Reading Correspondences through the Virtual Feminist Museum by Dan Smith

12 Aug

In the folded concertina pages of their book Correspondences (2013), artist Bernice Eisenstein and writer Anne Michaels have collaborated to adapt and put to use a multifaceted temporal dimension inherent in the medium of comics. Michaels and Eisenstein explore the potential that comics have to interrupt processes of consumption through phenomenal engagements with image, text, narrative and temporality. (Smith 2013) Correspondences changes through reading, offering new connections and configurations, made possible by the choice of directions in which the book can be read, and the page arrangements chosen by the reader upon any particular visit. The book opens as an accordion, the edge of each page attached to another. Read it this way, it is a poem. Read it a different way to look at Eisenstein’s portraits. When arranged conventionally, they are accompanied by a text on the facing page. As voices in a gallery of conversations, situated in the shadow of the Holocaust, Eisenstein’s portraits show us the faces of connected figures, from Paul Celan to Nelly Sachs, while the fragmented text of the poem sets up associations and relationships across time. There are echoes of the image/text combinations of Eisenstein’s previous graphic novel I was a Child of Holocaust Survivors (2006), which prodded the boundaries of the medium, resisting a more conventional approach to graphic memoir. Miriam Harris describes how Eisenstein illuminated “a vanished world of family members, shtetl culture, and Jewish intellectual inquiry and art, to identify what had been lost.” (2008: 132) Harris points out that “the union of words and images” (2008: 141) enables a reanimating of the dead through yoking together past and present in the corporeal form of the graphic novel. Correspondences performs similarly, but with an even greater sense of corporeal engagement, and moves even further away from standard image/text relations as found in comics.

Like Eisenstein’s I was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, Correspondences is a book that focuses on relationships around a parent, generating a dialogue with absent figures. It is an elegiac tribute to Anne’s late father Isiah Michaels, assembling links of kinship and influence amongst people Isiah never met, but who nevertheless touched his life indirectly. Each was a source of intimate fascination or inspiration for Isiah. At one end of the book, the following instructional statement is offered:

Most of the individuals portrayed in these pages are accompanied by their own words. Sometimes an individual’s words are brought together from more than one source. On occasion, the words of another writer become the voice for the individual portrayed. The pages unfold in a myriad of arrangements, and voices speak not only from the singularity of their souls but one to another, embracing all that has been placed beneath and inside. A layered kinship is formed, a touch across the pages. (Eisenstein and Michaels 2013: n.pag)

The material form of Correspondences as an object generates a looping circularity. Readers are entangled in combinations of image and text, with memory as a thematic core. As a comic, it is a non-linear sequential narrative using text and image, and as Thierry Groensteen suggests when discussing showing and telling as elements within comics narratives, a substantial part of the narration occurs in images and their articulation. (Groensteen 2010: 2) In these potential articulations of images, there is no prioritizing of a chain of events, usurping conventional narrative intelligibility, reflecting the idea that the Holocaust itself demands to be addressed in terms of unintelligibility. (Agamben 1999) Text and image might be read as interruptions as much as sequences, as discussed by Pascal Lefèvre (2010), working together to achieve a building of tensions. Rather than offering unity of the page, image/text configurations can put up barriers. This deviation from habitual reading schemes makes the process more difficult, demanding more of the reader. Lefèvre discusses the possibilities of the book as form, and alternative forms such as the scroll or concertina, the loose bundle in the box, which demand more than the turning of the page, attracting attention and involvement. (2010: 44) Readers become more aware of the materiality of the book he states, but the question of to what end still remains in considering Correspondences.

To address this question, I would like to suggest that the fragments and joinings encountered here can be read as an example of a space within what Griselda Pollock describes as the virtual feminist museum (VFM). Pollock, an art historian and theorist of visual culture, has confronted art history as a space of exclusions and symbolic violence since the 1970s. The VFM is an idea Pollock introduces in her book Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum (2007) and subsequently develops in After-Affects/After-Images: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation in the Virtual Feminist Museum (2013). She introduces the idea of the museum as a feminist tactic through the deployment of the museum’s speciality: “(T)he exhibition as encounter that opens up new critical relations among artworks, and between viewers and artworks, that points to repressed narratives in the histories of art, and continues what I called, in 1999, the feminist project of differencing the canon”. (Pollock 2007, 13, italics in original)

Pollock employs images in Encounters, including reproductions of Antonio Canova’s The Three Graces, a marble sculpture from 1819, which is placed on a page facing four views of the same sculpture, each sold as an individual postcard, bought in the National Gallery of Scotland museum shop. The figures in The Three Graces are described as possessing inexpressive and vacuous expressions upon their faces. (Pollock 2007, 171) Pollock interprets this surface in terms of a contrast between an image of pagan renewal – her reading of The Three Graces – contrasted with a post-Auschwitz context. She asks “Is a “Greco-Christian European tradition of art still possible, or has history, the Holocaust, shattered it?” (Pollock 2007, 171) It is this history that forms the foundation of a virtual exhibition. In constructing this exhibitionary space as a book, Pollock mobilizes images in a way that inadvertently alludes to image/text relations as explored in comics. The text of Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum is interspersed with pages of grey, which feature photographic reproductions, arranged in what can be called panels. There are no panel borders, and sometimes a panel is abutted to the next, but there are gutters. Each page has a numbered illustration reference, and the text is kept clearly separate, but images are deployed as part of a theoretical narrative within the book.

The Three Graces haunts Pollock’s Encounters, prompting a mode of reading that is intended to work against the grain of dominant art historical classificatory systems:

It thus concerns the encounter with sculpture mediated by photographic reproduction with the extended museum setting that leaks beyond the confines of the gallery and academic art history into the imaginary space that I am calling the virtual feminist museum. Here many representations and images jostle in an expanded archive across time and space, prompting other resonances and opening out unexpected pathways through an archive of the image in time and space. (Pollock 2007, p.9)

This museum is virtual not in the sense of a digital or online platform of some kind, but rather virtual in terms of impossibility. This is a space of analysis that could not be realized as an actual museum under current social and cultural conditions. The museum is too tightly bound in circuits of capitalism, particularly through corporate sponsorship. The VFM is offered as a challenge to normalizing protocols and structures found in knowledge systems, mirroring challenges made from postcolonial and other marginalized perspectives.

Pollock’s methodology pays homage to Aby Warburg, who approached images by removing them from art historical narratives that rely upon the idea that an artist’s intentions are explicit in the work that they make. This was a move to separate images from the myth that they are an index of the psychological interiority of individual artists, moving instead into the realm of historical montage. (Pollock 2007, 12) Images could find meaning not through isolation, but connection. This approach developed into his constellation of images known as the Mnemosyne Atlas. (1923-1929) Through placing images alongside one another, similarities and differences could emerge, meanings revealed through strange affinities. The Atlas was envisaged as a series of up to 70 plates, each of which was made up of separate images, reproductions of works, or details of works depicting classical motifs and their apparent reappearance in the Renaissance and in the modern age. These images were to be accompanied by text, a commentary for each assembled plate. He began the project in 1923, but died in 1929 leaving the Atlas unfinished and without a definitive plan or order. What was generated was an archive, comprised as much from gaps and intervals as documentary evidence. Just as his library of 60,000 volumes was categorized by elective affinities, secret intimate connections discerned by Warburg, the Atlas mirrors this as a spectral, phantasmatic science that refutes rational or linear order.

Pollock mobilizes a concept of the archive that resonates with Warburg’s. Her archive is not a comprehensive resource, a depository of fragments for reconstructing the past but rather “a perpetual haunting”. (Pollock 2007: 12) The accumulative effect of Correspondences can be characterized by Pollock’s description. Franz Kafka’s painted likeness in Correspondences is paired with the following lines:

I have never

been here before: my breath comes differently…

It is, after all,

a communication with ghosts. (Eisenstein and Michaels 2013: n.pag)

This could be read as a description of what is taking place across the gathered portraits – all people now dead – and poetic texts of Correspondences. Is this not a space for communicating with ghosts, or for bearing witness to acts of communication taking place between ghosts? These are ghosts communicating with each other through links and connections, but also with us, living in an era that not only has yet to recover from the Holocaust, but that continues to be shaped and defined by oppressive and violent structures of exclusion and marginalization.The Holocaust is situated as one force of violence among others in Correspondences. Following Kafka’s portrait, we encounter the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova. She was not Jewish and not a Holocaust victim, but rather a survivor of the Russian revolution, and later the oppression of Stalinism, expanding the singularity and specificity of one catastrophe within a wider sense of historical trauma. Next, a young Albert Einstein gazes skyward, his eyes seemingly unfocused, followed by a portrait of a girl known as Tereska. Her photograph, taken in 1948 in a Polish children’s home, was used on the front page of the Unesco Courier in February 1949. Eisenstein’s depiction of Tereska is paired with a text by Emily Dickinson: “I’m nobody! Who are you? Are you – nobody – too?” (Eisenstein and Michaels 2013: n.pag.) The portraits weave a series of connections in and around the specificity of the Holocaust, but which move outwards, linked by Isaiah Michaels, father of the poet Anne, who himself appears as a portrait.

Both Correspondences and the VFM are speculative and exploratory. The VFM is described in terms of a research laboratory that counters dominant narratives, resisting rather than reproducing assumed frameworks. (Pollock 2007: 11) Correspondences is a crafted gathering of subjects, images and biographies set out as networks and potentially transformative interactions. Pollock’s specific application of the VFM focuses on sexuality, sexual difference and representations of bodies, which, while not the focus of Correspondences, relates to the book through a shared commitment to “the unknown history of women at moments of cultural radicalism and cultural trauma across the twentieth century.” (2007, 11) Although there are familiar men in Correspondences, including Franz Kafka, Albert Einstein, Paul Celan, Primo Levi and W.G. Sebald, they are threaded into a space substantially constituted by lesser known women: We encounter Rose Auslander, a poet who knew Celan after the war, and who influenced his writing. We see Charlotte Delbo, who survived Auschwitz, where she was sent for being active in the French Resistance, and went on to write the trilogy Auschwitz and After, completed in 1971. Debora Vogel is partnered with the phrase “White words”, (Eisenstein and Michaels 2013: n.pag) the term used to describe her lyric urban poetry, an approach she argued was brought about by conditions, not choice. The aforementioned Anna Akhmatova and Tereska join this list, as does the poet Nadezhda Mandelstam, who wrote of the cost of resisting Stalinism. Following Etty Hillesum, who died aged 29 in Auschwitz in 1943, leaving her letters and diaries of her life in Holland, we come across Charlotte Salomon, a figure who although receiving more and more attention in recent years, and probably familiar to many readers of Correspondences, has yet to come to the attention of a broader public. Salomon created the work Leben? Oder Theater?/Life? Or Theatre? between 1941-1943. This was an autobiographical sequence of paintings and text that constituted a graphic memoir. She was deported from her hiding place in the South of France and was gassed to death in Auschwitz with her unborn child. The chain of portraits ends with Nelly Sachs, a poet whose writings evoked the catastrophe of the Holocaust and the persistence of anti-Semitism. She is partnered with the words: “If I only knew on what your last look rested.” (Eisenstein and Michaels 2013: n.pag) Hidden amongst the pages of the text side of the book is a portrait of pacifist, socialist and suffragist Helen Keller, whose books were burned in 1933. In the portrait, her unseeing eyes are painted as if they glow from an inner light. This unexpected placing of Keller reinforces the mutual pollution of image with text, text with image. It helps to unify an overwhelming sense of disorientating fragmentation in our encounter with the artefact.

As a space of the VFM, Correspondences relates to Pollock’s invoking of trauma through the haunting presence of the Holocaust. Trauma, as described by Pollock in After-Affects/After-Images, relates to the piercing of psychological mechanisms that are meant to shield and protect the subject’s psyche. Unlike physical wounds, these piercings are not healed by organic processes. Psychic trauma is lodged as a foreign colonising presence in the subject, oblivious to external models of time. It is unknown and unremembered: “It is the eventless event, unremembered because, being never known, it could not be forgotten. This happening is not in the past, since it knows no release from its perpetual but evaded present.” (Pollock 2013, 2) Pollock describes a move from trauma into a narrative form that “spatializes the subject’s relation to its own place in time as a subject with a history. (2013, 2) It is unknown and unremembered. Absence is addressed through a virtual presence, not by representation but approached through making. Trauma is the other of representation. The purpose of art that engages with trauma is distinct from any task of representation. The knowledge and memory of the writing subject becomes part of a communication exchange. (Pollock 2013: 4) Trauma can be addressed not as event, “but in terms of an encounter with its traces”. (Pollock 2013: 4) This takes on the form of some kind of time and space, a gap of sorts, as well as a form of participating otherness. Both the making of the work and its reading or viewing (or listening etc.) can form a relationship to trauma which actually transforms trauma. The non-sequential encounters of portraits and text across the folded pages of Correspondences translate the Holocaust as a psychic trauma into encounters with traces, performing this sense of participatory otherness. Trauma is not represented in Correspondences as much as it is explored through forms of material and subjective entanglements.

Included within Pollock’s model of the VFM is her reading of the work of Charlotte Salomon, who appears towards the end of Eisenstein’s sequence of portraits. Salomon is approached by Pollock through Walter Benjamin’s desire to visualize structural aspects of memory: “I have long, indeed for years, played with the idea of setting out the sphere of life – bios – graphically on a map.” (Benjamin cited in Pollock Odysseys 2007: 63) For Pollock, this idea of a life map helps to generate social and historical memory as registers of emplacement, and she uses this idea of life mapping as a frame for reading Salomon’s Leben? Oder Theater?/Life? Or Theatre?. As Ariela Freedman points out, Benjamin’s description of sequence, continuities, moments and discontinuities “could well be of comics that specialise in gaps and discontinuities out of formal necessity.” (2014: 42) The specific form of Correspondences, the demands placed and opportunities offered, emphasizes this sense of gap and discontinuity. Salomon’s work is, Pollock argues, one that remains open, “inviting us to offer our varied frames for reading an event that is at once unified and complex, narrative and conceptual, anamnesiac and repressed.” (Odysseys 2007: 64) The gathering of portraits, textual fragments and poems in Correspondences reproduces this dual sense of anamnesia and repression, encouraging us as readers to address what is forgotten as well as remembered, what is excluded as well as present.

For Pollock, Salomon’s work is framed by an attentiveness to the moment that preceded the catastrophe of living and dying that was the Holocaust. It was a mode of subjective resistance to the events, both life mapping and death mapping, writing the deaths of others, re-staging as well as mapping. As a work that includes a portrait of Charlotte Salomon within it, and that seeks to find ways to continue this negotiation of life and death, Correspondences should be seen as expanding the space of the VFM into the present and future. Correspondences performs Pollocks demand for critical and resistant knowledge systems. The faces in Correspondences speak to us, reminding us of the politicized construction of social subjects: “We are texts, textures, weavings of multiple positionalities and identifications that constitute our mobile placement on the double axes of generations and geographies.” (Pollock 2007, 12) The subjects gathered thus become the production of a new archival form within the virtual feminist museum. It can be read as both material and social event, the format of which, as in Pollock’s reading of Salomon, defies institutional or definitional attempts to place it, rendering the work dislocated in relation to extant orders. This is a sustaining of a refusal “of that attempted assimilation of artworks testifying to and negotiating life and death under the shadow of the Shoah.” (Pollock 2007:148)

The technology of life mapping acts as an alternative order, a graphically rendered form of living through the book as object and event, not as thematic content but as material operation in Correspondences. Eisenstein testing of the boundaries of comics as a medium. Together they have produced a work that is an experimental comic, exploring the possibilities of a printed object, which is simultaneously a book of poetry that has learned from comics. Correspondences echoes Pollock’s evocation not only of Salomon, but also of Warburg’s focus on the image as a mediation of history and subjectivity, of emotion and politics. Like Warburg’s Atlas, Correspondences relies upon modes of assemblage and encounter, which make possible methods of discovery.

Dr Dan Smith is a Senior Lecturer in Fine Art Theory at Chelsea College of Arts, University of the Arts London, and is the author of Traces of Modernity (2012). His research interests include comics, utopia, science fiction, printed works, art history, outsider art, museology and material culture. Publications include ‘Reading Folk Archive: on the Utopian Dimension of the Artists’ Book’ in Literatures, Libraries, & Archives (2013), ‘Image, Technology and Enchantment – Interview with Marina Warner’ in The Machine and the Ghost: Technology and Spiritualism in Nineteenth to Twenty-First Century Art and Culture (2013), and ‘Architecture, Violence and Sensation: A Visitor’s Guide to Mega-City One’ in Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media, Issue 5, Spring/Summer 2013 ( His drawings can be found at


Agamben, Giorgio. (1999) Remnants of Auschwitz: The Witness and the Archive (trans. by Daniel Heller-Roazen), New York: Zone Books.

Eisenstein, Bernice and Michaels, Anne. (2013) Correspondences: A Poem and Portraits, London: Bloomsbury.

Eisenstein, Bernice, I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors, New York: Riverhead Books, 2006.

Freedman, Ariela. (2014) ‘Charlotte Salomon, Graphic Artist’, in S.Lightman (ed.) Graphic Details: Jewish Women’s Confessional Comics in Essays and Interviews, Jefferson: McFarland, pp38-49.

Groensteen, Thierry. (2010) ‘The Monstrator, the Recitant and the Shadow of the Narrator’, European Comic Art, 3:1, pp.1-21.

Harris, Miriam. (2008) ‘Releasing the Grip of the Ghostly: Bernice Eisenstein’s I Was a Child of Holocaust Survivors’, in Samantha Baskind and Ranen Omer-Sherman (eds.), The Jewish Graphic Novel: Critical Approaches, New Brunswick: Rutgers State University, pp.129-143.

Lefèvre, Pascal. (2010) ‘Intertwining Verbal and Visual Elements in Printed Narratives for Adults’, Studies in Comics, 1:1, pp.35-52.

Pollock, Griselda. (2007) ‘Life Mapping: Or, Walter Benjamin and Charlotte Salomon never met’, in G. Pollock (ed.), Conceptual Odysseys: Passages to Cultural Analysis, London and New York: I.B. Tauris, pp.63-88.

Pollock, Griselda. (2007) Encounters in the Virtual Feminist Museum: Time, Space and the Archive, London and New York: Routledge.

Pollock, Griselda. (2013) After-Affects/After Images: Trauma and Aesthetic Transformation in the Virtual Feminist Museum, Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Smith, Dan. (2013) ‘Architecture, Violence and Sensation: A Visitor’s Guide to Mega-City One’, Intensities: The Journal of Cult Media. 5. Accessed 1 February 2015.


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