|LEANING ON HER ELBOWS, the artist aims a steady gaze at the viewer. Behind her stand four young women from another time and place wearing yellow stars. Don't let the composure confuse you: this is no group portrait. Based on a recent photo from a newspaper interview, Self Portrait incorporates one of her previous paintings as a backdrop. But Diana Kurz has not simply painted herself and her painting as frozen by a news photo. She has also updated her likeness with obversations from life. The four doomed Austrian women behind her, like the images that inhabit most of this series of paintings, are based on photographs taken long ago by Nazi soldiers. Kurz's Holocaust series started with a desire to commemorate her own relatives who had disappeared. It began with a few family snapshots that were all that remained of the uncles, aunts, and cousins she lost to the Holocaust. "It was going to be my private memorial to these people because there was no trace of them anywhere."
There is a deceptive awkwardness to these paintings, but how could there not be? Any attempt to depict a subject beyond comprehension is bound to be awkward. But Kurz's paintings, which evoke childhood, aren't nearly as story-book simple as they may at first seem. These works have a reservoir of formal ambiguity as well as an emotional resonance of tenderness, sadness, loss, incomprehension, and outrage. They combine images based on old photographs with handwritten texts and photocopied photographs. Look closely and you may find allusions to an old Robert Capa photo from the Spanish Civil War, a typed chronology of the Warsaw ghetto, or Primo Levi's words.
One multi-panel work, with details so near the floor you have to crouch in discomfort to decipher them, includes a small picture of the children's chorus from the Warsaw ghetto, and another of women and young children waiting to be gassed, on a predella below the central image. On the predella below another piece, also like a Christian altarpiece with multiple panels, the image of a concentration camp fence is repeated four and a half times, as if in a struggle to comprehend. One canvas, with scumbled illegible writing, has to do with Bosnia and genocide and how nothing has chnged. "All the words seemed wrong," explains the artist, who tried to wash out the words with turpentine.
The multi-panel painting with the simplest central image is paradoxically the most complex. It's a pale portrait of the artist's uncle holding his child in his arms, not unlike a Renaissance Madonna. Below, the predella contains other images: old family photos, children's art from Theresienstadt. Two nearly abstract protruding side panels are consumed by a painted avalanche of flames and rubble. On the reverse of these two panels, the artist has written out a memorial prayer for the dead. Above, in the corners, two small panels depict memorial candles. But the crucial and cohesive element that unites the central image with the surrounding panels is a pale, photocopied, and barely perceptible border filled with penmanship: a copy of a handwritten letter sent to the artist's mother in Vienna by a friend in Germany in the 1930's. The letter warned of what was happening and urged her to be prepared to flee. It was due to this letter that the artist and her parents survived.
No wonder these paintings are infused with the aura of a vanished world, a lost childhood, and an incomprehensible history. No wonder this series is pervaded by the words of Primo Levi, which Kurz has incorporated into the background of one canvas: "We the survivors are not the true witnesses. Those who saw the Gorgon have not returned to tell about it." As Diana Kurz has remarked, terrible things happened under blue skies on sunny days. The most remarkable thing about these works may be their aura of normalcy and ordinariness.
© 2000 Kim Levin, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED