‘Prussian Blue’ exhibit drags the Holocaust back into realm of real

Jewish-Mexican artist Yishai Jusidman offers a new way to see the horrors of the Holocaust often thought of as too terrible to depict.

YISHAI JUSIDMAN at Ein Harod. (photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
(photo credit: HAGAY HACOHEN)
When Jewish-Mexican artist Yishai Jusidman began to research the Holocaust, he went online and found a disturbing thing. Some revisionists argued that had the Germans really murdered so many Jews with Zyklon B, blue stains would appear on the inside of what remains of all death camps, not just some like Majdanek.
The blue stains were created due to a chemical reaction similar to the one discovered in the 18th century used to create the pigment Prussian blue. This blue pigment was used by many painters, but obtained the name following the decision by the Prussian Army to mass-dye its uniforms with it due to it being cheap and durable.
While the Holocaust-denying argument first coined in 1988 by Fred A. Leuchter had already been answered by Richard J. Green, who explained blue stains appeared in greater numbers in delousing chambers than in gas chambers because the former were humid and absorbed more Zyklon B than the latter, the unexpected connection between the Holocaust, art history and the question of evidence urged Jusidman to spend years on a series of works now on display at Mishkan Museum of Art, Ein Harod.
Seeing what seems impossible or too terrible to witness – can that be done?
This question urged Jusidman to spend years on a series of works depicting the death camps, the woods that housed them, the shut doors of the chambers where the killings took place, and eventually to present a series of abstract paintings that seem to suggest the lingering gap between those who died and those who are living.
WHEN WRITER and theologian Arthur Cohen published his 1981 book The Tremendum, he suggested that the camps had been a profound series of sites of a radical new type of evil. A terrible mystery that tore the connection of the people Israel to the divine.
Cohen argued that we must see what the Holocaust represents: not a continuation of hatred and violence by other means – a larger pogrom, if you will – but a unique event that refuses to be given a moral explanation.
Other post-Holocaust thinkers suggested similar paths. Theodor Adorno said in 1949 that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” The writer Yehiel De-Nur (Ka-Tsetnik) spoke during his 1961 testimony in the Eichmann Trial of “planet Auschwitz.”
To speak of the Holocaust as a terrible divine mystery, or an alien planet, or an event that puts an end to human civilization, is, in essence, saying it cannot be held in the mind, it cannot be seen directly.
“People notice that Adorno said it is impossible to write poetry after Auschwitz but disregard his intention, as he spoke of a capitalistic system. To his mind Western capitalism was the underlaying perpetrator of the genocide,” Jusidman told The Jerusalem Post. “This view is totally perverse and wrongheaded.”
When he went to see paintings by Luc Tuymans, he stopped in front of the 1986 work Gaskamer, which depicts the Dachau death camp gas chamber, and felt uneasy.
“Tuymans was working from a point of view which argues the Holocaust cannot be represented,” he said. “If it cannot be represented, why are we seeing a painting of it? The challenge of painting is not how not to fulfill its function but how to represent.
“In my work,” he shared, “I try to lean on the metonymical rather than the metaphorical.”
This means that rather than saying the Holocaust is like a thing (an alien planet, the tremendum, a world without poetry), Jusidman gravitates to understand the Holocaust through a material aspect of the actual event – “to represent the murder through a thing taken from the scene of the crime,” he said.
THE EXHIBITION begins with a series of small canvases, formerly painting aprons, which now depict blue stains. The exhibition then expands into large-scale figurative paintings which offer a detailed account of how the murder spaces exist now – the pipes and the rust, the warnings in German and Polish to halt, the trees around the camps, and the light that hits the wall of what was once a death factory.
It seems to me that this study of the light drags the Holocaust from the realm of the tremendum to both the real world, where the sun is warm and the trees are green even during a genocide, and the realm of Western art tradition. The painted light is a study just as much as the light in the paintings of Vermeer or Edward Hopper.
Vermeer happens to be a painter Jusidman dealt with before, in his 1989 series The Astronomer, which is derived from the 1668 same-titled painting by the Dutch master.
The depiction of the man of science attempting to grasp the location of the stars in the heavens, to understand that which is too big to comprehend, is very much like the challenge Jusidman took on himself in this series.
An erudite painter, Jusidman often quotes from art history, like in his 1990s series Sumo, where Piet Mondrian visuals appear behind the wrestlers. For him, it is a question of the “painting instinct.”
“Many significant steps we take when creating a painting are guided by instinctual drives which are later checked by other parameters,” he said.
These are used to answer this question: was the instinct useful in reaching the goal of the painting?
“In Mexico I am often described as a conceptual painter,” he shrugged. “I do not enjoy this label, because I think all good painters had a concept of where they were going with their work, from Caravaggio to Jackson Pollock. The instinct he had, to drip paint with a stick, is not just a pure emotion; it is a solution to a conceptual problem he spent years working on.”
He pointed to Francis Alys, Rubén Ortiz Torres and Teresa Margolles as other Mexican artists he appreciates.
IN ADDITION to “Prussian Blue,” the Mishkan Museum of Art is currently presenting the works of Polish-Jewish painter Leon Engelsberg under the headline “Dominions of Terror.”
The presented works offer a unique exploration of how a Holocaust survivor depicted the Polish capital in the 1950s following the completion of Nathan Rapoport’s 1948 monument for the Jewish Ghetto Uprising and his new life in Israel.
Should the visitor care to see it, the permanent Jewish art exhibition at the museum includes a large 1897 oil painting by Polish-Jewish artist Shmuel Hirszenberg titled The Last Prayer. To visit all three sections and to gaze on works by Hirszenberg, Engelsberg and Jusidman offer a rare, century-rich perspective of Jewish suffering and triumphs in relation to the Shoah.
“Prussian Blue” and “Dominions of Terror” are currently displayed at the Mishkan Museum of Art Ein Harod. No end date was given.
Hours: Monday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-4 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
Only 90 people are allowed into the building at any given time.
Tickets must be bought in advance via the
Phone (04) 648-6038, [email protected]
Social distance and mask wearing must be maintained while visiting the shows.
Tickets: NIS 40 per adult, NIS 20 for IDF soldiers/students/senior citizens.
Minors admitted free of charge when evidence of their identity is produced.