The Ashen Rainbow:
Essays on the Arts and the Holocaust
By Ori Z. Soltes
$23.95, Eshel Books, 2007
Holocaust art has dominated the news lately for all the wrong reasons. From record-breaking sales of returned Klimt paintings to controversies surrounding lawyers’ fees for retrieving looted works to a notorious auction of Hitler’s paintings, many are seeing the side of Holocaust art that has more to do with politics and legal disputes. Holocaust art, if there is such a field of work, should not be about overpaid lawyers and selling tyrant’s paintings. It should not be about work that happened to have been composed or looted during the Holocaust. Instead it should be about the art itself, as it grapples in an unprecedented manner with traumatic experiences so incomprehensible that some people question if artists could ever produce artistic compositions again.
For this reason, Ori Soltes’ new book, The Ashen Rainbow: Essays on the Arts and the Holocaust, is particularly timely. Soltes does devote a good deal of space in his book to Holocaust restitution (his feeling is that property is property, and it must be returned at all costs) and to Hitler’s art plundering, but the real reason to read Soltes’ book is for the insightful “readings” of paintings.
Painting on Book Jacket: Diane Kurz, “Self-Portrait” (1999).
For those reading this column, the book’s title alone should be enough to send you scrambling for your copy. Professor Soltes, lecturer at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific scholars of Jewish art (though his work is not exclusively about Jewish art), with a slew of publications to his name, including “Fixing the World: Jewish American Painters in the Twentieth Century” (Brandeis UP, 2002).
Like an attempt to tackle Jewish American painting of the last century in one book, the Holocaust art venture is quite ambitious. Any book of this sort, for better or worse, has to confront Theodor Adorno’s famous statement questioning the rationality of art after Auschwitz. But Soltes is not about to shy away from his thesis. “Well, of course I disagree with Adorno,” he told The Jewish Press. “My whole book is about the need to respond to an event that is as inaccessible as the Creation of the Universe, rather than the impropriety of responding, for fear that any response is overly banal (or even, as he says, ‘barbarous’) by definition.”
Ori Z. Soltes, author of The Ashen Rainbow: Essays on the Arts and the Holocaust.
Soltes admits there has been and likely will be banal art that reduces the Holocaust “that cannot get over the hurdle,” but he stresses that there has been “variously great − in the sense of thought-provoking − art that succeeds precisely because it recognizes the essential inaccessible ineffability of such an event.” Not only is Soltes unconcerned that no work of art can fully capture the Holocaust (or any other event or idea, for that matter), but he views that capacity for human error as one of art’s very strengths. “No work of art can fully encompass it, just as no work of art ever fully encompasses whatever its subject [may be],” Soltes says. “Hence the viability of continuing to produce art; never is the subject so definitively covered that the rest of us should simply give up and go home.
“If the Holocaust is the ultimate symbol of human barbarity,” he continues, “then to consider art after it as barbarous is rhetorically ear-catching but stupid − unless one is so cynical that one believes we can never recover as a species from the Holocaust: we can and have and will ‘recover’ − if for no other reason than that we have committed barbarities for as long as we have been an identifiable species and have also continued to do so since the Holocaust. So while it is a unique event, it is not unique.”
At the center of Soltes’ research is the diversity of Holocaust art. Many invoke the catch phrase “Holocaust memory” to discuss art about the Holocaust, but to Soltes, the phrase hopelessly misses the “endlessly varied nature of the ‘experience.’ ” The players on the Holocaust art stage include survivor-artists, their children who grew up knowing about the Holocaust, their children who grew up not knowing about the Holocaust, Jewish artists who did not experience the Holocaust and non-Jews like German artist Anselm Kiefer (born 1945). “So memory applies in some cases and not others,” Soltes says, “which is why any of these phrases falls short.”
In his book, Soltes collects work from many artists, far too many to include each one in these pages. But a few stand out from the pack, especially Peter Zvi Malkin, creator of Argentine Journal. Malkin was born in British-controlled Palestine in 1929, and he was taken as a young baby to Poland, only to return to Palestine after his family’s synagogue was burnt. At age 12 he joined Hagganah, and waited for his older, married sister to earn her exit permits to move to Palestine. She never received her papers, and instead was sent to Auschwitz.
Malkin could count 150 relatives who perished in the Holocaust, which might very well have accounted for his joining the Mossad at 21 and becoming involved in tracking down and capturing Eichmann in Argentina. Malkin saw a likeness in Eichmann’s six-year-old, blond, blue-eyed son to his nephew who perished in the Holocaust, “my favorite playmate, he was just your son’s age. Also blond and blue-eyed, just like your son. And you killed him.”
Soltes recounts how Malkin and his colleagues tracked Eichmann, captured him, and used makeup and drugs to pass him off as an El Al crewman to bring him to Israel. “If the rest is history, the rest is also art history,” Soltes writes. “During the time he spent in Argentina, and consistent with his own cover as an artist, Malkin overran every paper surface available with line and color.” Some of the works, like “Hitler” (1960) that Soltes includes in the book, include makeup as materials along with paint and pastels, surely the very makeup to be used to disguise Eichmann.
Malkin’s “Hitler” has a childish aspect to it, reminiscent perhaps of Georges Rouault’s works portraits with their heavy, bold outlines. Soltes quotes Malkin, “For some reason, I tried my hand again at painting the ‘Fuehrer’ … Every time I painted him, it seemed to me that he was a ‘human,’ a simple person. I tried again and again, and he looked a bit different but always ‘normal,’ with no possibility of expressing evil in his eyes … The truth is that in Eichmann, too, it was impossible to find the evil … Perhaps evil is just impossible to paint?”
Indeed I have heard many people charge that art is risky, because it will surely depict the human side of the Nazis. Should we entertain Hitler’s paintings as art, given what we know about the artist? “I don’t think that we need to fear this,” Soltes says. “Fortunately, most of Hitler’s aesthetic conceptions were second-rate, but even if they were not, I think that we can and should be comfortable separating him and the horrible creature that he was from his art and his aesthetics views. I love Wagner’s music and T.S. Eliot’s poetry. That does not prevent me from recognizing and despising their small-minded anti-Semitism.”
But perhaps the most important lesson of Holocaust art is precisely that manner in which it exposes different layers. “Hitler never stands alone; he is at the apex of human ugliness,” Soltes says. “But there is a whole pyramid of human ugliness supporting him − just as Leonardo is at the apex of human creative beauty, with a pyramid supporting him. One might even construe seeing various ‘sides’ of Hitler as important for us because it reminds us how we all have the capacity to be Hitler, in smaller or larger ways. Look again at Primo Levi’s writing. Who among us is absolutely innocent and who absolutely guilty in a world of grey and not of black and white?”
This revelation ought to feel uneasy to us. How dare we say that there is a capacity for Hitler in each of us? And yet, Soltes is correct. It takes artists creating work from concentration camps, or reflecting upon the Holocaust from memory or research, to demonstrate that fact. Just as the paintbrush has trouble showing the evil of even such a universally recognized monster, so too do people often have trouble identifying evil, because of its many layers and components. Perhaps Hitler will forever look cartoonish in paintings, and perhaps he will look altogether human where he ought to look despicable. But that is what is most frightening about him. He was a man and he did use his humanity to destroy rather than to create.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com. His painting, “The Windows of Heaven,” will be on exhibit at the JCC of Greater Baltimore as part of an exhibit through June 10.