Art as a metaphor: Visions of the Holocaust
Viewing art isn't always a pleasant experience. Sometimes it's disturbing. Profoundly disturbing.
And often disturbance is its intent. Art that takes the Holocaust for its subject matter, for example, isn't meant to be easy on the viewer.
Such is the case with a series of drawings by Mauricio Lasansky on exhibit at the Cheney Cowles Memorial Museum through Nov. 16. Known worldwide as "The Nazi Drawings," they are a visual record of the horror and brutality of the Nazi atrocities against the Jews.
The Nazi Drawings are part of a cooperative effort by three local galleries Cheney Cowles, Gonzaga University's Ad Gallery and the Gallery of Art at Spokane Falls Community College to showcase the work of the premier printmaker and his students.
"We're excited about having Lasansky's work here," says Scott Patnode, professor of printmaking and director of the Ad Gallery at G.U. "He's a major figure in the printmaking world and has influenced a generation of artists and teachers."
Born in Buenos Aires in 1914 of Jewish parents, Lasansky came to the United States in 1943 with the aid of a Guggenheim Fellowship. Two years later he went to the University of Iowa to establish a printmaking department that is now considered one of the most influential graphic arts workshops in the world. He retired from the university this year.
During the late 1940s, Lasansky began translating his anguish over Nazi atrocities into his Picasso-inspired prints, "Dachau" and the "For an Eye an Eye" series. But it wasn't until the late 1960s that he began this group of 33 large pencil drawings that unflinchingly demonstrate the human degradation of the Nazi camps.
While he didn't experience the horror of the camps first-hand, Lasansky believes we're all emotional survivors.
The Nazi Drawings are Lasansky's most well-known works. Done in lead pencil on white paper with painted accents the color of dried blood, the drawings are deliberately hard to look at. The medium pencil on paper is so familiar to us that it draws us in. But the drawings look as if the artist has attacked the paper with his pencil.
The series starts out with skull-helmeted, heavy-headed busts of Nazi executioners. The drawings progress to full-figured views of Nazi officers intertwined with skeletons and corpses and combined with a complex symbology of sexual perversion and religion.
Gradually the numbers start appearing. Concentration camp numbers. The number 5,602,715 appears over the chest of an anguished child, bringing to mind the sheer magnitude of the genocidal atrocity.
Lasanksy makes a clear indictment of the complacency of the established Church during the Holocaust. Drawing No. 29 shows a portrait of a bishop with a dark ravaged face accompanied by a smug oblivious attending priest. Both are standing on a pile of infant corpses.
The recurring theme of slaughtered or suffering children forces us to acknowledge the unspeakable, the unbearable aspects of humanity. The drawings are one's worst nightmares come to life.
"Lasansky is reflecting on the Holocaust almost as an artist reporter," says Patnode. "But in the context of his own imagination of what horror is, the drawings are more horrible than photographs."
The artist wants us to confront our collective guilt over the Holocaust.
"He confronts us so we can reflect on the events and not allow them to happen again," Patnode says. "And we can see things in the world today depending upon how you view the situations in Nicaraugua, South Africa, Iran-Iraq or Northern Ireland that show us that racial and religious persecution continue."
Even close to home.
"The exhibit is especially timely because it counters the kind of racism that is appearing in our own area," Patnode says.
Reactions to the drawings reflect responses to the Holocaust itself.
A few museum visitors, wandering in from other exhibits, quickly pass by the drawings to shut out their awful content. Some parents rush children out. But most stare in morbid fascination, trying to make sense of the juxtaposed images of death, sexual perversity and religion.
"With most exhibits, people are in and out in 15 minutes," says Beth Sellars, curator of art at Cheney Cowles. "But with the Nazi Drawings, they are spending an hour or so looking at them and reading the accompanying explanations."
"It's not exactly an easy show to look at," she says, "and that's why we have a lot of explanation available on cards, in handouts and through docents (guides)."
If the Nazi Drawings leave you in despair, Lasansky's Kaddish Suite will give you back some hope for mankind.
On display at Gonzaga's Ad Gallery through Oct. 31, the series of eight color intaglio prints carry messages of peace and survival. They are Lasansky's answer to the depravity and destruction of the Nazi Drawings.
Kaddish is the mourner's prayer of the Jews, recited during the 11 months of mourning and on each anniversary of a death.
In his Kaddish prints, which appeared 10 years after the Nazi Drawings, Lasansky creates images of mankind as wounded, limited survivors.
Using the technically complex color intaglio techniques of which he is a master. Lasansky crowns each print with a dove of peace. The dove perches over images of a wreathed child, a masked face, an old man, and all manner of flawed and vulnerable people.
Unlike the Nazi drawing, the Kaddish prints are brightly colored and relatively easy on the psyche. Yet the ever present concentration camp numbers 6,102,301 through 6,102,308 appear on each print as grim reminders that even though we are survivors, we must not forget that over 6 million died.
The Kaddish Suite is accompanied by four self-portraits which show the artist's progression from intense young manhood to more contemplative middle-age.
Lasansky's influence as a printmaker is felt worldwide and many of this country's college printmaking teachers were trained in his program at the University of Iowa.
For those who want to see Lasansky's influence in action, the Gallery of Art at SFCC is featuring prints by some of the artist's past MFA Students through Thursday. The show, 'Out of Iowa," was curated by Keith Achepohl, Lasansky's successor as head of the University of Iowa printmaking department, and covers the 40 year span of Lasansky's tenure at the university.
Many of the pieces are done in traditional intaglio print techniques that are Lasansky's hallmark, and they show a wide variety of styles.
"The open forms and loose images reflect Lasansky's influence," says Jeannette Kirishian, SFCC printmaking instructor and former student of the artist.
Kirishian's contact with Lasansky was instrumental in bringing his work to Spokane. She took a leave of absence from SFCC to study for an MFA under Lasansky in Iowa and she came away with a tremendous respect for the man and the program.
"He made his students throw off their preconceived ideas," says Kirishian. "He encouraged us to always keep ourselves open to new possibilities.
"Lasansky had something of a paternal warmth and caring for his students. He tried to keep us from being complacent. He wanted us to stretch."
According to Kirishian, one of Lasansky's favorite statements is "I talk in metaphors." The Nazi Drawings, the Kaddish Suite and the prints of his students make it clear that, for Lasansky, metaphor is also the language of his art metaphors for death, degradation and destruction in the Nazi Drawings; metaphors for peace, tolerance and survival in the Kaddish Suite.
Lasansky doesn't want us to be complacent about art or about life. And if his unsettling images disturb us, that is why.
Reprinted from The Spokesman-Review Spokane Chronicle,
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