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Mauricio Lasansky:  Thematic Retrospectives

The Nazi Drawings of Mauricio Lasansky


The following introduction, and subsequent essay that accompanies the drawings, was written by Professor Edwin Honig of Brown University—author, poet and himself a Guggenheim Fellow.

Rarely can the artist put down in his own medium an imaginatively mature vision of his time that is made up of his own experience and also actively invokes the experience of millions of his contemporaries. There is something special about such an art, and something special about the response it calls forth. Whatever else it may be, such an art is an act of partisanship—it takes sides in a very personal way. As a document it also stirs the partisan feelings of its beholders. Bosch, Goya, Daumier, and Picasso created overpowering artistic documents of this sort, charged with the artist's most personal and most mature idiom.

As his contemporaries we should not find ourselves at ease with what Mauricio Lasansky has done, if only because the subject of The Nazi Drawings is a part of our past that still disturbs us. Yes, we can pass them by and look elsewhere, or we can stare at them, examine them with fascination. Whatever we do, the drawings will continue to disturb us. And no wonder, since they constitute such an awesome rendering of our times—our worst historical experiences reduced to basic terms of manmade slaughter, innocent suffering, erotic and religious demonism, and these recorded in the simplest medium an artist can use: lead pencil, earth colors, turpentine wash, and a common commercial paper.

Looking with shock-fascinated eyes at the drawings, it comes to us that we are the prurient observers, the guilty bystanders who survived these terrors of human history. We have survived, but at what price, with what knowledge and understanding of our own participation in events now rigidified in the nightmare of the past? Now that those events have become matters of innocent curiousity to human beings born since, we keep wondering how we could continue in silent anguish as survivors of that period all these years.

There is no answer. One can only say that to the young, forever being born, we are the living reminders of the Nazi concentration camp era. The way we smile, our gestures, our turns of speech, the very lines of our faces, still bear witness to the terror, grief and guilt (including relief from terror, grief and guilt) that culminated with the Nazis. It is a piece out of our own lives and past that the artist of these drawings is recording. How can we then expect him to be gentle and comfort us if he is to be honest—that is, if he is to represent what happened, what is still visible in us, with the total imagination of what it takes to be a man?

These drawings were made by a committed human being, and artist advocating the truth of the total imagination. This means that his art is illustrative because it represents the truth, and representative because it is moral and dramatic.

From first to last the drawings enact drama that presupposes something like a documentary series of events that actually took place. These are the events that occur again as we look at the drawings. Reality becomes what is being done to and by human beings, not why it is being done, in the drawings; from our critical view of this it follows that to do what is being done here entails the loss of all human and spiritual values. As in any drama, getting at the sense of the action means putting ourselves behind the eyes not of the actors but of the creator, seeing and feeling what his language tells us he has seen and felt.

Lasansky is a survivor who in his drawings is still there, in the Nazi camps, so that we view his work as a continuing rehearsal of the drama of what it means to have survived that experience. We see it with him in the demonic halflight between living and dying—and this is the central condition in all the drawings—where there is little difference between being alive and being dead.

To understand the drawings is to discover precisely what is going on in them—that is, to see them as a pictorial drama of death and human deprivation, from which we have even now barely recovered, unfolding scene by scene, in the numerical order the artist has designated for them. Also, we must understand their dimensions, for almost all the drawings are quite large; roughly six feet high by four feet wide. The exceptions are the first four portraits (of Nazi killers) and a concluding group of five portraits (of agonized infants). In each instance Lasansky insists on the human scale, thereby making his subjects quite literally life-size. In this way their physical scale helps to embody the dignity and horror the artist is committed to dramatizing in the drawings.

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