Continuously, movies are made and books are written about the Second World War. But can you paint pictures from that war?
I believe, the most effective way to paint a narrative is to paint it figuratively. One of the reasons why I think there are few figurative paintings of World War II is because the official art of the Third Reich was the classical figurative style. Modern and expressionistic art was forbidden and was called degenerate art (entartete Kunst) . However, that era and its aftermath were some time ago.
World War II was by far the largest military, political, and humanitarian crisis in history. Though I am not a history painter, I am using this period as a framework to ask certain questions. The first one is: how could civilization collapse so completely? And: what does it mean to be a human being? We had to again understand what it meant to be a human being. Psychology, medicine, and politics had to be re-examined because of this war. In Hannah Arendt’s book The Banality of Evil, her thorough examination of Adolf Eichmann showed us that “under the right circumstances”, many of us are capable of committing acts more evil than we believed we could. The war also proved to us that human beings can endure mental and physical suffering on a scale that we never thought was possible.
I have felt powerless and discouraged by the enormous scale and suffering, and the biggest challenge has been to deal with the Final Solution. To open the doors of the House of the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, where the Final Solution was implemented, was like walking into what has been called the most evil place in the universe. There, I gathered ideas for several compositions.
The Holocaust is not the main focus of the series, Scenes from the Second World War. I am mostly telling stories about some well-known and other less well-known events, portraying individual human beings who lived up to the greatest potential that could have existed within them. In confronting the worst of human betrayal, they triumphed with their strength of character, like in the following story.
For many years, I have had a picture of the German soldier Josef Schultz on my wall. Josef refused to execute partisans and civilians from a Yugoslovian village, and proceeded to remove his helmet, put down his rifle and join the execution line. The image of the young Josef making his sacrificial decision on a summer day in 1941 has challenged me. He shows us that even at the last frontier of human existence, we still have a choice, to be free.
These are pictures about victims, and also about human beings that realized their responsibility to think for themselves, such as the members of the White Rose. These young, brave medical students at the University of Munich, demonstrated their courage by disseminating Anti-Nazi leaflets, and paid with their lives.
The underlying theme of this series is the individual choice, and the individual responsibility. This was emphasized so powerfully through the Nuremberg trial and its chief prosecutor Robert Jackson. We are all responsible for what we do.