Artists Reflect on Experiences of War, Oppression, and Occupation

Magdalena Abakanowicz

John Swope (1908–79), a Hollywood photographer who had previously collaborated with the writer John Steinbeck on a book about aviation cadets, traveled to Japan in late summer 1945 with the U.S. Navy to photograph the release of Allied prisoners of war. Driven by a desire to understand the country that Americans perceived as a threat, Swope also took pictures of Japanese civilians during his three-and-a-half-week journey, utilizing his personal charm and his unusual Navy-issued camera (a Rolleiflex which was held at waist level, leaving the photographer’s face unhidden) to interact with his subjects. In a running letter to his wife, the actress Dorothy McGuire, Swope wrote, “With a camera and a desire to take pictures it is very difficult not to talk with them, befriend them, and try and find out more about them.” Swope’s correspondence with his wife provides commentary for more than 75 photos from his trip displayed in “A Letter from Japan: the Photographs of John Swope.” Organized by UCLA’s Hammer Museum and accompanied by a 256-page catalogue ($45.00), the exhibition is in the Block Museum’s Main Gallery September 19 to November 30. 

Born in Eastern Europe in 1933, Samuel Bak suffered the ravages of the Holocaust as a child. His paintings and drawings continually address the traumas experienced by Bak and other European Jews of the time. “Drawn from Memory: Holocaust and History in the Art of Samuel Bak” in the Block’s Print, Drawing, and Photography Study Center September 19 through November 30, focuses on the artist’s incorporation of iconography from historical and modern art, such as his frequent invocation of the brooding winged figure from Albrecht Dürer’s 1514 print “Melencolia.” Bak’s appropriations evoke displacement and loss and become metaphors of the ruptures he has lived through, as well as universal symbols of suffering. This exhibition is organized by the Block Museum with cooperation from the Pucker Gallery, Boston.

The Block has organized a number of programs to complement these exhibitions; unless noted, all of the following are free of charge.

Block Museum docents lead tours of the John Swope exhibition at 2 pm Saturdays from

September 27 to November 29.

Tours of the Magdalena Abakanowicz and Samuel Bak exhibitions will take place at 2 pm

Sundays from September 28 to November 30. Tours of the Magdalena Abakanowicz exhibition only will be offered at 2 pm Saturdays and Sundays from December 6 to December 14.

– At 5:30 pm Friday, September 26, “A Letter from Japan” curator Carolyn Peter, director

of the Laband Art Gallery at Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, will address John Swope’s work in the context of photographic war documentation in the lecture “The Artist at War: John Swope and the History of War Photography.”

– At 8 pm Wednesday, October 8 and Wednesday, November 12,­­ Block Cinema will screen

short propaganda films created for the U.S. government during World War II.

– During the family program “Pinhole Cameras” from 1 to 3 pm Sunday, October 12,

children and their parents will tour the John Swope exhibition and create their own pinhole cameras. The cost for the family program is $5 per family (free for Block Museum members) and reservations are required. E-mail [email protected].

– At 6 pm Wednesday, October 29, Jeffry Diefendorf, Pamela Shulman Professor in European and Holocaust Studies at the University of New Hampshire, will deliver the lecture “Dialogues with the Past and Present: the Vivid World of Samuel Bak.”

– At 6 pm Thursday, November 6, Block Museum curator Corinne Granof will present “Abakanowicz and Chicago,” a program about the “Reality of Dreams” exhibition and “Agora,” Magdalena Abakanowicz’s sculptural installation in Chicago’s Grant Park.

 “A Letter from Japan: The Photographs of John Swope” and its catalogue are generously supported by Gail and Jerry Oppenheimer, with additional support from Mrs. Sidney F. Brody, The Judith Rothschild Foundation, Shirlee Fonda, and Jane Wyatt. Support for the Block Museum’s fall exhibitions and programming is provided by the Alsdorf Endowment; Illinois Arts Council, a state agency; Myers Foundations; Rubens Family Foundation; and Terra Foundation for American Art.

For more information regarding Block Museum exhibitions, programs or location, phone (847) 491-4000 or go to the Block Museum website at

Magdalena Abakanowicz’s sculptures in Chicago’s Grant Park.
Magdalena Abakanowicz’s sculptures in Chicago’s Grant Park.