Thursday, February 6, 2014

The Exchange

On rare occasions paintings emerge full blown. More often they are like awkward adolescents who have to incur a difficult struggle to find themselves. I have been working on a painting that seems like it has been such an adolescent for far too long. I was beginning to despair as to whether it would ever emerge, but am now seeing a glimmer of hope. It is the third that I have done in my Dvora Series and the fourth in the chronology.

The series is based on the stories of my very dear friend and often muse. She comes from the same town in Poland as my grandfather, but unlike him was still there when the Nazis invaded in 1939. At age 15 she was thrust into a world that turned her life upside down, first a ghetto and forced labor camp, later Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. One day she suggested that I paint her stories which I have gotten to know quite well through our frequent conversations and my travel with her back to Poland.

I am envisioning a series of five paintings that carry her through her experiences during the Holocaust. I will couple the images with a video interview in which she tells the stories and am interested in exploring how to use this material as an educational tool. The images have been selected in part because of her suggestions as to those that lend themselves to a visual medium, but they also include the stories that seem to carry the most emotion. It is no coincidence that three of them involve her mother who played a central role in her survival. Chronologically they carry her from the forced labor camp, to her entrance to Auschwitz, to the death march towards Bergen Belsen and conclude in Bergen Belsen and finally with liberation.

The first was in the forced labor camp. She was ill one day and didn't go in to work. Nazis raided the apartments like truant officers looking for anyone who was not at work. The penalties for truancy were quite severe. They lined up those they found and shot every tenth one. My friend successfully hid beneath the stairs as the boots of the Gestapo thundered over her head. I captured her story in a painting called Beneath the Stairs.

The second painting is one that I've just begun. As she and her mother stood naked before Dr Mengele at Auschwitz, he pointed their fate with his crop. Those who would live another day were sent to one side, the others to the gas chamber. The older women were usually sent to their deaths and their daughters cried out to join them. As they approached the immaculately dressed Mengele, her mother thrust her ahead of her. They both passed his scrutiny, unusual for her mother who was over 40, an age considered old at that time and place. "Why did you do that?" she asked. "I didn't want you to try to follow me" her mother replied.

A few days before Auschwitz was liberated, my friend and her mother embarked on a death march to Bergen Belsen. I've painted this story in We Walk Together. She described the march, the three items they were given and her ultimate despair. As she weighed sitting down and receiving a bullet, her mother countered with a proposal that she sit down with her. "Not you!" Dvora replied and with that found the resources to forge forward.

And now we come to the painting with which I struggle, The Exchange. Here's the story. The setting is Bergen Belsen where piles of corpses mount, building from starvation and typhus. Dvora became ill. She recovered, but was still quite weak. One day she fell and was unable to rise. Her mother returned from work and found her missing. She had been taken to the infirmary which was but a way station to the pile of corpses. Two people lay in each bed, 30 inches across.

Throughout the war her mother had a pair of burgundy shoes, each with the heel hollowed out. Within each heel was a small diamond ring. Through Auschwitz, two death marches and Bergen Belsen they had held this property, often weighing if this was the time to exchange it for a loaf of bread. Now her mother pried off one heel and extracted the ring. She strode to the infirmary and held it out to the Polish woman who was in charge. "Give me my daughter!" she said.

How to paint this? I pictured the Polish woman with an attitude of resistance blocking the way, Dvora's mother with a firm line to her mouth forcefully thrusting her palm forward, the ring cupped within. First I envisioned the walls of the infirmary dividing the space, the suggestion of bodies outside, beds holding bodies within. I wanted to show the shoes, but that would compress the figures. I find that I prefer larger images for greater impact so wasn't quite sure how to do that. The fact that she had walked in those shoes through two death marches without accessing the rings felt like an important part of the story.

Ultimately I removed the division of space and put a figure in with the red shoes as background. The Polish woman's arm blocks the way. Behind it I added the figure of Dvora to highlight the idea of an exchange. The painting has gone through many evolutions and may still continue to change, but is beginning to approach completion.

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