Most art dealing with the Holocaust is moving but limited, as is the case at a new show.
By LENNIE BENNETT
Published December 21, 2003
Fritz Hirschberger, The Saint Louis Blues, oil and collage on canvas.
ST. PETERSBURG - It's an enduring problem: how to translate a horrific historical event into art that both honors the tragedy and transcends it. Through the centuries there are many examples that record human cataclysms, focusing more on their immediacy without lingering on their significance. Until about 200 years ago, the prevailing view was that wars, for example, catastrophic though they were, had a patina of glory. The loss of individual life was irrelevant, nameless and faceless sacrifices made for the greater good. The artist's job was to render the participants heroically; the work itself was judged more on its level of execution than its interpretive content.
Goya was probably the first painter to turn things around, exposing the grim underbelly of human striving in his etchings and later paintings, forcing us to look at death one face at a time. The Third of May 1808 is one of the most perfect examples of an artist portraying the singularity of a terrifying moment as it becomes a terrible universal truth. In it, faceless French soldiers are poised to execute a Spanish guerrilla; his inglorious death and the profound loss that resonates from it pervade the canvas and acknowledge the particular costs any war exacts, whether it's in 19th century Europe, ancient Troy or 20th century Southeast Asia.
Picasso achieved the same ends with Guernica in a more abstract way. It memorializes the German bombing - with the complicity of the Spanish Nationalists - of the Basque town in the 1930s during the Spanish Civil War. At the time, the action was excoriated by the world as one of fascist barbarity; today we see it more as a universal embodiment of conflict and suffering.
But only rarely has modern art successfully addressed such events. The most obvious reason is the supremacy of photography and videography in quickly bringing us graphic, visceral images that make other media seem tepid.
We see this failure most immediately in artists' attempts to deal with the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The results have either been coldly minimalist or bathetically representational, unable to convey the collective shock, disbelief, rage and sorrow. That may be in part because 9/11 isn't yet over. Only over time will we begin to process the true nature and ramifications of its ghastliness.
But time has not yielded an adequate artistic response to the Holocaust. That most art dealing with Hitler's atrocities is heartfelt and powerful is inarguable. That it succeeds beyond the illustrative or polemical is questionable.
Such is the case with two exhibitions at the Florida Holocaust Museum. Paintings by Fritz Hirschberger and sculpture by Joe Nicastri give us both aesthetic takes, the figurative and the conceptual.
Hirschberger is a fine painter and his work is freighted with impressive references: a postimpressionistic mastery of color that recalls Paul Gauguin, the gestural angst of expressionists such as Edvard Munch and Wassily Kandinski and the mysticism of Marc Chagall. He is a narrative artist and his story is of the systematic genocide of European Jews by the German government with the complicity and sometimes the cooperation of other governments, including that of the United States, and the Catholic Church.
A German Jew whose parents died in the Holocaust, Hirschberger was deported to Poland, served in the Polish army, was captured by the Russians and given a 20-year sentence in a gulag near the Arctic Circle and probably only survived because the government needed soldiers when Germany invaded. He rejoined the Polish army, seeing action in the Middle East and Italy. After the war, he and his wife immigrated to the United States. His works have the look of pre-World War II European painting and a moral certainty few American artists could pull off.
Color washes that range from sober blues and violets to a startling fresh-blood red combine with figures he simplifies to the point of distortion, sometimes grotesqueness. In The Children's Home at Jozefinska Street, a barrel-chested Nazi soldier in parade dress is propped on a horse impaling a young girl with a spear. It's a role-reversed re-creation of St. George slaying the dragon and a reference to an eyewitness account of Krakow ghetto orphans taken into the street by soldiers and murdered. It's an interestingly composed work, all flat, shadowless planes with no sense of perspective. The orphanage is shrunk to the size of a birdhouse, propped on a platform. The soldier has the dimensions of a dwarf, with shortened legs and arms and elongated torso, but is far too big for his horse. He looks at us, not his victim, who is perfectly proportioned but small in scale. The murder is bloodless but the red of the horse and the tinge of it in the wash on the paving where the girl lies convey a sense of mass violence.
A young boy dominates the canvas in The Last Lesson, even though a sturdy Nazi soldier towers over him menacingly, about to send him to a gas chamber. The boy's face, in profile, is like a death mask already, his body emaciated. Behind them is a chalkboard with a conjugation of the Latin verb "to love." It's a haunting image and profoundly sad, but does it transport us to another level of understanding or insight? And do we really need the commentary of that chalkboard message, so obvious, so literal?
The Saint Louis Blues takes its subject matter from the 1939 incident in which almost 1,000 destitute Jews aboard the German liner St. Louis were turned away first from Cuba then the United States and returned to probable extermination in Europe. Two men and a young girl stare vacantly ahead, squeezed into a small boat wheeling across the blue field of a stylized American flag. A benign man stands nearby on the flag's stripes as if on a dock, his pale hands at his sides. The dock, the sky and the man himself are bathed in red, and though his hands are pale, we infer that they are covered in the blood of the trio he's allowing to sail by him. A bar from the jazzy song floats above them; Stars of David, rather than the U.S. flag's five-point ones, float on the blue surface, as cast off as the boat people. Compositionally, it's quite good, the tall man's neck and shoulders jutting unnaturally from his body, mimicking the bold, angular lines of the background. It's stark, harsh and unforgiving.
There is much in these works that is memorable and convincing. But art that relies on wall text to explain its iconography and significance feels more like insider trading than a public offering. Take away the specific Holocaust stories that inspired them and their power is muted. Compare them to Chagall's The Falling Angel, for example. It's not a transcendent masterpiece, but there is a terrible beauty in its vision of the apocalyptic nightmare of war that requires no footnotes.
Joe Nicastri's more conceptual work is in some ways more accessible even as it, like Hirschberger's paintings, is overburdened with portent. Nicastri is not Jewish and is at least a generation away from the Holocaust, but was moved to create a body of work exploring it, which he has given to the Holocaust Museum's permanent collection. He uses books most frequently, cutting them up, stacking them onto chains suspended by meat hooks, hollowing them out and filling them with eggs or studding them with nails as symbols of a mentality that 19th-century poet Heinrich Heine described as one that "begins by burning books and ends by burning people."
One of the best-realized pieces is Kristallnacht, a partial rotunda built of wood, inserted with books whose centers have been replaced with shards of glass, a memorial to the historic night of Nazi vandalism.
Emblem and metaphor are the two central requirements for art such as this, and Hirschberger and Nicastri offer up plenty of both. But this kind of art needs an element of renunciation. Sincere and proficient as it is, none of it approaches the eloquence of the boxcar, displayed in the museum's first floor gallery, that transported Jews to concentration camps. It is an artifact of history, like an ancient Greek vase. Like most artifacts, it was once an object of utility, prized now because it has survived. Implicit in its emptiness is the truth that most of those it carried did not. We don't have to know its specific journeys or the names of its passengers for it to make a connection between them and us. Like the Vietnam Memorial, it doesn't take sides; it simply says, "this happened."
Do we need more than that to honor an immense suffering that might never be explainable? I don't know. But until we find something as simultaneously humble and noble as a beatup boxcar, it's enough for me.
"Indifference: The Sur-Rational Paintings of Fritz Hirschberger" is at the Florida Holocaust Museum, 55 Fifth St. S, St. Petersburg, through Feb. 15. "Surplus of Memory," sculpture and mixed media work by Joe Nicastri, is on view through Jan. 1. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and noon to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Adults $8, seniors and students $7, and those 18 and younger $3. (727) 820-0100.