|Consider the simple definition of an atrocity as a crime made greater by its numbers. The larger the number, the greater the injustice and the deeper the outrage we should feel. But the unavoidable abstraction of extremely large numbers defies emotional correlation. We have difficulty coming to terms with our feelings regarding the murder of six million men, women and children. The scale of the crime opens a gulf between our understanding of the facts and our capacity for empathy. An emotional comprehension of the crime becomes elusive, leaving us susceptible to all varieties of existential resignation, from an objective registering of the numbers themselves to more cynical forms of acceptance, the extreme of which may be the icy banality suggested by the phrase, The death of one man is a tragedy, the death of millions is a statistic, an expression of indefinite origin, inaccurately but not irrelevantly attributed to Josef Stalin.
Dishearteningly, attempts at realigning what we now call the Holocaust into a broader historical context only adds to the difficulty. The events that bracket the establishment and dismantling of the Nazi death camps add unspeakable tallies to what is already too large an offense to fully comprehend. The ethnic cleansing that took place in the Balkans after 1915; Stalins collectivist experiments and political purges of the 1930s; and ironically the peace of the late 1940s that left displaced ethnic populations vulnerable to brutal treatment from every quarter, together register a full half-century of unprecedented suffering and death over and above the destruction armies visited on each other. Replacing people with numbers, as the Nazis themselves understood, dehumanizes the essence of the crime. Overcoming the gravity of such numbers requires a measure of human scale.
Photographic evidence made for a variety of intentions during this period has left us an invaluable eyewitness record that certainly brings human scale to the narrative. However, continued exposure to these gruesome images leads to a different kind of mental fatigue. Photographs of piled, emaciated corpses in open railway cars have developed through continued replication, the unintended effect of settling in our minds as iconic markers stripped of their emotional clout by repetition, albeit wellintentioned, in books and documentary films. Perhaps we may consider the loss of their shock value a reflection of human optimism; an indication of our ability to maintain sanity in the face of collective madness. But in our wish to commemorate, which is no less an expression of sanity than the will to insulate ourselves from horror, too much exposure has the opposite effect.
After the liberation of the camps after the grim records were cataloged and preserved by archivists for the benefit of our collective memory the work of focusing on individual stories began reconnecting the remnants of more intimate bonds. With entire communities annihilated, a turning to threads of surviving family connections, often no more than photographs with names written on the back, offer some hope in our wish to get beyond the numbers. Pictures, particularly pictures that bring us to an emotional understanding of the life that flourished prior to the onset of displacement, detention and murder have the capacity to re-establish an appropriately humane baseline for absorbing the reality of genocide. But these pictures are too often mere shards of a larger mirror that once reflected an entire society of families.
A small fading snapshot showing a father holding his young daughter in his arms on a sunny afternoon; two brothers in their best suits; pictures like those we all keep in our homes may yet give us a needed glimpse of the life behind the numbers. Such photographs were never intended to document a crime, let alone mass murder. They were simply snapshots taken by family members to record and celebrate life as it unfolded. They are often photographs of relatives not intimately known by those who hold them as keepsakes. Even in normal circumstances, immigrants keep photographs of relatives they have never met. The events of the Holocaust gave such photos a new and terrible meaning to the survivors, and it is a few photos like these that serve to introduce the narrative of this exhibition.
Diana Kurz left Vienna as a child with her family in 1938, five years after Hitler came to power, and arrived in New York in 1940 by an improvised route through Italy, England and Ireland. Too young to comprehend the reason for the journey but old enough to form a memory of her father holding her up to see the Statue of Liberty, Diana settled into a relative normalcy, first in Brighton Beach, then in a Queens neighborhood that became home for many families who had managed the same journey. Her experiences were as normal as any other kids in New York with the one exception that at ten years old, two cousins of similar age who had survived the concentration camps came to live with them. Sharing a bedroom with her cousins and hearing their stories left her with an impression of the Holocaust deeper than a parental narrative alone could have provided.
Her cousins grew to adulthood, retiring their memories behind a preferred and understandable silence. Diana too left those nightmarish images to settle in her memory and went on to college, receiving a BA from Brandeis and an MFA from Columbia, and establishing a successful painting and teaching career. It was not until a trip to California in 1989 to visit an aging aunt that Diana had her first contact with a few surviving photos of relatives who had disappeared during the war years. Captivated by the tiny images of her uncle Michael and her cousin Dorrit she was able to bind together the stories of her cousins in Queens, her life as a painter, and the memories of her elders into a single purpose. Beginning a series of paintings based on these photographs, devoted to the memory of lost family members, she embarked on a project that inevitably expanded to the experience of the Holocaust in general and occupied her as a painter for years to come.
Painters, particularly representational painters, often take photographs as aids in completing a canvas. Because Diana had no experience in this, having worked consistently from nature throughout her career, the idea of using a photograph for a painting was alien. Using a found photograph, in essence an artifact, further complicated the challenge. The issue of translating a photographic image to canvas, particularly one not originally meant to do so, requires an understanding of the distinct qualities of each medium.
The basic difference between a photograph and a painting is temporal. Photographs offer viewers a dense mass of minutiae, fortified by an intuitive belief in the verity of its source. The factual aspect of a photograph, even one of artless composition, affects its reading as an objective, momentary observation. As the imprint of a moment in time, a photograph encourages the viewer to read it uncritically. It is idle to argue with a machine. A painting, on the other hand, is the product of layered construction, controlled to varying degrees by the artist over a considerable amount of time. Unlike a photograph, a painting reveals the hand of the painter, traces of which may suggest adjustment, correction and editing of various kinds that by their confessional nature compel the viewer to absorb information through the gestural path of an artists sensibility and at a similarly slow pace. Even elements as basic to painting as size, color and texture will inevitably reveal the difference between paintings visual language and that of photographs.
Dianas primary concern in translating these photographs into paintings was how she was to overcome the cameras momentary restriction, which gives an unnatural stiffness or flatness to figures. It was a particularly troublesome aspect for someone accustomed to working from three-dimensional motifs. Such graphic flatness is anathema to a trained figurative painter. However, content being the soul of this project, Diana decided to keep each figures slightly awkward rigidity. As paintings inspired by photographic imagery and meant to be understood as such, camouflaging their source could weaken their effect. She did however take greater liberties in increasing the size of the images, allowing these small relics greater visibility and significance. There was also the issue of color, as the photographs were almost always black and white. In a brilliantly counterintuitive move, she keyed her palette upward to give the paintings a sunny quality. As the artist explained in a statement prepared for a 1998 exhibition of the project in her birthplace of Vienna,
Because of the black and white photos we tend to associate with the Holocaust,
people do not often realize that many of the horrors took place on beautiful days, under clear skies. When reading peoples recollections, I was often struck by the irony of the fact that terrible, unspeakable things occurred while the sky was blue, the weather beautiful, birds singing, etc. (Kurz, Artists Statement, np) Each painting represents a complete transformation from a patch of wrinkled, fading paper held in the hand of a family member, to canvases capable of public statements, mediated through the artists own reaction to, and feelings for the original photographic image.
Following these seminal works based on family members came others from a variety of photographic sources, each tied in one way or another to the theme of lives interrupted by war. Her self-imposed rubric that each painting was to be based on a photo to which she responded emotionally was faithfully maintained. One particular photo, a gift from artist Jean Hèlion, Dianas mentor during her study in Paris, led to Three, the large canvas located in the center of the gallerys North wall. Its photographic source depicted a First World War veteran, missing a leg, wearing his military medals on his jacket and flanked by his children who at the time the photo was taken were required as Jews to wear a yellow star on their clothing. Since the time Diana received the photograph, researchers were able to identify the man as Victor Fajnzylber. From this phlegmatic shot of newspaper illustration Diana transformed the imagery onto a larger-than-life canvas, emphasizing the arresting frontality of the figures. The piercing glare of the still young soldier pins us to the spot where we stand. His eyes reveal knowledge noticeably missing in his childrens faces. The children seem unaware of any meaning their yellow stars carry. For us the meaning is all too clear. As a decorated war veteran, their father was not obligated to wear the same yellow star, a minor concession of Nazi authorities and an echo perhaps of the Dreyfus affair of forty years earlier, but an unmistakable example of the sinister incrementality that often accompanies institutional racism.
By reducing the background to ambiguous washes of color and only hints of architectural features, the physical, architectural assertion of the oversized canvas itself creates a charged space extending outward onto the floor of the gallery. This dramatic increase in size, coupled with the proximity of the figures to the picture plane, implies a fence-like barrier towering over our heads. Hence, the scale and symmetry of Three establishes in effect a memorial space before the canvas and creates a visual confrontation worthy of the images poignancy.
To further extend this confrontational theme, other pictures expand in multiple panels like medieval altar pieces, with wings on each side and predella below, allowing for additional texts and other devices to compel the viewer into further consideration of each image. As Evelyn Torton Beck wrote in an essay on Dianas paintings for Feminist Studies: It is not possible to remain passive and really see the paintings, let alone understandthem. The viewer must become involved and take some responsibility, as the many bystanders in history did not. (Beck, Diana Kurzs Holocaust Paintings, 95)
Increases in scale and extra-visual components are all designed to engage the viewer in the deeper contemplation of a disturbing subject viewers would understandably tend to evade.
The project expanded further as Diana turned to the broader implications of genocide, like displacement, the plight of refugees and the trials of women and children trapped in war zones. Canvases like Cart may have been initiated from contact with a photo of mid-century Europeans, but the universal theme comes through as the artist makes the most of the pictures elemental simplicity. Wagons and carts pulled by refugees, often women, are a common site in troubled landscapes. Turning away from our gaze in a manner similar to that of the figures in Gustav Courbets Stonebreakers (which was actually destroyed in the 1945 fire bombing of Dresden), the huddled figures of Cart struggle to maintain a sense of dignity, reduced as they are to the simple demands of survival and exposed to every conceivable menace.
As Courbet demonstrated for those of an earlier century, art can transform the viewers role from passive observer to witness. To stand before each canvas in this exhibition is to stand as close as we can to the victims, mingling metaphorically with casual observers, neighbors, photographers, journalists, soldiers, guards, executioners the entire dramatis personae of those miserable decades. But more importantly, and most significantly to this exhibition, we stand too in the company of Diana Kurz as she confronts the memory of those in the paintings, not to seek closure (which would imply acceptance) but to pay homage to the human empathy that sustains what really matters in civilization.
Beck, Evelyn Torton. Diana Kurzs Holocaust Paintings: A Chance Encounter That Was No Accident. Feminist Studies (Spring 2009) Volume 35, Number 1.
Kurz, Diana. Artists Statement. Exhibition Brochure, Diana Kurz. Bezirksmuseum Josefstadt, Vienna (1998).np.