Exhibition by Vebjørn Sand

Open until 1st March 2014
Gallery Sand
277 West. 4th St, New York
NY 10014
T: 1-212-414-8714
T: 1-347-419-0729

Ironic Corpses

Ironic Corpses

Vebjorn Sand’s Holocaust Paintings by Donald Kuspit

Vebjorn Sand is a modern romantic realist, in the sense in which Erich Auerbach defined it in Mimesis: “the classical doctrine of levels of styles” is abandoned in modern romantic realism, allowing for “the mixture of le sublime with le grotesque,” a conflation of extremes resulting in an explosive discharge of instinctive energy, evident in the displays of Sturm und Drang (storm and stress) typical of Expressionism, the climatic style of romantic realism.(1) It is the “irrational,” “savage,” “uncivilized,” “undignified,” “unbalanced” style of “madness,” as has been said—of the abnormal run amuck. In contrast, classical realism is eminently sane and balanced: it encodes the ideals of civilized society, which however hierarchically regulated brings with it a sense of shared humanity, rational purpose, and human dignity, and perhaps above all a sense of what it means to be normal and good. Classicism advocates a sound mind in a sound body, and respect for one’s fellow human beings. In romantic realism this classical vision of the normal, sane, balanced, rational, good disappears: the abnormal, insane, irrational, unbalanced—the anti-human in all its destructive anti-social forms—take over art. There is no fixed, single manner of representing the destructiveness madness is capable of—romantic realism is perversely polymorphous compared to classical realism. It is a “maddening” mixture of styles, tending toward stylelessness, as Expressionists from Vlaminck to de Kooning have said, as though no style was adequate to human madness, with its potential for destructiveness. The grotesquely human, not to say inhuman and unhealthy, becomes romantically fascinating and bizarrely sublime in itself.

For Auerbach, the modern break with classical style has its precedence in the medieval break, occasioned by the telling of “the story of Christ, with its ruthless mixture of everyday reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy.”(2) The classically repressed Abnormal returns with a vengeance in the story of Christ, which is timeless not because of its absurd promise of life after death, but because it shows the timelessness, not to say universality, of human destructiveness, whatever its particular contemporary style—in the story of Christ, imperialistic Roman style, in the story of the Holocaust, imperialistic Nazi style. There is continuity between the stories: Christ was a Jew, who, whatever he came to symbolize, was the victim of anti-Semitism, as were the Jews who perished in the Holocaust, suggesting that his death foreshadowed theirs.

The story of the Holocaust has not been dealt with as adequately in modern painting as the story of Christ was in medieval painting, perhaps because it was a collective trauma, not particular to any individual, however many particular individuals suffered and died in it. The Holocaust, along with the social guilt it generates, seems incomprehensible, however much it may be described. How could civilization collapse so completely? How could its perpetrators be so unconscionable? Only madness could explain their destructive behavior. No one is capable of forgiving the collective sin against humanity that the Holocaust was the way Christ forgave individuals who sinned against themselves. Modern art may be incapable of rising to the occasion of the Holocaust because history and religious painting have been déclassé since the 19th century, when Baudelaire noted their replacement by landscape painting. To be modern means to have no history, religion, and memory. 20th century abstraction may be privileged above social realism because it seems to erase them. It elevates “subjective necessity” over “objective necessity,” as Kandinsky’s famously said, as though to delve into the former was to escape the latter. He elevated personal mood over social reality, suggesting the social irresponsibility of abstraction.

Whatever the mood of Sand’s Holocaust paintings—it is evident in his mixture of expressionistic painterliness and atmospheric impressionism, the gloom and doom darkness of the former and the joyous luminosity of the latter infiltrating each other, adding to the “sensational” intensity of both, and making the paintings as a whole more “sensational,” yet remaining peculiarly at odds and unintegrated, suggesting the irony that underpins the paintings—he is a social realist. For he takes us to the ironical birthplace of the “final solution” (Endlosung) of the “Jewish question” (Judenfrage) in a beautiful villa in the Berlin suburb of Grossen-Wannsee on January 2O, 1942.(3) Thus, in Corpses I, we see the military men in the sunny garden of the villa in which they planned the Holocaust. It is winter, but it seems like a warm summer day, as the green leaves on the trees suggest. It is as though Sand wanted to suggest the peculiar unreality or eeriness of the scene, the underlying indifference and cold deliberation with which the conference team solved the Jewish problem.

The planners are no longer seated around the conference table in the large room in which they devised the final solution, but around a table in the villa’s intimate garden, enjoying nature and toasting each other with champagne. The conference is over, and they are congratulating each other at its success. They have solved the Jewish problem once and for all time: by getting rid of all Jews there will no longer be any problem. The table is no longer bare, but covered with a white cloth, as though signifying the purity of their purpose—their Aryan purity. The table is no longer heavy with documents and folders, but light with wine bottles and glasses. The military men are in a festive, happy, positive mood; no doubt they feel entitled to it after their hard, serious, sober work. They have planned the annihilation of a whole people, and they feel that they have done a good deed—another irony. The inside conference table is ironically implicit in the outside garden table. The full irony of the scene becomes evident when one realizes that it is based on the Danish painter Peter Severin Kroyer’s picture, titled Hip, Hip, Hurra, of a group of Nordic artists enjoying themselves on holiday. The irony is compounded by the fact that the Nazis thought the Nordic people were their Aryan brothers. Sand paints the scene partly to disabuse them of the idea. And also by the fact that the Germans treated their dogs better than they treated the Jews. There is also irony in the fact that the ever-present dogs are German Shepherds. However much they were trained to attack, they were good shepherds, in contrast to the Nazis.

Looking at the picture, we cannot help becoming part of it. We also stand around the garden table, implicated in the Holocaust as well as silent witnesses to it, helplessly accepting its inevitability, doing nothing to stop the conference, to break up the gathering, to arrest, judge, and condemn the participants. We are co-participants-- co-conspirators--whether we like it or not. By drawing us into the picture, Sand makes us feel guilty, making the picture all the more memorable—and it is a shock to the memory, reminding us of an event we’d rather forget, wished never had happened. We are traumatized by guilt—the guilt the Nazi planners never felt, indicating they were psychopaths, that is, morally insane or moral imbeciles, as the psychologist J. C. Pritchard called them. (In 1835 he described them in his analysis of the “moral disorders.” In 1888 it was realized that they suffered from “psychopathic inferiority.” They defended against the unconscious feeling of inferiority by consciously asserting their superiority and regarding other people as inferior to them, as the Nazis did with respect to the Jews. Psychopathic Nazi types have been with us a long time.)

We are in the inferior position of the medieval patrons who had themselves painted at the foot of the cross in pictures of the crucifixion they commissioned, self-consciously witnessing it while unconsciously acknowledging that they are responsible for it because they did nothing to prevent it, just as we did nothing to prevent the Holocaust. By not acting, we become unwitting actors in the drama of death which the crucifixion and Holocaust were. Christ and the Jews are superior to us because we allowed them to suffer unto death at the hands of military psychopaths—criminals in military uniforms, reminding us, as contemporary psychiatrists say, that psychopathic disorder often “manifests itself in abnormally aggressive or seriously irresponsible behavior.”(4) The medieval paintings are unwittingly ironical, but Sand’s paintings are knowingly ironical, for we are inconspicuously, not to say covertly present: Sand is a sophisticated “indirect” realist, rather than a naïve “direct” realist as the medieval painters were, even as, in Corpses 3, he makes the reality of the Holocaust conspicuously clear. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ is sublime tragedy, as Auerbach says, but the crucifixion of the Jews in the Holocaust is realistic, down to earth tragedy, for they will never be raised from the grave. Sand may be a romantic realist, but he does not romanticize death. He has no illusions about reality.

We are as guilty as the military men who planned and executed the Holocaust—Reinhard Heydrich, Roland Freisler, and Adolf Eichmann among them, all present at the Wannsee Conference, all standing around Sand’s garden table—but there is no Christ to make our guilt his own, relieving us of its burden, as there is in medieval pictures. We transfer our guilt to Christ by praying to him, but our prayers will not be answered by Sand’s Nazis: God is indeed dead is one of the subliminal messages of his Holocaust paintings. (Just as the Lisbon earthquake led Goethe to question the existence of God, so many post-Holocaust Jews doubted his existence, for he had clearly failed them.) Apart from the Nazis, who are all dead, the people pictured in Sand’s masterpiece are based on living models. Some are relatives of Jews who survived the Holocaust. Replacing Nazi faces with Jewish faces, Sand deepens the irony of his picture, suggesting that Jews were able to face the Nazis, and that the Final Solution failed. The Holocaust is a difficult theme, and Sand has found an ingenious way to convey its perverse import—its inhumanity and horror--which is why his series of Holocaust pictures are conceptually brilliant as well as perceptually powerful, all the more so because of their painterly intensity.

Sand works from photographs, conspicuously in Corpses 2, which is based on a photograph taken by Hugo Jaeger on April 20, 1939 at a Berlin parade celebrating Hitler’s birthday. Ironically, the photograph appeared in Life Magazine. What struck Sand was the centerpiece of three women seated next to their uniformed Nazi husbands, who fade away to the side, as though already dead. The prosperous women are dressed in their fanciest, best clothing—the lavish fur wrap of the woman in red suggests that she’s as much of an animal as the dog that sits in front of the straight-faced women on her left, whom she turns to with a smile--signaling their vanity (and that of their husbands and Hitler). They reminded Sand of the fact that the German fashion designer Hugo Ball was once a member of the Nazi party and a sponsoring member of the SS (indicating that he was a devoted Nazi, not simply one who joined the party to “get ahead”). Another subliminal message: there are still Nazis among us, and the psychopathic Nazi belief system, with its division of the world into superior Ubermenschen and inferior Untermenschen—the 1% and the 99%, one might say, that is, the elite who exploit and live off the masses as the Nazis exploited and lived off the Jews, Slavs, etc.--continues to exist, however different its socio-economic form and however officially dead it is.

Photographs give Sand’s paintings an empirical grounding and precision, even as their increasingly ghostly—and searing—luminosity, finally dissolving virtually everyone in Corpses 3, gives them an insidious macabre undertone. The work is a Goyaesque masterpiece, reminding us that romantic realism began with Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, 1799—Reason was certainly asleep when it produced the Nazis—and, like all of Sand’s Scenes from the Second World War, holds its own with Goya’s Black Paintings. Only the pitch black German Shepherd—now an ominous carnivorous shadow, suggesting the shadow of death ready to devour the decaying anonymous figures in the ironically illuminated mass grave, bearly recognizable as human—remains intact. This ominous carnivorous shadow, suggesting the shadow of death, symbolizes the Nazi black plague that destroyed Europe. It may be a ghost, but Sand suggests that Nazi ideology is a continuing threat. Recall that the SS uniform was black, and that a skull was the SS symbol, and that the Nazis had death squads, which, in effect, takes us back to the military midwifes of the Holocaust—rigid in their uniforms, they confirm their bureaucratic banality, not to say their authoritarian personalities and inherent aggression--who met at the villa in Grossen-Wannsee to plan it, that is, back to Sand’s Corpses I, completing the vicious circle of atrocities his three paintings delineate. Sand’s Scenes from the Second World War is a tour de force of historical painting, all the more so because it demonstrates the truth of Voltaire’s remark (1767) that “history is little else than a picture of human crimes and misfortunes.”

(1)Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2003), 554
(2)Ibid., 555
(3)The Wannsee Conference may be forgotten history, for many even a footnote to the Holocaust—reduced to a non-descript fact—but it was the beginning of the intended extermination of the Jews, although the protocol of the conference never explicitly mentions “extermination.” But the first extermination camps (Vernichtungslager) were opened in Poland a few months after the conference, under the administration of the SS and the Gestapo. What began with the idea of rounding up all Jews everywhere, moving them to eastern Europe, and using them in labor camps, where they would be worked to death—a process of “natural diminution,” as the Nazis called it (those who managed to live would be “treated accordingly”)—quickly became a wholesale annihilation of the hated Jews, suggesting the ingrained nihilism of the Nazis. It is to Sand’s moral credit that he reminds us of the profound, basic importance of the Wannsee Conference and of anti-Semitism. His paintings are acts of conscience and sanity in a world that seems to have lost its conscience and gone mad with violence. They are a long overdue revival of history painting, for there are many disasters in modern history that remain to be imaginatively investigated.
(4)Robert J. Campbell, Psychiatric Dictionary, 5th ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 507


Nazi and Jew

Nazi and Jew

Vebjorn Sand’s Final Analysis by Donald Kuspit

In the final analysis, it is about whether the German and Aryan prevails here, or whether the Jew rules the world. Hermann Goering, Head of the Gestapo until 1934(1)
Is not this idolization of race and governmental power which is being pounded into the public consciousness by the radio open heresy?...Is not all this diametrically opposed to the conduct of our Lord and Savior, who, even on the cross, still prayed for his persecutors? Edith Stein, Letter to Pope Pius XI, April 1933(2)
I was praying for death to come. I was praying for the [mass] grave to be opened and to swallow me alive. Blood was spurting from the grave in many places, like a well of water….I cried out to my mother, to my father, ‘Why did they not kill me? What was my sin? I have no one to go to. I saw them all being killed. Why was I spared? Why was I not killed?’ Rivka Yosselevscka(3)

It may seem bold to make a connection between the radical nationalism of today and the ideas of a romanticizing philosophy; nevertheless the connection exists….We find here…a superstitious faith in the Nordic…with phrases like racist, populistic, bündisch, heroic, and this contributed to the [Hitler] movement an ingredient of cultured barbarism….Its chief goal…is the internal purification of Germany and the return to an earlier condition of Germany such as would correspond to the conceptions of the Germans that the radical nationalism cherishes. But even supposing such a return to be desirable, is it possible? Is this fantasy of a primitive, pure-blooded, simple-hearted and simple-minded, heel-clicking, blue-eyed, obedient, disciplined sobriety, this complete national simplicity, to be realized, even after ten thousand expulsions and purification raids? Thomas Mann, “Deutsche Ansprache. Ein Appell an die Vernunft.” Berlin, 1930(4)
he looses his hounds on us grants us a grave in the air he plays with his vipers and daydreams Death is a Master from Germany Paul Celan, Deathfugue

Baudelaire thought there were two kinds of artists, “the positivists,” who “say, ‘I want to represent things as they are, or rather as they would be, supposing I did not exist’,” and “the imaginatives,” who “say, ‘I want to illuminate things with my mind, and to project their reflection upon other minds.”(5) Vebjorn Sand is clearly an imaginative, all the more so because he has the gift of visionary zeal, enabling him to see into the “depths of the soul” of his human subject matter, as Baudelaire said the truest imaginatives can—into the souls of the Nazis and the Jews they attempted to annihilate in what has come to be called the “Holocaust” or “Shoah,” that is, the greatest “Catastrophe” that has befallen the Jews. In A Scene from Wannsee, Ich Bin Der Zweite, Janusz Korczak, German Girl on a Road, May ’45, and The Goethe Oak in Buchenwald—the latest additions to Sand’s remarkable series of history paintings addressing what the Nazis called “the final solution” to “the Jewish problem”—he bears imaginative witness to events that nobody willingly witnesses. Many prefer to forget them, let them become textbook history, even deny that they ever happened—thus the so-called “Holocaust deniers”—for to remember them, to dwell on them, as Sand does, like an insistent gadfly, is to call attention to the radical evil that human beings are capable of perpetrating, the prejudicial hatred one group of human beings can have for another group, a hatred and contempt so complete and absolute that it can lead one group to systematically and brutally destroy another group.

The ready and ruthless indifference the Nazis brought to the task of taking the lives of “dirty” Jews suggests that in their souls—unconsciously—they believed that human life in general is inherently inconsequential, meaningless, and valueless, which is perhaps why they were so eager to go to war and lose their lives for the cause of a “cleaner” and “purer” Germany, not to say for the “greater Germany” of the Third Reich. The irony of this was no doubt lost on them, but it is not lost on Sand: his new paintings bring out, with imaginative subtlety, the hidden ironies of the final solution. He suggests that the Nazis, who thought, in their delusional belief in their innate superiority, that they were invulnerable supermen, and as such had a heroic destiny, were in fact defective and mediocre human beings, as their bureaucratic and technocratic efficiency ironically implies. They were functionaries and flunkies—Hitler’s puppets and instruments—rather than independent human beings with a will and mind of their own. They were indeed members of a “master race,” but what they mastered was organizational planning and military technology. They were the managers who implemented Hitler’s simple-minded vision of a pure, one-dimensional Germany, because they were even more simple-minded. Sand’s Nazis are soulless robots, mechanically obeying Hitler’s commands—the Führer is the hidden presence in Sand’s pictures, the invisible deus ex machina who controls the visible action—for his uncompromising sense of purpose gave them a sense of significance they would otherwise lack. Serving the Nazi cause with their banality, they believed they were less banal than they were, even as they unwittingly confirmed its banality, and revealed just how dangerous banality could become. Indeed, they enacted what Hannah Arendt called the banality of evil, and, one might add, evil’s pride in itself, more pointedly, its self-righteous arrogance. In sharp contrast, the Jews, innately inferior and subhuman by Nazi standards, become inherently meaningful in Sand’s pictures: profoundly human because of their vulnerability and suffering, and heroic because of their self-sacrifice. For Sand, the Holocaust, on one ironical level, is a battle between profane Nazis and sacred Jews, a burnt offering on the altar of sacred Germany. On another ironical level, it is a battle between what Ludwig von Bertalanffy calls the “living machine” and “living organism” models of human being(6)—a sharp if subliminal critique of the former, symbolized by the inhuman Nazis, in desperate defense of the latter, symbolized by the painfully alive human Jews.

The irony of Sand’s paintings begins with the places they depict: the planning for the solution to the Jewish problem began in the pleasant, civilized, sedate setting of a resort hotel on the Wannsee near Hitler’s Berlin and was cruelly “finalized” in such barbaric, violent, degrading death camps as Buchenwald near Goethe’s Weimar. The contrast between the “garden of paradise”—heaven on earth, as it were—in Sand’s A Scene from Wannsee, and the isolated oak, with its lower branches twisted like corpses, their leaves scattered on the earth like ash, in The Goethe Oak of Buchenwald, conveys the basic irony of Sand’s “final solution” series. Similarly, the difference between the uniformed, well-fed Nazis, among them Adolf Eichmann and Reinhard Heydrich, and one in a laboratory coat—perhaps one of the concentration camp doctors who broke their oath to do no harm by serving death rather than preserving life (is he carrying the child on his back into the gas chamber?)(6)—enjoying life in the Wannsee painting, and the two naked, emaciated, anonymous, youthful survivors of Buchenwald also epitomizes the irony that informs Sand’s series.

Irony exists within and compounds irony in Sand’s paintings: the Goethe oak and the Buchenwald figures are both victims and survivors of the ravages of Nazism. Even more complexly and ironically, the great oak, a traditional symbol of strength, and of Goethe, a symbol of German culture at its greatest, has perversely become a symbol of Nazi brutality, as the German Shepherd—a recurrent hound of hell in Sand’s pictures—that charges the two youths (vulnerably naked as though ready to enter the gas chamber for a “shower” to “clean” their “dirty” bodies)—suggests. The seated youth stares at the dog, the standing youth stares at the oak, as though at the future. Their youthfulness suggests they have a future, but it is not clear that they do, and that German culture does—that the German oak will be sturdy again. Pessimism seeps through Sand’s gloriously painted pictures, their sunny optimistic Impressionism ironically mediating a morbid depressing Expressionism. It is the contradiction that is the aesthetic core of his paintings.

Thus Sand’s Holocaust begins near a luminous lake and ends in a “black forest,” ironically suggesting that it was “spiritually” informed by the German romance with nature, famously evident in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings, hymns to nature even at its most indifferently destructive, as in The Wreck of the Hope, 1823-24, also known as The Sea of Ice, emblematic of the frigid coldness of pure death. Friedrich brings to pictorial consciousness the German unconscious wish for a romantic death in the crushing embrace of raw nature. The Nazis made this religious dream of romantic death—the fated overwhelming of humanity by death, its return by way of death to the nature from which it sprang—socially real. Sand ingeniously suggests that the Nazi destruction of the Jews was a pious act—the German Catholic Church finally broke with National Socialism when it realized that it was a national religion. The destruction of the Jews was a demonstration that the Nazis were a “sacred force of nature,” more pointedly, a way of restoring nature to health, for the Jews were a blight on it, a crime against and mistake of nature that had to be corrected by human nature at its purest—by the naturally heroic Aryan the Nazis imagined they were. They felt no guilt at murdering the Jews, for the Jews were murdered because they were guilty.

To uproot every last diseased Jew from nature was to renew its health. It had to be done, for otherwise the cancer of the Jew would endlessly metastasize until Jews overran and ruled the world, as Goering feared, so that the antidote of the Aryan could no longer work against the poison of the Jew. The nature that appears in Sand’s pictures is not incidental, but a symbol of perverse Nazi thinking. It is as peculiarly fraught with anxiety as his painterly Impressionism, reminding us of the Impressionists’ fascination with nature in all its “moods,” the intimate relationship of light and shadow that informs it, changing yet inseparable, like the relationship of life and death—equally natural—that is the subtext of Sand’s paintings. As I hope to show, Sand’s use of Impressionist aesthetics is of crucial importance for understanding his ironical “take” on the Nazis—his creative rather than destructive “final solution” to the problem of the Nazis as well as the Jews.

The subtle irony of Sand’s “final solution” paintings breaks new ground in modern history painting. They also have a special place in it because of their psychological acumen. Sand gives us psychological portraits of the participants in the historical events—emotionally telling portraits of very particular individuals. Modern history paintings tend to be sociological documents—a kind of reporting. There is little or no attention to—let alone insight into--the psyches of the people who make and pay the price of war: in Sand’s pictures, the ruthless Nazi soldiers and their helpless Jewish victims, the irreconcilable extremes of modern total war epitomized by the Nazi’s total war against the Jews. For Sand individuals are personally responsible for war, and individuals suffer and die in it. Certain individuals stand out of the crowd in his paintings, with the shock of recognition that accompanies the return of the repressed. They had become ghosts in photographs, memory traces with no emotional substance, but Sand’s painterliness brings the photographs to expressive life, giving the ghosts existential presence. Empty of feeling, the dead letter of the documentary photographs is brought to spiritual life by Sand’s vitalizing painterliness. Investing his feelings into the social facts fossilized in the photographs, he uncovers the feelings of the figures who appear in them, participates in history by working it through with his impassioned painterliness. Transforming the photographs into paintings, Sand re-lives history: what is finished social history in the photographs becomes unfinished emotional process in Sand’s paintings. Thus we see into the souls of the protagonists, as we rarely do in modern history paintings, where they are usually more “typical” than individual, defined by their social meaning rather than their unconscious motivation.

Thus, looking at some of the more famous renderings of modern warfare—Goya’s Disasters of War series, 1810, Otto Dix’s War series, 1924, Picasso’s Guernica, 1937 and his less celebrated Massacre in Korea, 1951 and War, 1954—what is striking is the anonymity of both the victims and victimizers. Picasso’s Guernica is an allegorical fantasy: war has lost its historical specificity and immediacy--it takes place nowhere in particular and for no historical reason, and is mediated by myth—Picasso’s myth of himself. The firebombing of Guernica by German war planes—officially the first Blitzkrieg, killing 1600 and wounding 880 civilians, and reducing the city to rubble--has become a bullfight. The bull—Picasso himself, surrounded by the young women he has “soul murdered,” to use Freud’s phrase—is triumphant. The minotaur that Picasso drew for the cover of the 1936 edition of the Surrealist magazine with that name makes the personal as well as surreal character of Guernica clear, for the minotaur--half irrational beast and half rational man, and as such a monstrous reconciliation of irreconcilable beings--is Picasso’s self-representation, that is, soul portrait.

Guernica is a failure as a representation of modern warfare, especially because the airplanes—a modern invention--are missing from the picture. Without the technologically sophisticated and efficient war machines of Hitler’s Condor Legion of Henkel 51s and Junkers 52, the Blitzkrieg would not have been possible. With the development of modern weapons warfare became more barbaric than ever—impersonally barbaric, rather than personally barbaric. In the barbaric bullfight one bullfighter faced and killed one bull; there was something personal about their confrontation, and mythological, for heroically slaying the bull the toreador became Hercules slaying the monstrous Hydra and St. George slaying the dragon. Flying high above them, Hitler’s German pilots did not have to face the people they killed, who remained faceless and depersonalized—anonymous victims of mass warfare, no more significant than the buildings destroyed by the bombs. They were “leveled,” for there was no “level playing field” on which they could meet and fight the pilots, the way the toreador met and fought the bull on the level playing field of the earth. High above the people they killed, the German pilots seemed innately superior to them, indeed, probably felt like gods, all the more so because of their technological advantage over them. Like the ancient Gods, they were the instruments of fate.

The Germans were superior to the Spanish because of their technological skill, organizational skill, and, one might say, their emotional skill: the dispassionate way they carried out the destruction of Guernica. It is the same set of skills they used to successfully solve “the Jewish problem.” The terrorizing and murdering of innocent civilians in Guernica was the small Holocaust that prefigured the large Holocaust that terrorized and murdered innocent Jews. The bombing of Guernica was a Blitzkrieg, the war against the Jews was slow and steady, but just as carefully calculated and deliberate. Like the death-dealing pilots of the Condor League, Eichmann and Heydrich were the death-dealing pilots of the Jewish Holocaust. The condor is a predator bird, and Eichmann and Heydrich were predatory beasts in human disguise. Sand subtly shows us their cool demeanor, conveying their unwavering sense of purpose. Insightfully, he suggests that their self-certainty involves a peculiar self-satisfaction. Self-possessed and confident, they seem the perfect Aryans. Sand has captured their attitude—their insular outlook--without betraying the historical facts, while Picasso betrays them to glorify himself. Using the historical event as an occasion for subjective expression, he blindsides us to its objective significance. His aggression subsumes Nazi aggression, as though it was more historically important. In Picasso’s Guernica internal reality replaces external reality, in effect falsifying it. In Sand’s “final solution” paintings they inform each other, making the paintings doubly convincing and classically eloquent. They tell the whole truth, not some idiosyncratic truth.

Again and again Picasso misses or ignores the technological point of modern warfare. The rifles the soldiers hold in Massacre in Korea are even more technologically primitive than those the soldiers hold in Goya’s The Third of May, 1808, 1814; Picasso’s painting is a crude caricature of it—a sort of comic strip version unequal to its tragedy. The weapons in War are primitive axes, spears, and swords rather than the technologically sophisticated tanks and airplanes that have marked warfare as modern since World War I. Picasso’s pictures have less to do with the conflict between nations and ideologies than with his own conflicted feelings. They are about his “style,” not the style of modern war. Goya’s Disasters of War are descriptive reports; the soldiers are a look-a-like anonymous group, their victims another anonymous group. Young women are gleefully raped, young men gleefully castrated; the soldiers are indiscriminately vicious. None of the figures has any distinctive identity. The same is true for the living and dead soldiers in Dix’s series dealing with disasters of World War I. It is more cynically realistic than Goya’s series dealing with the disasters of the war between the French and Spanish. Dix makes the grotesqueness and horror—the absurdity and madness—of war more explicit. Weapons appear in his pictures, but like those in Goya’s pictures they are rifles—hand-held personal rifles—rather than such impersonal weapons of mass destruction as the big German airplanes that dropped their bombs on Guernica. There is a numbing redundancy to the pictures of Goya and Dix, implying that all wars are essentially the same, while the variety of scenes in Sand’s pictures shows that they are not. Sand shows that war is more complex than they understood it to be. His pictures are profounder than those of Goya and Dix, for he shows how personal impersonal war can be, how all too human inhuman war can be, while they only show war’s impersonality and inhumanity. His technocratic-bureaucratic Nazis shows that he has a subtler understanding of the basic character of modern warfare than they do, and certainly more than the narcissistic Picasso was capable of.

Sand’s forlorn, isolated German Girl on a Road, May ’45, the month defeated Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies, has, ironically, become a Jew. Like the Jews she is a victim of war, lucky to be alive but living death, as the Jews did in the death camps. At the end of the war all of Germany had become a death camp, and all Germans persecuted pariahs, like the Jews. The irony of the painting seems latent, but it is aesthetically manifest in the dramatic contrast between the mournful black dress of the girl and the turbulent blankness of the background. She is a survivor and young, like the survivors of Buchenwald juxtaposed with the Goethe oak, and like them it is not clear what her future will be—what Germany’s future will be. For she is a symbol of Germany, the blonde Rhine Maiden who has brought hard times upon herself. She is hardly the pure Aryan a Nazi is supposed to be. Perhaps she is a Nazi, for her clothing is as black as an SS uniform, suggesting she symbolizes “black death.” She is depressed and desperate, as her downcast eyes suggest, and self-protective, as the left arm raised across her body suggests—Sand is a master of body language, showing an instant understanding of the meaning it expresses--but she stands upright and confronts us, like the equally isolated, abandoned Goethe oak. She, too, has been wounded by history even as she also made history. Like the Wannsee Nazis, her meaning is ambiguous. They stand in the sunlight, she stands in the darkness—they are the beginning of the Nazi story, she its end—but they have something in common. They are insufferable, she suffers, but they won’t miss the Jews they will murder, nor have any guilty second thoughts about planning to do so, and she is thinking of herself not of the Jews murdered to keep her pure.

As in all of Sand’s paintings, a moral question is posed: does she deserve to die, as Eichmann and Heydrich do? Shouldn’t she be killed, as they were in revenge for the killing of the Jews? Did the Jews deserve to die simply because they were Jewish? Are the Jews diseased, a thorn in the side of society, or is it Germany that is diseased, as its pathological destructiveness suggests? Similarly, should Janusz Korczak—Sand’s portrait of him is the companion piece to his portrait of the German Girl, inviting us to compare their mental states, more broadly, the world outlooks of the Aryan and the Jew—have followed the 200 peasant children he cared for in the Warsaw ghetto (some of them surround him in the painting, each with a personality of his or her own) into the gas chambers, or should he have accepted the freedom, and with that life, offered to him? It was a moral decision in an immoral world, indicating the basic difference between the Jews and the Nazis. The difference between the inherent dignity of Korczak and the dignity conferred on the Wannsee Nazis by their uniforms is yet another irony of Sand’s final solution series. Similarly, the difference between Korczak’s warm, concerned expression and the Wannsee Nazis’ cold, officious expressions form another ironical contrast. They are opposites that could only meet through death.

Sand’s psychological portraits of Rudolf Hess and Hermann Goering in Ich Bin der Zweite---both spontaneously and simultaneously shouted those words during the Nuremberg trials—reveals the inner life of the Nazis more than any of his other portraits do. Hitler was No. 1—Hitler is now clearly the secret presence in the picture—and both Hess and Goering thought they were No. 2. Had Hitler deliberately confused them about their position in the Nazi hierarchy? After all, nobody could replace him, however devoted to him they were. He alone was the true leader, the authentic Nazi, leading Germany to imperial greatness and Aryan authenticity, if also to catastrophe and defeat. Who else could have done that? Certainly not Hess and Goering, who lacked the will power to do so. Now that Hitler was dead, both thought they would be No. 1. Each would probably have killed the other to become the leader if they had the chance to do so. Ironically, there was no longer any Nazi Germany to lead. Ambitious to get ahead, there was no Germany at all to head. Germany had been drawn and quartered—literally--by the victorious Allies. There is something comic and farcical—or is it tragicomic?—about Hess’s and Goering’s wish to be the new Führer of a broken Germany. It is an ironical moment, for they are being tried for crimes against humanity, and facing life imprisonment or death. They deny the reality of their situation, revealing the compulsive desire for absolute power that motivated the Nazis. The passing moment of their courtroom encounter, socially as well as psychologically telling, has been rescued from oblivion by Sand’s historical research, making it all the more historically significant and memorable. It is further testimony to the Nazi delusion of grandeur.

The bright light in A Scene from Wannsee signifies the “light” the Nazis saw when they realized that the Jewish problem could be solved by technology, like the problem of war. Hitler had almost been killed by poison gas when he served as a soldier in World War I, barely escaping death—poison gas was a deadly new technology, a particularly effective instrument of war—so why not use poison gas to kill the Jews? And why not use the German railroads, which always ran on time, to bring them to the death camps. To make my point again: the Nazis in A Scene from Wannsee were unimaginative bureaucrats who understood that modern technology was the practical solution to every “theoretical” problem, including human and social problems, such as the “problematic” Jews. They were efficiency experts not original geniuses, party hacks not ideological visionaries, which is what Hitler was. Technology is amoral, but they put it to immoral use, indicating they were cogs in the Nazi machine, and as such what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott called “false selves,” unlike the old-fashioned Jews, clinging to their traditional beliefs and morality, and as such true to themselves.

Finally what do I mean by saying that Sand found a creative—ironically creative—rather than destructive solution to the Jewish problem and the Nazi problem? By way of the “spontaneous gesture” of his Impressionistic painterliness, and his “personalized idea” of both the Nazis and the Jews, he gives the Holocaust a “creative coloring,” so that it is no longer past history but lived experience. Sand’s True Self—spontaneous gesture and personalized idea are its attributes according to Winnicott—makes the creative best of the destructive Nazis and the suffering Jews. Ironically, his paintings imply that the evils of murder and suffering can be made good. For Sand, as for all true painters, aesthetics has moral import. Sand suggests that to make an aesthetically compelling painting can be a moral act, a sort of a saving aesthetic grace in a bad world.

Sand’s “final solution” paintings are tours de force of history painting, and unique by reason of the unique events they deal with, as well as unique in themselves. They stand on their own as masterpieces of painting.

(1)Quoted in Phyllis Goldstein, A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism (Brookline, MA: Facing History and Ourselves, 2012), 273
(2)Ibid., 269
(3)Ibid., 275-76
(4)Quoted in Fritz Stern, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the German Ideology (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1974), 292-93
(5)Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 242
(6)Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 1986), 17 regards “the Nazi state as a ‘biocracy.’ The model here is a theocracy, a system of rule by priests of a sacred order under the claim of divine prerogative. In the case of the Nazi biocracy, the divine prerogative was that of cure through purification and revitalization of the Aryan race…Nazi ruling authority was maintained in the name of the higher biological principle. Among the biological authorities called forth to articulate and implement ‘scientific racism’…doctors inevitably found a unique place. It is they who work at the borders of life and death, who are most associated with the awesome, death-defying, and sometimes death-dealing aura of the primitive shaman and medicine man.” Lifton implies that the Nazi doctors, who specialized in “medicalized or biologized killing,” were perhaps the most perversely idealistic Nazis, for they justified their murderous “experiments” by claiming they were scientific research, as though science was another dogmatic ideology.

(7)Ludwig von Bertalanffy, General Systems Theory (New York: George Braziller, 1968), 140-41. Ironically serious, Jacques Ellul, in The Technological Society (New York: Vintage, 1964), 136, notes that the “elimination of man is unavoidably necessary” in modern technological society. Human beings are “susceptible to emotional motivations which invalidate the mathematical precision of the machinery.” They are “a ‘coefficient of elasticity’ [that] causes imprecision, and imprecision is intolerable to technique. As far as possible, this source of error must be eliminated.” In technologically oriented Nazi society “emotional” Jews had to be eliminated because they were a biological “error.” They were all too human, and thus interfered with the smooth functioning of the sociobiological machinery—including war, which “scientifically” eliminated those with “bad blood,” that is, the racially impure--designed to mass produce Aryan robots.
The Nazis who met at Wannsee were concerned to find the most precise machinery—the correct technique—to eliminate the “error” of the Jews. The Wannsee planners were mechanical perfectionists, not just because they were military men, but because they believed in the Nazi ideal of the Aryan, perfect in body and mind, unlike the radically imperfect Jews. It is worth noting that Sand’s brushwork is far from mechanical—Impressionist technique can hardly be called mechanical—suggesting that its organic, personal, “disorder” is a way of subverting mechanical, impersonal Nazi “technique,” and more broadly the German penchant, carried to the extreme of becoming “law” by the Nazis, for order. Sand’s “untidy” brushwork, often seemingly brusque and chaotic, contradicts the neat, self-contained look of their uniform.


Message of the White Rose

Message of the White Rose

Peter Normann Waage:

I cannot imagine a more compelling, poignant nor currently relevant story, from the annals of World War II than that of “The White Rose”. The core of the group consisted of Professor Kurt Huber, as well as six of his students, the Hans and his younger sister Sophie Scholl, Alexander Schmorell, Christoph Probst, Willi Graf, and Traute Lafrenz. Their aim was to dismantle the barbaric Nazi regime, by fomenting an internal revolt of the German populace, by appealing to their moral and social conscience. In the middle of Europe’s darkest night, they chose to put up a fight, not with weapons, but with words. In 1942, they wrote and disseminated six lengthy leaflets across Germany and Austria, and painted slogans such as “Freedom” and “Down with Hitler” on the walls of Munich. They hoped to shake their fellow citizens out of their fear and slumber by reminding them of their moral responsibility to humanity. The group came to be known as the “White Rose”.

Against the physical might and power of the Nazi regime, these efforts could be considered hopeless and reckless, if one only focuses on the overwhelming physical might of the Nazi’s and disregards the spiritual element of the human spirit.

The Nazi authorities did not make the mistake of disregarding this element of spirit. They declared that the “White Rose” represented the greatest threat that was ever advanced against the Reich. The rebels were all executed by the guillotine, except for one, Traute Lafrenz. She escaped execution by outwitting the Gestapo agent who interrogated her since there was no evidence of her connection to the “White Rose” at that time. Still, she was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. Shortly after her release she was arrested once again, and this time following abundant evidence against her. Due to the ongoing war, her trial was repeatedly postponed, and at the last moment Traute was rescued by General Patton’s third army.

The deeds of the “White Rose” continued to have influence after the war. In 2005 the German television station ZDF invited viewers to nominate the greatest Germans of all time. Hans and Sophie Scholl came in fourth place, ahead of Goethe, Bach and Einstein. Among young viewers, the White Rose placed first.

Upon seeing a memorial plaque honoring Sophie Scholl many years after the war, Hitler’s secretary, Traudl Junge, realized that youth was not an acceptable excuse for what she had been a part of. Sophie was after all, one year younger than she. Traudl Junge used the last years of her life to acknowledge her guilt. – Through her book Until the Final Hour and the film Hitler: The Last Ten Days she wanted to show that the life she had led as a human being without a sense of moral responsibility had been proven deceitful and disgraceful. Just as the “White Rose” had desperately sought to convince their fellow Germans that they, in fact, bore moral responsibility, Traudl Junge hoped to regain her dignity as morally responsible human being.

To acknowledge and understand one’s own guilt is the essence of the White Rose’s message:

“The German people slumber on in their dull, stupid sleep and encourage these fascist criminals,” we can read in the second leaflet from the summer of 1942. “We give them the opportunity to carry on their plunder; and of course they do so.  Is this a sign that the Germans are brutalised in their simplest human feelings, that no chord within them cries out at the sight of such deeds, that they have sunk into a fatal conscienceless-ness from which they will never, never awaken? It seems to be so, and will certainly be so if the German does not at last start up out of his stupor; if he does not protest wherever and whenever he can against this clique of criminals; if he shows no sympathy for these hundreds of thousands of victims. Our fellow Germans must show not only sympathy – but much more than that. He must able to admit a sense of complicity in this guilt. For through their apathetic behaviour they give these evil men the opportunity to act as they do. […] Each man wants to be exonerated of a guilt of this kind, each one continues on his way with the most placid, and the most calm of conscienceness. But he cannot be exonerated; he is guilty, guilty, guilty!”
The “White Rose” won in the end, but victory over such evil can only be accomplished through individual human beings and must be repeated unceasingly. Through their actions and through their posthumous influence, the  young men and women of the “White Rose” demonstrate what a human being can accomplish when acting as an individual being, who does not renounce his or her responsibility or independence by running to join the flock of obedient followers. Responsibility and independence give a human being the status of individual.

But insights into one’s responsibility and one’s individuality are not a given. These must be recaptured continuously. Being an individual is not something one is, it is something we must constantly strive to be.

Peter Normann Waage is a Norwegian writer, translator and freelance journalist.  In 2010 he published the book Leve friheten! Traute Lafrenz og Den hvite rose. The German edition will be published in 2012.

Resisting Barbarism

Resisting Barbarism

Vebjorn Sand’s Humanistic History Painting by Donald Kuspit

The reign of the two Antonines is marked by the rare advantage of furnishing very few materials for history; which is indeed little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind. Edward Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire(1)
Since this [20th] century has taught us, and continues to teach us, that human beings can learn to live under the most brutalized and theoretically intolerable conditions, it is not easy to grasp the extent of the, unfortunately accelerating, return to what our nineteenth-century ancestors, would have called the standards of barbarism. Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes(2)
It is hardly necessary to stress that severely necrophilous persons are very dangerous. They are the haters, the racists, those in favor of war, bloodshed, and destruction. They are dangerous not only if they are political leaders, but also as potential cohorts for a dictatorial leader. They become the executioners, terrorists, torturers; without them no terror system could be set up. But the less intense necrophiles are also politically important; while they may not be among its first adherents, they are necessary for the existence of a terror regime because they form a solid basis, although not necessarily a majority, for it to gain and hold power. Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness(3)
Subjectivization of the universal—the work of art—can express the consciousness of an age either in its relationship to the universal, or in its relationship to the individual. Piet Mondrian, “The New Plastic in Painting” (4)
The universal that Vebjorn Sand’s art subjectivizes is history, more particularly certain objectively known events that occurred during Hitler’s reign in Germany. These horrendous events and the individuals involved in them—the resistance movement of The White Rose (Sophie Scholl and Roland Freisler); the suffering and deaths that occurred in Nazi extermination camps (The Drowned and the Saved, titled after Primo Levi’s last book about his experience in one of them); the so-called Final Solution of the Jewish problem (The Banality of Evil, titled after Hannah Arendt’s study of Adolf Eichmann, the ruthlessly efficient SS “specialist on the emigration and evacuation of Jews” to extermination camps,(5) who defended himself by saying that he was merely a bureaucrat following orders, a cog in the German war machine); The Surrender at Stalingrad of the German Field Marshal Friedrich Paulus’ Sixth Army; and, perhaps unexpectedly, The Story of Josef Schultz, an ordinary German soldier who refused to obey an order to execute partisans, immediately paying the price for his disobedience with his own life—are “treated freely,” as Sand suggests, that is, with subjective freedom, as though to engage, penetrate, and convey their own subjectivity. (All works 2011.) They are not matter of factly described, as though in a photographic record, but rather rendered through an imaginative reading of their feelings, a sort of empathic immersion in their psyches. Sand does not so much want to show how they actually looked—however much he does, conveying their social position and ages by way of their different outfits and faces, evident in photographs and films made at the time--as articulate their inner life at a decisive moment in their lives.

Sophie Scholl and Josef Schultz were almost the same age (Scholl was an adolescent, Schultz just out of adolescence), but they both had the courage to defy the Nazi system--to make a seemingly split second decision that led to certain death. So do the extermination camp victims, as their defiant, steady glances indicate. They look at us, as though to draw us into the picture, suggesting that we too can become victims and exterminated. Or perhaps to make us feel guilty, as though we are responsible for their suffering, however indirectly--personal responsibility for political events is a subliminal theme of Sand’s paintings. Perhaps we are also responsible for the rise of the Nazis: what did we do to prevent it? We may even turn our eyes away, as many German citizens did when the Nazis came to arrest and deport their fellow citizens because they were not Aryans. Or we may simply have an intellectual curiosity about their fate, which is another kind of indifference. Their glance at us—a traditional device to abolish the distance and boundary between the picture and the spectator—immediately establishes them as individuals. They are grouped together as though to form an anonymous mass, but they are clearly very particular people. Their faces remain unforgettable, however much we may forget their bodies when they disappeared in smoke, leaving behind nothing but anonymous ash.

Individuals in groups—the group of officers and officials in The Banality of Evil, the group of anonymous soldiers in The Story of Josef Schultz, the pile of bodies in The Surrender at Stalingrad, grouped together in anonymous death—are a basic theme of Sand’s paintings. More pointedly, he focuses on individuals who differentiate themselves by refusing to be an anonymous part of the group, who resist being assimilated into it by passively accepting its beliefs and ideology, who take a critical stand against it, as Scholl does to Freisler, a symbol of Nazi group thinking, and Schultz does with his fellow soldiers, who also think as a group, and as Paulus does when he refuses to obey Hitler’s order to fight to the death. They think for themselves, and as such against the mass mind, at its most unforgiving in totalitarian society, led by one narrow mind—the Führer.

None of Sand’s young victims—many of the extermination camp victims are as young as Scholl and Schultz—are emotionally helpless, however socially helpless they may be. They had integrity—an independent sense of self--and were even resourceful, like Traute Lafrenz, the last living member of the White Rose, who survived because she outsmarted the Nazis. Sand portrays her at the ripe old age of 93, sitting in front of an Angel Oak tree, still vigorously growing despite its old age. She is all by herself—not part of any group—and as such a sort of pure spirit, implicitly soaring like the tree behind her.

Sand seems interested in the familiar adolescent rebellion against adult power and authority—standard intergenerational conflict—but in his pictures the context of the conflict is not the family but society as a whole. The conflict has an existential and social urgency it does not ordinarily have. What is at stake is human dignity—the dignity evident in Scholl and Schultz, who stand up to social tyranny, who resist a terror system, however futilely. Lafrenz is the epitome of dignity—transcendent dignity, for it has clearly triumphed over terror. Scholl maintains her dignity and self-possession despite her youth, holding her own against the persecutory, not to say predatory Freisler. Schultz also remains emotionally intact, despite the two soldiers who enclose him, ready to do their duty by shooting him. However young, they are fearless, and firm in their convictions.

The White Rose was a youth movement before the idea of a youth movement became commonplace. One only has to think of the American and European youth movements of the 1960s, and of the current youth movement in Arab countries-- rebelliously disaffected youth who have recognized the injustice of the dictatorial elders who rule their countries, just as the White Rose did, and have the same determination to resist and overthrow it--to get the point. But the media are only interested in reporting the Arab rebellion, treating it as an unusual social spectacle, more of historical importance than personal importance. The “objective” media do not attend to the individuals involved in it—at least not with any seriousness, let alone sustained seriousness, and depth of “coverage”--unless to “sensationalize” their intense feelings is to treat them seriously. In abrupt contrast, Sand focuses on the individual, suggesting that “objective” social resistance has profound “subjective” import—that it is always particular individuals who revolt against tyranny, and who do so not simply to assert their own individuality but in the name of individuality as a human right. Sand shows that social rebels are unique individuals, standing apart from the obedient masses. He identifies with them the better to understand—and gratefully admire—their motivations, not to say their seriousness and conscience. However much they deal with events that are not contemporary, Sand’s paintings have contemporary import, all the more so because they are a humane, heartfelt response to a world that seems to have become even more barbaric than it was in Nazi times, as the increasing number of genocidal wars suggests—a point made emphatically clear by Hobsbawm(6)--and thus more inhumane and heartless. Barbarism and suffering are always topical, all the more so when they seem to have become continuous and incurable, irreversible and irredeemable, which is why the past history pictured by Sand remains topical, present in our consciousness as well as fixed forever in our collective memory. Such events occurred in everyday life, and have become a part of our daily life, epitomizing the barbarism and suffering everywhere. The Nazis may seem like old news, but they look very new and powerful in Sand’s paintings, reminding us that they are still in fashion, however much their uniforms have changed.

In a sense, Paulus’ defiance of Hitler (literally as well as emotionally), had greater consequence than Scholl’s and Schultz’s defiance, for it saved a whole army—many of his soldiers were probably as young as they were--and for that matter Paulus himself. He showed that he loved life more than death, which Hitler loved. Hitler was the exemplary necrophiliac, Fromm convincingly argues—necrophilia understood as “malignant aggression,” and as such a “psychopathological phenomenon,” involving “narcissism and indifference,” a sense of “unbearable impotence and nothingness” that Hitler could only escape “by affirming himself in the act of destruction” of life(7)—but Paulus, however much he served Hitler, affirmed life when death, on a massive scale, seemed inevitable. He became an individual and person rather than a commander impersonally following orders from his superior—the leader whose commands he always obeyed, until the moment when the choice was between life and death. Choosing life over death Paulus became a greater and wiser human being than Hitler. Rather than brutally enforce Hitler’s orders, he showed compassion for his soldiers, in effect re-humanizing himself by stepping out of the role of the dehumanized military man mindlessly following a dictator.
Sand insists he is not “directly a history painter,” but only uses “history as an inspiration,” but the fact of the matter is that the only history that inspires him is uninspiring, not to say morbid, however inspired his paintings—with their “good composition” and “painterly approach”--undoubtedly are. It is the contradiction between his disturbing subject matter and his painterly composition of them that makes his paintings dialectically uncanny and unnerving. Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who followed his father Antoninus Pius as the emperor of Rome,“detested war, as the disgrace and calamity of human nature,” as Gibbon wrote,(8) but Adolf Hitler, the Nazi dictator of Germany, reveled in the destructiveness of war and human nature, the inhumanity that paradoxically confirms that he was all too perversely human. Even animals were not spared, as the dead Horses on a Road show, suggesting just how completely Hitler hated life in all its forms. But it is Sand’s impassioned painterliness that convinces us that the horses have been brutally slaughtered—that they are not simply dead, but reek of suffering, and continue to suffer: it is the suffering in the bloody painterliness that engages us, not simply the raw fact of death, materialized in their collapsed bodies. Sand’s painterliness strikes an unconscious nerve, all the more so because it suggests that the horses are conscious of being dead, even as it signals their horrified consciousness at the moment they were being killed, and the shock they suffered.

Sand’s nuanced, brooding painterliness—sometimes excited, even turbulent; sometimes calm, even serene--registers the complicated feelings war arouses, the mixed feelings of elation and melancholy that the powerful often have, as the figures of Paulus and his second in command, General Lieutenant Arthur Schmidt, the central figures in The Surrender at Stalingrad, suggest. At the same time, Sand’s complex compositions convey the complex drama of war, implicit in the tension between such antagonistic combatants as Scholl and Freisler, and between Schultz, breaking ranks, and his now alien (and alienated) “comrades.” More generally, the opposition of “positive” light and “negative” dark that haunts, indeed, informs Sand’s painterly space--often conspicuously, as in the difference between the illumined face of Schultz and the dark uniforms of his captors; or in the ironically sunlit garden tables and the business-like drabness of the military plotters and their civilian advisors in The Banality of Evil; or in the conflict of light and dark in The Drowned and the Saved and the Surrender at Stalingrad—dramatizes the unresolved war implicit in the images. Sand’s painterliness conveys the internal reality of the external scene—the feelings at play in the figures, the feelings that link them, for better or worse, feelings conveyed by their body language and color of their clothing, feelings that unsettle the composition even as they confirm its intricacy, that show that it is an emotional as well as social drama, that Scholl, Schultz, even Paulus, have a certain emotional beauty however ugly and sordid the scene. And that Sand’s paintings have psychological depth as well as social significance, for he gives us psychological portraits of his figures as well as socially realistic representations of their situations—existentially as well as socially “extreme situations,” to use Sartre’s term.

Scholl and Schultz may be in a more difficult situation than Paulus, for their suffering remains hidden behind their virginity and inexperience—their fresh faces--while Paulus’ long experience and familiarity with war has marked his face. He is certainly more seasoned and ready to do battle than they are (which is what makes his Surrender at Stalingrad remarkable). The words of the medieval Palais de l’Honneur seem to apply to them: “Over the coats-of-arms of nuns is set a garland comprising white rose branches with leaves, flowers and thorns, denoting the chastity which the bearers have preserved amid all life’s thorns and mortifications.”

The underlying theme of Sand’s World War II series is the brutalization of human beings by ideology, turning them into machine-like instruments of the ideological system, and the conscience that enables certain human beings to question and resist the ideology, and act against its enforcers and true believers, at the expense of their own lives. Sand’s paintings are humanistic narratives with a social cutting edge. On the one hand, he paints social conformists, such as the Nazi judge Freisler, the Nazi soldiers surrounding Schultz, the Nazi officers and officials planning the Final Solution. All have sacrificed their individuality to the “cause,” identify with the “cause,” live only for the “cause.” They have no other reason for being, suggesting the reason they ruthlessly and remorselessly enslave, persecute, and exterminate people who have other reasons for being. Members of the master race, they show the Nazi will to power in raw form, however refined, civilized, and respectable they may look, as the figures in The Banality of Evil do. Sand may be an “indirect” history painter, and his paintings may have an ironical cutting edge, but they show, with stark directness, the barbarism of the Nazis and their total war against humanity. On the other hand, Sand paints nonconformists with a will and judgment of their own, such as Scholl, Schultz, Lafrenz, and, unexpectedly, Paulus. Their conscience—their refusal to blindly follow the leader, to obey his orders because of their cruelty--brings into question the leadership principle (Führerprinzip) that was the ultimate basis of Nazi authority. It makes them noble: Scholl, Schultz, and Paulus stand nobly upright, and Lafrenz is enthroned like a proud queen. They are just, reflective human beings, unlike the typical German soldier. He was required to take a personal oath of loyalty to Hitler, obeying him without reservations and reflection. They become submissive, uncritical mass men rather than free-thinking individuals. The contradiction between Sand’s Nazi conformists and his anti-Nazi nonconformists reflects the contradiction in human nature.

Sand is a history painter in more ways than one; his works evoke art history as well as convey social history. He is a traditionalist, however modernist his painterliness. He makes masterpieces rather than “experiments”—consummate works of art rather than transient novelties--and his model is the romantic masterpiece. “The sight of a masterpiece checks you in spite of yourself, captivates you in a contemplation to which nothing binds you except an invincible charm,” Delacroix wrote (1854).(9) A charismatic masterpiece is “closer to the human heart for being more material,” he added. Its rich materiality—romantic painterliness, one might say—evokes what is “inward” even as it makes the “objects” it “realizes” more “striking to the senses” than they would ordinarily be. It gives them emotional substance, as it were, as well as physical substance. To me, Sand is inseparable from Delacroix, both in his handling and composition. Sand extends the evocative power of Delacroix’s rich painterliness—the beginning of the modern emphasis on the medium for its own aesthetic sake--to new depths by investing it with expressionistic intensity, as in Horses on a Road and The Surrender at Stalingrad, and impressionistic subtlety, as in his treatment of the background nature in The Banality of Evil and Traute Lafrenz. Expressionism and Impressionism amplify romantic painterliness, making it at once more powerful and intimate--more subjectively “necessary”--without denying the necessity of the objective, as Abstract Expressionism and Impressionistic Abstraction finally did. Sand is in rebellion against their repudiation of what Kandinsky called the “distracting support” of reality at the expense of what he called the “purely artistic” or abstract, realizing that unless one “complements” the other—as Kandinsky said they did in traditional art—the resulting one-dimensional art is peculiarly pointless.

The Surrender at Stalingrad seems particularly indebted to Delacroix; it appears to allude to Delacroix’s The Bark of Dante, 1822. The upright figures of Paulus, in his dark overcoat, and Schmidt, in his white overcoat, echo the upright figures of Dante and Virgil in Delacroix’s masterpiece. Dante stands to Virgil’s right, the way Schmidt stands to Paulus’s right. Like Paulus, Virgil’s clothing is dark, and like Schmidt, Dante’s clothing is white. Virgil guides and leads Dante’s through hell, just as Paulus presides over the hell of war. Both command the scene, as it were. Dante wears a head covering which comes down over his ears, and Schmidt wears an officer’s hat and a red scarf that hides his ears. Dante has his right arm raised, Schmidt has his right arm lowered, aiming his pistol at a fallen figure. The dead male nude below him has an uncanny resemblance to the dead male nude floating in the water below Dante. Taken together, the vertical living figures and the dead horizontal figures form a sort of perverse cross—marking a spiritual graveyard, one might add. The upright figures are fully conscious, the hellishly dead figures represent the death that unconsciously haunts and stalks them. The distribution of light and dark and colors in Sand’s painting reflects their distribution in Delacroix’s painting. Both paintings have a garish nightmarish look—bad, mad dreams—but everything in them, down to the least detail, seems bizarrely real.

It is worth noting that the two central upright figures and the “platform” of dead bodies they stand on—including the two horizontally laid out figures—in Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, 1830 follows the same compositional pattern as The Bark of Dante. Sand’s composition emulates both, however unwittingly. It is also worth noting, perhaps more coincidentally, than the boy accompanying Liberty carries a gun in each hand; Schmidt carries a gun in one hand, and perhaps the other, hidden by Paulus’ figure. One might also note that Delacroix and Sand use clothing to expressive and symbolic effect, as their mastery of the texture and folds of different kinds of cloth—from Freisler’s great red robe, spreading in space the way the Nazi’s spread across Europe, to Scholl’s confining red dress, anticipating her confinement in prison; from the uptight soldiers’ uniforms to the lyrically relaxed clothes of Lafrenz; from the greatcoats of Paulus and Schmidt to the flimsy, threadbare clothing of the death camp inmates; from the smooth skin of the Nazi officers and officials to the wrinkled skin of Lafrenz—convincingly suggests.

The uncanny “affinity” of the two masterpieces seems no accident, not only because Delacroix was the “model” romantic painter, but because both fuse “intensity” and “concision,” to use the words Baudelaire used in analytic praise of Delacroix’s paintings. Delacroix was one of “the rare elect,” Baudelaire wrote, a “beacon” of imaginative art, an artist who “decomposes all creation,” including what history has created, I would add, and recomposes the “raw materials…in accordance with rules whose origins one cannot find save in the furthest depths of the soul,” that is, the unconscious, resulting in a “new” vision.(10) Like Delacroix, Sand is a visionary painter, offering a memorable new vision of a side of life we tend to forget, and expressing emotions we tend to suppress, however strong they are.

(1)Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire [1776], ed. D. M. Low (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960), 44
(2)Eric Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1991 (New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 13
(3)Erich Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1975), 409
(4)Piet Mondrian, “The New Plastic in Painting” [1917], The New Art—The New Life: The Collected Writings of Piet Mondrian, eds. Harry Holtzman and Martin S. James (New York: Da Capo, 1993), 42
(5)Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 35
(6)Hobsbawm, 13 writes: the 20th century “was without doubt the most murderous century of which we have record, both by the scale, frequency and length of the warfare which filled it, barely ceasing for a moment in the 1920s, but also by the unparalleled scale of the human catastrophes it produced, from the greatest famines in history to systematic genocide.” He notes (12) that a “recent estimate of the century’s ‘megadeaths’ is 187 million, which is the equivalent of more than one in ten of the total world population in 1900.”

“Barbarism has been on the increase for most of the twentieth century,” Hobsbawm writes, “and there is no sign that the increase is at an end.” By barbarism he means “the disruption and breakdown of the system of rules and moral behavior by which all societies regulate the relations among their members and, to a lesser extent, between their members and those of other societies.” More particularly, barbarism means “the reversal of what we may call the project of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, namely the establishment of a universal system of such rules and standards of moral behavior, embodied in the institutions of states dedicated to the rational progress of humanity: to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness, to Equality, Liberty and Fraternity.” When “traditional controls disappear,” we have to get used “to living in a society that is uncivilized.” It is a society that has “got used to killing,” a society where “ruthlessness and violence” are routine, and as such a society of “great inhumanity.” Or else, as Sand’s vulnerably human heroes do, resist it with all one’s humanity and dignity—the dignity that comes with being civilized. Hobsbawm, “A User’s Guide to Barbarism,” On History (New York: New Press, 1997), 253-54

It is worth noting that inhumanity—dehumanization, decivilization--occurs even in death camps, not only because they are inherently inhumane and barbaric and indecent, but because their general purpose is to break down one’s sense of self and individuality, and with that one’s capacity to hold one’s own and maintain one’s own decency, and thus rise above one’s suffering, perhaps even to resist the terror system in which one is trapped, in whatever limited, small, personal way—thus re-personalizing oneself in the impersonal camp environment--even at the cost of one’s life, in any case suspended and finally forfeit because one is in a death camp. The social contract collapses in the death camp, resulting in the tragic anti-sociality Primo Levi describes in The Drowned and the Saved (New York: Vintage Books, 1989), 38: “One entered hoping at least for the solidarity of one’s companions in misfortune, but the hoped for allies, except in special cases, were not there; there were instead a thousand sealed off monads, and between them a covert and continuous struggle. This brusque revelation, which became manifest from the very first hours of imprisonment, often in the instant form of a concentric aggression on the part of those in whom one hoped to find future allies, was so harsh as to cause the immediate collapse of one’s capacity to resist.” Paradoxically, it is the same malignant aggression that Hitler had, according to Fromm, suggesting an unconscious identification with the aggressor by his victims—but also by the Germans who formed what Fromm calls “the solid basis” of the Nazi terror system, who enacted its terror if only by resigning themselves to it, even regarding it as necessary for maintaining social order--indicating that necrophilia is contagious. Once in the grip of death, one becomes deadly, wittingly or unwittingly, just as the death camps enacted deadliness, socially objectified Hitler’s vicious subjectivity. For Fromm, social pathology unavoidably bespeaks personal pathology, and vice versa. There is a death wish implicit in every act of violent aggression—aggression which violates human rights, which threatens the existence of other human beings--the more malignant the more irreversible.

What is particularly remarkable about Scholl, who was a member of the White Rose—what Levi calls a special case of alliance, a collective held together by conscience and youth—and, in my opinion, even more remarkable about Schultz and Paulus, who acted alone and spontaneously, without any allies or group support (until they were individually identified and arrested and executed for treason, the members of the White Rose could rely on each other’s support, and remained anonymous), is that they remained calm and collected in a society that was in principle a madhouse and death camp. They were not infected by the death everywhere around them. The pile of bodies below Paulus constitute a sort of death camp, implying that the German army he commanded was a sort of concentration camp—one had to obey orders, including the order to die in battle (one would be killed for any disobedience, as Schultz instantly was)--however much he became a disillusioned “savior” when he refused to follow Hitler’s order to fight to the death. For me, Paulus is Sand’s most inspired figure, his most penetrating psychological portrait, for Sand brilliantly conveys Paulus’ state of mind at the moment he has to make his difficult choice, the moment of conflict that all of Sand’s heroes had to face, the moment when he made a decision that turned him into a more paradoxical hero than any of them: the decision to be or not to be a Nazi, that is, to obediently go along with the Nazi regime or to resist it whatever consequences. Either one identified with the master race, proclaiming one’s superiority to the human race, or became a member of the human race by rejecting the master race, as Paulus—a very elite member of the master race—finally did when he refused to follow in Hitler’s necrophilous footsteps, suggesting his disillusionment with Hitler and the Nazi will to power. Sand’s ironical painting—an aesthetic masterpiece as well as a masterpiece of psychosocial insight--shows how Nazi destructiveness became self-destructive. It also prefigures the “final solution” of the Nazi problem: Paulus’s Surrender at Stalingrad was the beginning of the end of the Nazi regime.
(7)Fromm, 406-407
(8)Gibbon, 45
(9)Quoted in Michele Hannoosh, Painting and the Journal of Eugene Delacroix (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 30, 41
(10)Charles Baudelaire, “The Salon of 1859,” The Mirror of Art, ed. Jonathan Mayne (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1956), 234-35