In writing about the reasoning behind my making the ongoing series of paintings that form under the heading “holocaust”, please understand that my explanation for my need to paint in relation to my personal history and the history of my mostly murdered ancestry is complex and many layered. I have spent most of my life so far in contemplation of my infamous inheritance. My need to paint about it is driven by unseen forces, the demands of dead relatives to be heard or at the very least put to rest, for no one came to bid them farewell on their lonely departure nor gave them the simple courtesy of a burial. The reality of my childhood, the confusing responses and legacy of fear that my parents, who were both survivors, handed to me demands the conscience searching and self-examination today that I was incapable of making as a child. To imagine such cruelty and hatred that my own parents experienced first hand is still to this very day difficult for me to comprehend. Perhaps every painting that comes out of me is in some way rooted in the holocaust. It is impossible for me to separate out those components of my psyche that are unaffected by it.
The ideological terror perpetrated by the Nazi regime and its subsequent historical discoveries has been and is still being analyzed in great and varied depth. The Holocaust Museum in Washington is currently the most visited public museum in the USA. It should be remembered that pre 1936, 15% of the population of Poland was Jewish whilst in Germany it was barely 2%. However, there was no mention of the events of World War II, nor Germany’s involvement in it, taught in German schools until the late 1960’s. There was no public discussion of the holocaust in Poland at all until 1989. The Jews of northern Europe had reached a cultural pinnacle in the late 19th and early days of the 20th century, a sort of Jewish renaissance. The destruction of their cultural achievements and the consequent break in the continuity of their artistic evolution has had a profound effect on the arts in Europe that I believe still continues today.
My effort to find imagery that does not exploit or trivialize the experiences of those that suffered but that does in a deep way connect with the pain and suffering that was inflicted, has been my main concern. I seek to connect emotionally so that I can best interpret the reality of the events that took place and communicate them in the hopes that they will not be repeated. The holocaust has been portrayed in film and on TV to such an extent and often with such insensitivity that most of the common themes of those times have been reduced to cliché, a betrayal in itself. To find a lexicon that for me has truth and, above all meaning, in relation to this historical tragedy continues to be my utmost desire. It is a journey through a dark landscape that I am still traveling.
All images and text © Geoffrey Laurence
Book By Geoffrey Laurence
It happened like this: I was living in New York and had given my mother a fax machine before I left London, so that we could communicate more easily. I had written to her every week for 4 yrs and then on one night in 1996, I wrote a single line to her “Am I Jewish?” I waited anxiously for her reply, there is a seven hour difference in the time. I got back a single sheet with “Yes” written on it.
I had been brought up as a child in a state of confusion over my heritage. My father had survived Sachsenhausen and Dachau and my mother had escaped to England after Kristallnacht on the ‘Kindertransport’ from Holland. My grandparents on my father’s side had committed suicide and on my mother’s were sent to Terezin with her grandparents. My uncles, aunts , cousins and their spouses and children had been killed in work camps or concentration camps. This much I knew, as I was well aware of the lack of relatives around me whilst growing up in England, in comparison to other childhood friends who seemed to get far more birthday gifts and greetings cards than me on their special days.
I also knew that my father had served as an officer in the US Army and that he had been present in 1945 at the liberation of Dachau. He had lectured me often, from a very early age, on life in the camp and the treatment of prisoners and the particular abuse meted out to him by a guard who had taken a dislike to him. During these lectures, behind the locked door of his study, I was made to look over and over again at an album that contained photos he had taken during the liberation of Dachau showing the piles of emaciated bodies and skinny people hung from gallows etc. Perhaps it was this album that led to my search for images that would free me, free them.
My mother would not talk with me at all about her own experiences nor intervene in my father’s psychological torture during these ‘sessions’. She knew it was wrong but also that the events they had both lived through denied any moral compass to steer by or culpability in their responses. During the aftermath of World War II, thousands upon thousands of displaced and physically or psychically damaged people were wandering the globe or kept in transit camps well into the late 1950’s, with no psychological evaluation or help from professionals trained in that area of medicine.
In contradiction of all that I intuitively knew, my father would occasionally make anti-Semitic remarks and talk about ‘the bloody Jews’, forbidding my mother to use garlic in the kitchen – “Jew food!” – and strike me across the face if I talked with my hands “Jews talk with their hands!”. I found out much later, before my mother died, that my father had even gone to the length of making my mother sign a legal document (he had been trained in law at university and was in training to be a high court judge when he was interned in Sachsenhausen) on the eve of their wedding in Pennsylvania in 1949, swearing to never disclose under any circumstances their Jewish heritage.
During my childhood and early adulthood, I had always tried to find ways to avoid being asked to divulge my ethnicity. When asked directly if I was Jewish, I would feel my face turning a deep crimson and unable to answer, would find some way to deflect the conversation to another topic. Thus writing to her that night and asking was extremely loaded for both of us. My father had recently been put into an old age home and was no longer in my mother’s presence. I guess I felt it was time to finally face the fear I had been running from for years. That single word answer led directly to my feeling I was able finally to take on the task of painting about the Holocaust and its direct influence on me as an artist.
During my time in New York, I had been making paintings exploring the deeper psychological barriers of society and studying the history of European painting, making weekly visits to the Metropolitan and Frick museums etc. A vast section of which could be classed as historical genre painting showing men and women in war, in battle, in tortured states of being through wounds from battle. I wondered how I too could make genre paintings that confronted the very modern reality of the camps and WWII, based on my personal psychic knowledge of its trauma, that had been knowingly or unknowingly transferred by my parents onto me.
I found myself gravitating more and more towards the idea of making a series of painting that would emotionally convey aspects of the reality of Jewish survivors. Aspects that I felt had not satisfactorily been dealt with in film and on TV. Around that time, I had been to see a popular holocaust movie and had come away feeling dissatisfied. It was certainly a very well made and moving film but I did not feel it answered the unique emotional reality that I had observed over more than 20 years in my own family home.
Thus I embarked on making the series of paintings that you will see in this book. It is by no means the only subject that I paint about and I do not know how many more paintings, if any, there will be or even what form they will take. Perhaps every painting I make, no matter what subject, is somehow influenced by my emotional inheritance as a second-generation survivor. I think it is impossible for any artist to remove their personal experiences and cultural background from what they produce day by day in their studios. I have always made work in an instinctual way, allowing the ideas and their eventual progress to the finished canvas to surface on their own way. Art is a mystical experience for both the creator and the viewer.
I hope that the paintings in this book move you and inspire thought, in ways I could not begin to know.
By Geoffrey Laurence
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