Holocaust art is not a very popular genre. Do you really want a graphic drawing of a scene from the gas chambers hanging in your living room? Do you want it to greet you in the social hall of your shul when you’re trying to enjoy a piece of sponge cake at Kiddush?
Artist and master printmaker Mauricio Lasansky (1914-2012) created a masterwork series, Envisioning Evil: The Nazi Drawings, of images reflecting his reactions to the worst mass nightmare of the 20th century. Those drawings are on display in the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s (Mia’s) Target Gallery through June 26. Steel yourself for some difficult subject matter, but also be prepared to learn.
According to the Mia’s press release, Lasansky was the son of Jewish Lithuanian immigrants in Argentina. He moved to the United States in 1943 (before the Nazi atrocities were widely known) where he forged a notable career as a printmaker and draftsman. His home for many years and the place where he gained an international reputation was the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he was a respected and admired professor. It was the freedom of academia that allowed Lasansky to focus on an art form and subject matter without concern for any remuneration it might (or might not) bring him.
Like any person with a shred of compassion, Lasansky was horrified, outraged and angered at the photographs and newsreels that appeared in the media as the concentration camps were liberated and their gruesome stories came to be known. However, it was not until the capture in Lasansky’s native Argentina of Adolf Eichmann — who was personally responsible for overseeing the Jewish genocide — and his trial in Jerusalem, which was broadcast live worldwide (and shown in part as a feature of the Mia exhibition), that Lasansky vented his grief and ire, transforming them into art.
Eventually, the entire collection was acquired by Iowa philanthropists Richard and Jeanne Levitt for their family foundation. The complete collection was displayed only once before, many years ago, so it is a feather in Mia’s cap to be the first venue for the show’s national tour.
Kudos to the Mia gallery designer for creating a physical setting that takes visitors through what feels like a dark maze, each turn revealing pain and brutality at a new and deeper level.
The first gallery has prints of people such as Sigmund Freud, who escaped Europe before the murders began; or others, such as a self-portrait of the artist, who were living a safe life on the other side of the world, blissfully ignorant of what was happening to their co-religionists in European lands under Nazi occupation.
Entering the next gallery, we are gradually awakened — as was Lasansky — to the realities of war and the camps. Apocalyptical Space, from 1944-45, reminds us that the devastation of war is not confined to World War II. The similarity of its symbolism and imagery to Picasso’s masterpiece of the Spanish Civil War, Guernica, is impossible to ignore. As graphic as these prints may be, they still cannot prepare us for what is to come; just as the innocents, torn from their mother’s arms, could not imagine what awaited them or their families.
We are blasted from Minneapolis in 2022 to the death camps in Europe in 1945. Lasansky repeats one image, one symbol of the Nazi mentality, over and over, each time in another situation, with other victims: Atop the head of the Nazi killer is a skull, eating away at the source of his thoughts, beliefs, self-awareness, even his humanity. Here, the Nazi madness is pictured, always in the black-white-gray tones of pencil and charcoal, with here and there a rusty spot of red, like dried blood. The sins of the Nazis read almost like the list of the Ten Plagues: forced prostitution, infanticide, torture — I need not go on.
Lasansky does not forget those whose silence not only allowed the Holocaust to happen, but also kept it from the world: leaders of the Catholic Church. Their faces and their symbols invade death scenes like someone “photobombing” a cell phone selfie today.
The final gallery contains what might be described as Lasansky’s masterpiece, his final comment on the continuation of the Holocaust in new forms. He points his accusing finger at his own adopted United States. Life-sized figures are drawn on a huge triptych of collages of newspaper clippings from 1963 to 1971. Nazi symbols mutate into themes of the social struggles of minority groups here during that tumultuous period. He seems to ask, “Could this Nazi episode be repeated in our times?” Recent events at the U.S. Capitol and at synagogues across the country might give an answer.
I do not recommend this exhibit for anyone under the age of 12. But if you are beyond Bar or Bat Mitzva age, you should not miss it.
Envisioning Evil: The Nazi Drawings, a series of artworks by Mauricio Lasansky, is on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia), 2400 Third Ave. S., through June 26, 2022. Admission to the museum is free, and face masks are strongly encouraged. For information, call 888-642-2787 or visit artsmia.org.
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