and programming. The first luxury afforded by our mother despite her limited resources was the purchase of a piano, in addition to scores ordered from London. The first good pieces of music we could hear were thus compositions from Bach, Beethoven, Chopin and Schubert played with feeling by our mother. We shared her passion for J.S. Bach and for African and European arts. Her bookcase was crammed with art books and reproductions (mainly from the Italian quattrocento) which made me dream of Florence and Paris. Her interior was predominantly decorated with numerous African art objects (statuettes, vases, rugs, ethnic music instruments ) she collected herself in Chad and Congo. She kept respectfull and admiring relationships with some Congoles artists such as Mwenze Kibwanga, a well known painter whom she met in Elisabethville.
In brief, she bequeathed to us « The Culture », her own culture, not the veneer enabling one to shine in society, but this unique capacity to feel (and share) a deep joy at the sensory/intellectual contact with a masterpiece. In recent years we have become more and more aware of the priceless value of such nonmaterial legacy, the most precious asset helping us to go through hard times.
Finally, we need to address the question as to how Erna Vamos judged her own work. First of all, it must be emphasized that her paintings, far from being only a source of income, were also a genuine passion, a deep need to express herself through her art. As far as we can remember, she always looked critically at her achievements. These were therefore a source of satisfaction but also of frustration. Discovering today her correpondence with close friends, I recollect some of the confidences she shared with me. Because of the need to sell her pictures to a not very knowlegedeable public, after our father’s death she felt like constrained to practice a more conventional figurative art with faded contrasts. She was fully aware of the limitations imposed upon her free expression , as well as of her loss of self-confidence. However, in less constrained circumstances, she felt her work would have been more consistent with her aspirations. Furthermore, figurative art was considered as obsolete in the post-war decades which corresponded precisely to the years of most of her productions. These raised therefore little interest in Europe and in Israel where she spent the last part of her life. She thus felt insufficiently recognized as an artist

Esther Vamos-Hurwitz
May 2015