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Art Reviews: Painter goes deep into both Holocaust history and his own story

Saturday, January 19, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Two very fine exhibitions that draw the visitor into a shared moment are at the University Art Gallery in the Frick Fine Arts Building, University of Pittsburgh, through March 22.

Valentin Lutsig's "The Letter Soup (We Are Near): After Paul Celan's 'Tenebrae' " (1997) is in the Lustig exhibit at the Frick Fine Arts Building. (Jasmine Gehris, Post-Gazette photos)

The fanciful scenes in "The Holocaust in the Painting of Valentin Lustig" at first appear to hang in the wrong exhibition. But as the layers of these 20 enigmatic works begin to reveal themselves, the viewer realizes how they aptly encapsulate the artist's message about the discrepancies between appearance and underlying reality.

People and animals cavort in magical, constructed landscapes that are part allegory, part bestiary and part visual bouillabaisse, within a warmed pastel palette that enhances the fairyland appearance. But as in a fairy tale, there is a dark side to these works. What appears at first to owe a debt to Dali in actuality has more resonance with Goya's "Sleep of Reason."

A keepsake book with the same title as the exhibition by Edith Balas, a much-published art historian on the faculty of Carnegie Mellon University and a concentration camp survivor, expands the experience of Lustig's paintings and of those who suffered through the Holocaust with fascinating, insightful commentary that blends the analytical and the personal. The book contains full-color illustrations and interpretation of 25 paintings and is $25 paperback and $45 cloth cover.


Events scheduled to complement "The Holocaust in the Painting of Valentin Lustig" and "Kathe Kollwitz: Fifteen Works from the Collection of Selene and Arnold Davis" will be held in the Frick Fine Arts Building, University of Pittsburgh as follows:

Jan. 30, noon, "Why Holocaust Museums and Centers in America?" by Linda Hurwitz, Director of The Holocaust Center of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh (Room 204).

Feb. 7, 10:30 a.m., "Picturing the German Volk: National Identity in the Photobooks of Nazi Photographer Erna Lendvai-Dircksken" by Leesa Rittleman of Hartwick College (Room 203).

Feb. 13, noon, "Jews, Suicides, and 'Degenerate' Art: The Visual Autobiography of Charlotte Salomon" by April Eisman, Pitt Ph.D. candidate (Room 204).

Feb. 14, 4 p.m., A reading of poems on the Jewish experience by Phil Terman, poet and Clarion University professor (Gallery).

Feb. 27, noon, "The Prints of Kathe Kollwitz: Reflections on Grief" by Barbara McCloskey, Pitt department of the history of art and architecture (Gallery).

March 14, 10:30 a.m., "Gerhard Richter/Adolf Eichmann: The Political Reception of the Nazi Past and Post-War German Art" by Paul Jaskot of DePaul University (Room 203).

All events are free and open to the public. For information, 412-648-2423.

Gallery hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; and until 8 p.m. Thursday.


Lustig, who was born in 1955 in Cluj, Romania, (also Balas' birthplace) and studied painting in Cluj and Florence, lives in Zurich. His refinement and scope of interests is immediately evident, but one must intuit the intensity and sorrow with which he pursues his canvases. And yet, he says that "in the end it's painting, and there's a joy to it."

The complexity of Lustig's paintings isn't readily apparent. Take "The Punished Fish; or Cluj-Kolozsvar in the Spring of 1944."

A placid scene of people going about their daily lives in an orderly Eastern European town is overshadowed by a huge fish hanging from a gallows erected in the center. The reference is to the community response, or lack thereof, when the town's Jews were sent to Auschwitz.

While Lustig generally leaves it to critics and historians like Balas to decipher his imagery -- saying that to him it's a "description of a certain state of mind" rather than a specific documentation -- he points to this painting as the exception. "I'm obliging the viewer to go and inquire what happened [in that time and place]." Balas, he says, describes it as a "moral denunciation of a state of affairs, which is the general indifference in front of an injustice."

But Lustig's relationship with the work casts a broader net. First, he says, because his technique is time-intensive, he has to live with passionate subjects for "months and months." In order to tolerate that, he invested the painting with a "private myth -- it must not be known by the viewer" -- to sustain him.

But there are multiple public layers he's willing to share. Legal relativism, for example, is introduced by questioning the notion that a fish can be deserving of or subjected to "punishment" as man defines it. Secondly, a fish can't close its eyes. It sees and knows too much, Lustig says, but it can't even find the release of Edvard Munch's screaming girl whose horror is momentary and vocal, while the silent scream of the fish is perpetual as it hangs out of its natural environment, exposed.

Neither, he says, does the fish sleep, and thus Lustig links it to a poem from Byron's "Hebrew Melodies" titled "Sun of the Sleepless" in which the poet compares the Jews to "a weak sun that emanates light strong enough to show the darkness but too weak to dispel it."

The adoption of the fish as a Christian symbol for Jesus, and historic confrontations between Christians and Jews, adds another subtext.

And finally, "the deepest layer" is a biographical one that involves a propaganda leaflet dropped by an American plane in 1944 that his father, who was an Auschwitz prisoner, picked up. A drawing of two hands washing each other on the leaflet reminded Lustig of Pilate's handwashing at Jesus' trial. In fact, his father's recent donation of the paper to an archive in Israel triggered this painting.

This is art for the cognoscente garbed in a manner that doesn't intimidate the common man.

Lustig will lecture at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday in the McConomy Auditorium, University Center, Carnegie Mellon University (412-268-3580) and will conduct an informal gallery talk at noon Wednesday in his exhibition. Balas will speak in the gallery at noon Feb. 6.

Art historian Edith Balas joined Valentin Lustig at the opening of the Lustig exhibit.

In contrast to Lustig's paintings, the work in "Kathe Kollwitz: Fifteen Works from the Collection of Selene and Arnold Davis" is somber. While these exceptional prints don't reference the Holocaust per se, they address the same demons: persecution, injustice, ostracization, war, despairing loss.

Kollwitz (1867-1945), who achieved acclaim in her time, was reared in a socially liberal family as a member of the Free Congregational Church, which her grandfather founded. Throughout her life she supported progressive causes such as rights for women, homosexuals and workers, while enduring tragic personal losses. One reason she turned to printmaking was to make her art affordable to all.

She masterfully blended line and emotion to create images with powerful immediacy. The influence of German Expressionism may be seen but also that of other artists she admired, such as van Gogh in the peasants gathered around the wooden table of "Conspiracy." Women are prominent, for example in worker rebellion scenes, as a non-idealized "Standing Nude," and as a war "Widow," her figure a dark funereal mound articulated by emotive hands and face.

A small catalog with some illustrations and an informative essay by Pitt graduate student Amy Crawford Minchin is $5.

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