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
(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