Is Holocaust art possible? A murderous shade of blue is one painter’s answer

The blue residue left on the walls of Nazi gas chambers is an unmistakable marker of the horrors that the rooms once witnessed, the bright splotches providing incongruous color in the drab death cells.

The same bluish gray tone plays a central role in Mexican artist Yishai Jusidman’s series of 50 paintings about the Holocaust, titled “Prussian Blue.”

The paintings are all based on photos of the gas chambers, their doors, tiles, pipes and vents painted almost entirely in monochromatic blue lightened with hints of white skin tones, meant to symbolize the Jews who were exterminated in concentration camp gas chambers.

The Prussian blue-tinted stains sometimes found on gas chamber walls are from the compound ferrocyanide, a byproduct of the Zyklon B gas used to exterminate the Jews. Elements of that same gas are traditionally used in making the Prussian blue pigment.

“It was just a very, very odd overlap,” said Jusidman.

The series has been exhibited in half a dozen museums worldwide, and is currently on display at the Mishkan Museum of Art at Kibbutz Ein Harod, where it opened on March 24, ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day, which was observed on April 7-8.

Artist Yishai Jusidman. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The bluish tint gives the paintings the feelings of sepia-toned 19th-century photos, either adding to their historical realness or allowing viewers to drift away from the subject of the Holocaust.

Jusidman views the series as a way into viewing the Holocaust, as well as the art of painting, and the relevance of painting as a medium for considering issues of culture, politics and aesthetics.

The works are a curious turnaround for Jusidman, a Mexican artist of Jewish heritage who had been long troubled about attempts to paint the Holocaust, arguing for many years that it was an attempt doomed to failure.

“Art about the Holocaust is extremely problematic,” said Jusidman, who is in Israel for the opening of the exhibit. “One has to be very careful and very thoughtful about not falling into tired cliches or sentimentalization or emotional extortion.”

“I always thought I was never going to delve into this,” he added.

What changed his mind was a 2010 viewing of a painting by Belgian painter Luc Tuymans, “Gas Chamber” (1986), part of a retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Luc Tuymans’ painting ‘Gas Chamber,’ which prompted artist Yishai Jusidman’s ‘Prussian Blue’ series about the Nazi gas chambers (Courtesy WikiArt Visual Art Encyclopedia)

“It was a very small, unassuming painting done in a kind of nonchalant, casual way and it doesn’t look like it could be anything,” said Jusidman. “It could be a warehouse or nightclub and the curator explained it as exemplifying the impossibility of representing the Holocaust.”

That description angered Jusidman; if the point of painting is to represent something, then why try and paint an “impossible-to-represent” gas chamber that was part of the extermination of 6 million Jews?

Tuyman’s renowned painting is based on a watercolor the Belgian artist made while visiting the Dachau concentration camp.

Tuyman reportedly has his own tortured Holocaust history; his mother’s family had been active in the Dutch resistance during World War II, and it was later discovered that Tuyman’s uncles had trained as Hitler Youth, according to an interview in The New York Times.

From ‘Prussian Blue,’ Yishai Jusidman’s series of 50 paintings on display at the Mishkan Museum of Art at Ein Harod, from March 24, 2021 (Courtesy Ein Harod)

For Jusidman, Tuyman’s viewpoint became an opportunity for him to embark on his own examination of how to represent the gas chambers.

“Nobody dealt with this in a way that is appropriate so I thought, ‘Let me give it a try,’” he said.

From ‘Prussian Blue,’ Yishai Jusidman’s series of 50 paintings on display at the Mishkan Museum of Art at Ein Harod, from March 24, 2021 (Courtesy Ein Harod)

He was almost 50 at the time, and knew that it was a challenge he wouldn’t have undertaken in his younger years.

“It was almost like reading Kabbalah,” said Jusidman, referring to the adage that one should not try learning the school of Jewish mystical thought until one is 40 years old. “I was just going to look for a way into this subject.”

Prussian blue provided that way in.

Prussian blue pigment was first discovered in 1704 in Berlin. The paint color became the signature tint of the Prussian army and a popular pigment among European painters of the time.

Jusidman began making his own Prussian blue stains on canvas, eventually spending seven years on the series, all revolving around the theme of this blue stain appearing in different ways and formats.

“This work is not about me in any way, not about the experience of the artist,” said Jusidman. “It’s about a public memory.”

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