What If You Trivialize Hitler?

Bruce Gendelman Holocaust art

Detail of one of Bruce Gendelman’s paintings on view in Krakow. Photo: Menachem Wecker

My article “What If You Trivialize Hitler?” — about the Holocaust art of Bruce Gendelman — appears in Mosaic magazine. (The Jewish Journal, LA, also excerpts it.)

Here’s the lede:

“How do you shoot the devil in the back?” asks the character played by Kevin Spacey in the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects. A similar question has plagued artists for centuries. If evil stops to pose for a portrait, what if you miss your shot, trivializing Hitler or turning Torquemada into a cartoon character?

For many, the 2002 exhibit Mirroring Evil at the Jewish Museum in New York missed the mark egregiously. Among its works commemorating the Holocaust were Chanel-, Hermès-, and Tiffany-branded poison-gas containers and a concentration-camp photograph into which the artist had inserted himself holding a Coke. Even for artists exploring the subject of the Holocaust thoughtfully, gorgeous brushwork or careful cross-hatching can so prettify the surface as to tie up evil in a neat bow.

All the more edifying, then, at the other end of the artistic spectrum, are Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits of ugly people—exquisitely drawn, but there’s no mistaking their individual hideousness.

Such thoughts came to mind on a recent visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Even articulating what it’s actually like to stand at the notorious train tracks leading to the entrance gates and all that lay beyond them is like trying to explain color to someone who has never seen. How could art possibly supply the want?

Fortunately, I came upon one possible answer to this conundrum later the same day in Krakow, at an exhibit of the Holocaust works of the American artist Bruce Gendelman. The recipe with which Gendelman approaches the portrayal of evil combines ominous or horrific imagery with a graceful handling of materials while somehow also finding room for a sliver of hope, even of God, peeking through the enveloping darkness.

Bruce Gendelman's Holocaust mobile

Bruce Gendelman’s Holocaust mobile on view in Krakow. Photo: Menachem Wecker

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