SEARING SUN
by Arlene Raven  
          Missing rubs the spirit raw. We who are left behind are cruelly stuck with our own endless imaginary good-byes. “Survivors,” Primo Levi cautions from the first painting in Diana Kurz’s thirteen-year series, “are not the true witnesses. Those who saw the Gorgon have not returned to tell about it.” (from The Drowned and the Saved, quoted in Kurz’s painting of her uncle Michael Kurz and cousin Dorrit, who both perished in the Holocaust.) 

          The common response to atrocity is to eject the offending picture from consciousness. Too terrible to utter aloud, it remains unspeakable. Yet atrocities cannot be put to rest. 

          The burden of witness is now ours. The pain and the doubt. We know the fate of these women, children, and men whom Diana Kurz has put before us. Yet they did not. Instead, injury and dislocation vie with memory and redemption.  

          The events of September 11, 2001 give special emphasis to Kurz’s subjects, and contemporize the long-standing debate about the appropriateness of images and words to express such a profound loss. As Janny Scott wrote in the August 11, 2002 issue of The New York Times, “No words could soothe the souls of the living or the dead. No words could express what the city had experienced; no words could convey the collective sorrow. On such a day, in such a time, words would not do. Now the first anniversary approaches, and again there will be no words.” (p.29). 

          Fence, #3  (1993) separates. The lattice divides the two young boys from their mother. At the same time their scale and color tell a different story, of valor and triumph. These are thus not citizens of The Four-Gated City who were, as Doris Lessing observed, “hypnotized or poisoned, for these people walked in their fouled and disgusting streets full of ordure and bits of refuse and paper as if they were not conscious of their existence here, were somewhere else; and they were somewhere else.” Kurz’s figures are indeed somewhere else as well—straddling territories of despair and hope. 

          Cart bows the three Jews—two adults and a child—intent on packing, diminishing their gaze. I view them from a perch above, further lowering them from their own humanity. Each not only fully grown, but an untermensch—“officially” subhuman.   

          Kurz’s work is, in counterpoint, full of humanity. Her color is generous and rich. Her strokes always follow form, caressing the bodies of the soon to fall. The child concentrates on the stones that have been the ground of existence and will fall away. There is, above all, grace in the triad as if they may share a last communion before the inevitable conflagration. Talmudic verse offers that he who saves the life of one man saves the entire world. In Kurz’s work, likewise, individuals mean to stand for all. 

          Three youths take center stage in Children, Kurz’s most recent painting, and they invoke the greatest poignancy, embodying the unblemished innocence with which Kurz wants to imbue all of her figures. 

          On the sides of the central panel are what the artist calls “wings” in the art-historical terminology of the altar. These forcefully put forth their contents, extending literally off the wall and into the room. Color prints of photos that the artist took in Auschwitz and Majdonek, they are superimposed onto documentary black-and-white pictures of burned out synagogues—bringing “life” with naturalistic hues. The bottom panel is wood. Hebrew letters are part of the Twenty-third Psalm—“valley of the shadow of death”. Kurz includes her own image as a Jewish child on a boat to America. 

          Kurz’s universe encompasses past and present as one—a true “historic present”. It is the point in time that my eyes rest on any of her canvases of the past thirteen years. Viewers of art have traditionally been voyeurs with impunity. There is no such option for this looker. The artist insists on the intimate and individual responsibility of each pair of eyes and each heart. 

          Family itself has a specific historical and personal resonance for Kurz. The Jewish theologian Martin Buber declared that “All real living is meeting”. In this work, the artist has in fact gathered her family at the same time that she expresses her loss of lineage. 

          Born in Vienna, Kurz escaped her own death at age two by fleeing with her family in 1938. In Zora and Michael Kurz (1999), a photocopy of a handwritten letter (written by a friend to Kurz’s mother during the 1930’s) warns Kurz’s family to flee.  She has been in the United States, New York, since 1940. 

          But her epiphany came only in 1989 when visiting an elderly aunt in California. This aunt showed the artist (then a figurative painter working directly from live models) her few remaining family photographs. Among the photos was a small picture of Kurz’s uncle with his daughter, Dorrit. As a result of this visual experience, Kurz’s work was to radically change direction. 

          Kurz’s paintings speak to the silence holocaust inspires, and also to the silence the artist works against. She sums up the source for the past thirteen years of work thus: “the original impetus for each one of these paintings has been from a photograph or an image I’ve seen—something visual, not from a conceptual idea.” A body of the senses, the world springs from Kurz’s canvas—chasing down death.
© 2002 Arlene Raven, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED