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Woman with two children seated beside a broken wall, destroyed city in the background

Woman with two children seated beside a broken wall, destroyed city in the background

“Woman with two children seated beside a broken wall, destroyed city in the background” is a raw, preparatory work by the artist Theodore Fried. We are presented with a simple composition of a crouching female figure cradling one child while pulling another older child close. They appear to be taking refuge against a crumbling brick wall. Behind them are ruins of buildings, perhaps a church, signalling to the viewer that this is a war zone. While the subject matter might be clear, a deeper understanding can be gained when we learn more about the artist.

European Jewish artist Fried had survived WW2 and found sanctuary away from persecution in the US. Born in 1902 in Hungary, he had a front-row seat watching the continent in turmoil. He saw the nations struggle to rebuild after the First World War and watched as Adolf Hitler rose to power.

As an artist, he studied in Paris and rubbed shoulders with the biggest names in the thriving avant-garde art movements of the day. Like many artists of this era, he shunned naturalism and realism in favour of impressionism. His art would live on a spectrum that could echo the angular shapes of Egon Schiele or the impasto haze of Claude Monet. Above all, he learned to capture the essence of a scene or a person, not just the likeness.

Here in “Woman with Two Children”, his heavy lines and flat composition reflect the continuing interest in Japanese influences. But the subject matter squarely locates us in the horror of war. The canvas already small, feels more claustrophobic with the edges subtly shaded darker. The woman is compressed into a shrinking space, conveying her turmoil and desperation. Her posture mirrors the Pieta, where the Virgin Mary holds the dead Christ in her arms. The older of the two children is wearing torn rags showing wounds on his legs. Whatever we are witness to, has been an ongoing ordeal and this scene is presented as the last stand.

Fried was no stranger to war. Before escaping to the US he had supported the French resistance against the Nazis. As an artist he frequently explored themes of death and conflict, perhaps drawing on the trauma, memories and visions of the brutal occupation he experienced. These lesser-known works by Fried feel like a journey into his psyche. His crude markings on paper can be seen as an attempt to exorcise demons and purge haunting memories.

PTSD and the power of Art Therapy are now mainstream ideas, but when Fried was compelled to draw “Woman with Two Children” he likely had no notion of either. When we look at this painting today we can appreciate the pain he carried with him and the power of art to heal.

The work is currently held at the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art.


February 29, 2024


The Sherwin Museum of Jewish Art​


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