Aptitude of exilic experience: Translatability of migrating images by Lea Lublin (Blanco Sobre Blanco, 1969)

Christina Pestova28/05/24 17:12463

How can a representation of an artwork enact the exilic experience? What does it mean for an image to be ‘translated’ into different cultural and political contexts? I find it interesting to address these questions to an artwork by the Argentinian-French artist Lea Lublin Blanco Sobre Blanco (1969). Her personal and professional biography was split and enriched by the intense period of working in-between two continents and cultural systems in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although born in Poland, Lea Lublin spent the first years of her life in Argentina, where her parents migrated in 1938. In 1949, Lublin received a degree from the Escuela de Bellas Artes and then moved to Paris, to attend the Académie Ranson (1951–1956). From 1964, she mainly resided in Paris, yet the period from 1969 to 1972 can be considered an intense and productive time when Lublin staged the majority of her projects between France and Latin America. A researcher Isabel Plante wrote: 

She maintained a significant presence in the agendas of local art scenes, one that intensified during a stint of residence in Buenos Aires between 1969 and 1972. This was not, however, simply a matter of producing or exhibiting works in one city or the other. Her travel decisions were deeply informed by her aesthetic and political interests, and her movement back and forth between Europe and the Americas yielded an artistically productive flux that can be registered in her artworks themselves. (Plante 2014, p. 49).

In 1970, the exhibition featuring her artwork Blanco Sobre Blanco led Lea Lubling to be banished from Argentina. Her rich experimental work in the Americas became the platform for the further development of the artist on the European continent, in France, where she would reside from 1972 without returning. What happened to Blanco Sobre Blanco in the French context? How did the artist, whose main interest was in the modes of representation, choose to display it after finding herself an exíle? 

The intense geopolitical turmoil of the XX century resulted in the emergence of millions of people who either lost or got expelled from their homelands. As Edward Said noted, the entire Western culture is either reflecting or dwelling on the cultural production of those who got displaced or migrated — exiles, refugees, expatriates, or emigres (Said 2002). Can their exilic experience be represented in a newly acquired context and, if yes, what are the means of its translation? 

Exile as a state of banishment, a notion of civic status, and a context for one’s personal story, could refer to a specific plot or set of consistent actions that lead a character to expulsion. This expulsion results in a negation of the possibility of returning as a rightful citizen since exile, to a certain extent, means an indefinite shift of one’s societal position, status, and — the ability to represent and speak.

As a rule, the exilic tradition entails the political motivation for banishment, where “political” comprised the communal, hierarchical, or systematic constitution — the world order that one could either accept or neglect. Therefore, those inclined for exile somehow represented the ultimate otherness improper for the original structure of the world. This “otherness” or, as Julia Kristeva outlined, “foreignness” (Kristeva 1991) could be expressed by those who represent another culture or tradition, as well as by those whose stances or identity could not be recognised inside one’s society. Thus, as Kristeva noted in her book Strangers to Ourselves: “…by explicitly, obviously, ostensibly occupying the place of the difference, the foreigner challenges both the identity of the group and his own — a challenge that few among us are apt to take up.” (Kristeva 1991, p. 42). This potential to question and criticise constituted identity of a society is yet being examined on its own when coming to a specific exilic experience. 

So what did Lea Lublin do? Did she challenge both her personal and group identities? I argue that her foreign images and the way they got to be represented played a role in this challenge.

Between 1969 and 1972, Lublin produced several art projects and exhibited them both in Europe (France) and in Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Chile). For Lublin, it was extremely important to produce artwork following the local aspects of the political context and art scene. Therefore, her projects were in majority impossible to repeat in other institutional and cultural contexts. Since she was exploring representation as an artistic mode and an issue, she also managed to revise how “Latin America was being represented amidst the emergence of the so‐called Third World on a global scale.” (Plante 2014, p. 49).

Among the most scandalous, famous, and turning-point artworks of Lea Lublin of that period is the painting and installation Blanco Sobre Blanco (White on White, 1969). The work presented two figures, male and female, outlined on the transparent plexiglass with white paint. The male figure was on top of the female one, their bodies spread on the white bedsheets that the artist decided not to paint but to position between two layers of plexi, therefore, giving extra depth to the perception of the work as well as the possibility to play with the figures’ shadows. Although the work could be read as the exploration of visual aspects of sexuality, there is quite an ironic feature to it as well — Lublin portrayed two white people on white sheets painted with white paint. 

Lea Lublin. Blanco Sobre Blanco (White on White), 1969.
Lea Lublin. Blanco Sobre Blanco (White on White), 1969.

The work was exhibited at Exposición Panamericana de Ingeniería (Pan‐American Engineering Expo) in 1970 at the Sociedad Rural Argentina in Buenos Aires. The reaction of the audience led to police censorship of the piece as well as a trial for obscenity for Lea Lublin in 1972. This trial, the three-month sentence that Lublin got but never served together with the military coup of 1973, led to the artist not coming back to Argentina in the following decades. Blanco Sobre Blanco and its translocal perception mark the beginning of Lublin’s expulsion from Argentina, her motherland. Although she was able to remain a migrating artist for at least two more years until 1972 and travel to Chile and Brazil, her political and ideological banishment served as the beginning of Lublin’s estrangement from the Americas. 

Lea Lublin didn’t give up on showing and reflecting on the experience she had with Blanco Sobre Blanco. In 1972, she presented a work titled Lecture d’une oeuvre de Lea Lublin par un inspecteur de police (A Police Inspector’s Reading of a Work by Lea Lublin) at the Salon Comparaisons in Paris. Basically, it was a compilation of photographs, official documents, and statements, as well as press materials that could uncover the censorship process that the artwork went through. A letter from Ministerio del Interior described the work as “the images of a female subject and another of the opposite sex on top of her carrying out ‘the carnal act’ completely in the nude, without their genitals visible” (Plante 2014, p. 56). A set of photographs revealing the puzzled crowd and a policeman trying to cover the indecent piece of art with a sheet of newspaper. This very thorough, even meticulous study of the censorship of her own artwork could not find a better viewer. In the French context, back then genuinely interested in the revolutionary grassroots news from the Americas, this work aroused an incredible interest and sympathy towards the artist. The image itself — a portrayed scene of intimacy between a heterosexual couple — would not be regarded as something as obscene as an act of state prohibition. In France after May 1968, this topic was probably not already that explosive but still charged with credibility. 

An image of nudity when migrating, or being translated, to a different cultural context together with its exilic creator turned into a kaleidoscope of accompanying information, archival documents, and bureaucratic reviews. In his famous essay, The Task of the Translator (1923), Walter Benjamin wrote that translation produces the “echo of the original”: 

It envelopes its content like a royal robe with ample folds. For it signifies a more exalted language than its own and thus remains unsuited to its content, overpowering and alien. (The Translation Studies Reader 2000, p. 19).  

This alienation of the original meaning/content is something to be regarded when speaking about the artworks presented by the artists in exile. The mechanisms for translation as well as translatability as a mode of recognition can be compared to what Kristeva described as an ultimate challenge of foreignness — “I am not like you” (Kristeva 1991, p. 42) — arrival from a different context bearing other knowledge and experience and yet calling “for love: ‘Recognize me’” (Kristeva 1991, p. 42).

What kind of recognition was Lea Lublin calling for with her exilic experience in Paris in 1972? I suggest Blanco Sobre Blanco got its French translation, Lecture d’une oeuvre de Lea Lublin par un inspecteur de police, by being reduced to those motifs and patterns of recognition that could be easily read by the local audience. The local representation, therefore, enacted not only and not mainly the artistic characteristics of the artwork itself, but also the covering conditions of its creation and original context. Thus, the ultimate challenge of a foreign image like Blanco Sobre Blanco was in questioning its own identity as a central image, as well as a provoking image of obscenity. Its French translation enacted Argentinian national prudery and aptitude to banish. It is also indicative that the representation of the artwork constituted only a minor portion of Lecture d’une oeuvre de Lea Lublin par un inspecteur de police. One may locate it at the very end of the Lecture, where it is presented as a mere fragment of documentation, relegating the artwork itself to a secondary role. 

Lea Lublin. Lecture d’une oeuvre de Lea Lublin par un inspecteur de police (A Police Inspector’s Reading of a Work by Lea Lublin), 1972.
Lea Lublin. Lecture d’une oeuvre de Lea Lublin par un inspecteur de police (A Police Inspector’s Reading of a Work by Lea Lublin), 1972.

I believe Benjamin’s concept of translation and its derivative of translatibility can be applied to this shift in the representation of Lea Lublin’s artwork. I followed and addressed the research by Karolina Enquist Källgren, Exile Boundary Crossing: Aesthetic Objects and Perception in the Works of Walter Benjamin and María Zambrano (2020), where she reflects on the concepts of translatability and untranslatability in the context of exile:

In exile, translatability and untranslatability can entail the very practical problem of being able to continue writing something relevant enough, which can be published in a new intellectual milieu, while maintaining regular contact with the original intellectual background. Translatability and its opposite thus investigate processes of transgressing cultural borders, by the empirical analysis of texts, actions and practices brought into thinking in the light of dislocation. In translation studies these actions are often referred to as constructions of equivalence beyond linguistic or cultural/contextual borders, and decoding and recoding of underlying meaning. (Enquist Källgren 2020, p. 404).

Enquist Källgren touched upon an important topic of artistic or conceptual relevance, as well as decoding and recoding of the underlying meaning of one’s writing or — as in Lublin’s case — art production. Here “construction of equivalence” was directly connected to the features of translatability of Blanco Sobre Blanco. I would argue that these features can be outlined as an aptitude that in particular circumstances can develop, and expose the conceptual and ideological relevance of the artwork. Lecture d’une oeuvre de Lea Lublin par un inspecteur de police becomes a French translation of Blanco Sobre Blanco after its visual and conceptual banishment from Argentina. Together with this, the artist herself became focused on the issue of translatability of personal exilic experience, therefore, the original title echoed back and acquired the name of its creator. 

The translation mechanisms of content and meaning are apt to depend on local context where one should regard not only the locality of the place of exile (in Lublin’s case, France) but also the locality of the place of banishment (Argentina). It implies working with cultural codes that these contexts represent and their communities know about each other. Translating content and meaning across cultural and national borders in exilic experience becomes more than simply transmitting information (Benjamin 1923). It becomes an act of communication with a new context which however requires a careful study of the artist’s work — in search of that aptitude that could represent the exilic experience in an understandable way. As Enquist Källgren wrote about Walter Benjamin and Maria Zambrano, “exiles forced them to try to adapt or translate the contents of their thinking into concepts and languages that could be understood in the new location…” (Enquist Källgren 2020, p. 404).

I can therefore assume that any “migrated image”, any work of art or writing represented in a state of exile, has — sometimes — much more to tell us about the context in which it is now situated, and about the exilic experience of its creator, than about itself. Thus not every artwork gets to be understood in a place it got exiled to. And the question of what it means for a work of art in an exilic context to be translated is, in my opinion, a subject for a separate study.

Reference List

Benjamin, W., 1923. The Task of the Translator. In: L. Venuti, ed. 2000. The Translation Studies Reader. London: Routledge. pp.15-25. 

Enquist Källgren, K., 2020. Exile Boundary Crossing: Aesthetic Objects and Perception in the Works of Walter Benjamin and María Zambrano. European Review, 28(3), pp. 403-415. http://dx.doi:10.1017/S1062798719000528.

Kristeva, J., 1991. Strangers to Ourselves. New York: Columbia University Press.

Plante, I., 2014. Between Paris and the “Third World”: Lea Lublin’s Long 1960s. Artl@s Bulletin 3, [e-journal] 2(4). Available through: Artl@s Bulletin website <> [Accessed 25 April 2024]. 

Said, E. W., 2002. Reflections on Exile and Other Essays. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 


Alexander Gunin

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