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Painting Trauma And Relief: Hopeful Holocaust Paintings

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Rays of Hope: An exhibit by Rebecca Schweiger

July 10-September 17, 2006

Holocaust Museum and Study Center, Spring Valley, N.Y.

(845) 356-2700



        For American artists, the attacks on the Twin Towers are a particularly difficult subject matter. One feels a responsibility to capture the events of 9/11 (they are too important to ignore), but there is a lot at stake in painting the burning towers. If the depiction fails, it runs the risk of trivializing the tragedy. Painting, like any other language, ought to be able to communicate any idea if it is used correctly. But trauma is often the toughest thing to capture, whether in words, paint or music.


         Art Spiegelman’s ambitious graphic novel, “In the Shadow of No Towers” (reviewed in these pages on November 17, 2004), presents the artist’s response to 9/11. Spiegelman sees trauma as inspiring – “disaster is my muse!”- but he worries that he draws too slowly to keep up with the news. “I’d feel like such a jerk if a new disaster strikes while I’m still chipping away at the last one,” he says. On one page, he draws “some guy on Canal Street” who is painting the towers; but when he looks up, “the… model had moved.”


        Spiegelman is not the only artist obsessed with 9/11. In just the last few months, Paul Greengrass’ “United 93″ (2006) and Oliver Stone’s “World Trade Center” (2006) have explored the attacks in movie form. But Rebecca Schweiger’s oil painting “September 11″ is a different sort of memorial. In “September 11,” Schweiger uses a palette of red, white and black, in a mixture of drips and textures that evoke spider webs. The painting appears to bleed and explode at once, and the only stable parts of the towers are the tops, which resemble a thick black letter em.


         But Schweiger’s piece is not as simple as blood and explosions. Schweiger, whose work is currently on display in Spring Valley, N.Y., also evokes hope and relief in her work. She has some regular aesthetic haunts to which she keeps returning again and again: desert, mercy, repentance, names, “essence,” souls, dark and light, and creation.


“Angels and Butterflies.”  Photocourtesy of Rebecca Schweiger


         According to the artist’s statement on Schweiger’s website, her work addresses a range of subject matters no less ambitious than “faith, passion, intensity, soul, desire, sadness, elation, energy, freedom, rage spirit, learning, growth, anxiety, celebration, illness, healing, survival, death, love, memory, longing, light and ultimately personal growth and hope.” It would seem that the artist’s work must be taken not as depicting one emotion, but an entire range of emotions – even, often contradictory emotions.


         Ani Mitgagat” (I am longing) is an oil and sand painting on canvas, which uses a palette of red, white and black forms, evocative of spiderwebs like “September 11.” The painting is dark (blood red and dark black) about the extremities, but light in the middle, almost like a flashlight cutting through the darkness. Longing implies both hope (that the object of the longing is attainable) and sadness, as the person longing has yet to attain the desired object. Although there is no text in Schweiger’s painting, the Ezekiel (16:6) quote, “in your blood shall you live” could be appended to it.


Hand of G-d.” Photocourtesy of Rebecca Schweiger


         Many of Schweiger’s works explore optimism in the manner of “Ani Mitgagat.” Painting titles range from “Rebirth” (a mixed media painting that resembles a large egg) to “Waves of Life and Everlasting Light” to “Infinity: Heaven and Water,” (a water scene in blues, yellows, pinks, greens and reds). But though Schweiger’s happy paintings are pretty in palette and would make good living room decorating material, they are ultimately far less interesting than her work that delves into pain and tragedy.


         Har Sinai” in many ways resembles the 9/11 painting. The mountain seems to explode (parts of Sinai look metallic, like a skyscraper), evoking the Midrash that G-d held the mountain over the Jewish people, threatening them that the desert would be their tomb if they did not accept the Torah. Though beautiful, Sinai was a threatening space; anyone or any animal who tried to climb it would be stoned or “shot”. Schweiger captures that fear and danger embedded within the beauty, and her palette is more expansive than in “Mitgagat” or “September 11,” using not only black, red and white, but also pink and yellow.


         “Sbarros 2001″ is a similar venture into the domain of terrible beauty. In August 2001, a suicide bomber murdered tens of people at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem. Schweiger’s memorial to those victims incorporates red, black and white swirls, with white forms dripping off the canvas. The canvas almost looks like a slice of pizza, but the dripping whites and the burnt black forms suggest something is deeply amiss. In the top right corner, Hebrew words (that appear to be names) intermingle with the dripping forms.


“Separation.”  Photo – courtesy of Rebecca Schweiger



         A key to unraveling the paintings’ mysterious ability to memorialize tragedy in beautiful ways is Schweiger’s almost kabbalistic conception of shedding layers. “Shedding Layers” features two terrains. On the top is a mountainous region (which looks like a blue cheerleader’s pompon). Underneath the blue, raw canvas emerges – which Schweiger has stained yellow and scrawled upon in blue letters. The upper region literally looks like it is being unzipped or peeled back to reveal its innards.


         This mapping of layers becomes a palliative technique in “Shedding Layers Healing Wings.” In this painting, a large red, yellow, pink and blue bird seems to dissolve in the wind, as it stands atop a violent-looking jumble of chaotic colors, shaped like barbed wire: deep blues and reds, ochres, whites and blacks.


         In the third painting of the series, the bird has disappeared altogether, leaving simple forms in its place. “Shedding Layers: To Live Again” is a very colorful painting (light green is introduced to the black, blue, red, white mass), which suggests rebirth after the outermost layers are removed. Like the mythical phoenix, which was said to burn to ashes, and then reemerge from the destruction, Schweiger’s bird disintegrates into color and form, only to reemerge alive.


“To Be Free.”  Photo – courtesy of Rebecca Schweiger


         The phoenix model might be the best way to respond to capturing tragedy in art. It is a tremendous irony of life that even after both the September 11 attacks and the Sbarro bombing, the sun rises the next morning and the birds sing. To capture the enormity of the tragedy, and yet to reveal the hope and rebirth embedded within, Schweiger uses an almost schizophrenic palette (black, blood-red, deep blue on the one hand, and pink, yellow and grass-green on the other) to show the beauty that lies beneath, if we can only shed our outermost layers.


         For more information about Rebecca Schweiger and her art, please see www.rebeccarts.com.


        Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com


About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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