'Holocaust Portraits,' this week at Evening at Egan

Posted: Thursday, November 04, 2010

Why make art with a disturbing message?

Courtesy Of Marty Kalb
Courtesy Of Marty Kalb

It's a question visiting artist Marty Kalb will address this week during his visit to the University of Alaska Southeast, and one that suggests many interesting answers - some of which may be spurred by viewing Kalb's own work, the Holocaust Series.

One possible answer, true for this viewer: Kalb's drawings and paintings of Holocaust victims may allow for an emotional and personal engagement with a subject that is otherwise too horrifying to face.

Jane Terzis, associate professor of art at UAS and Kalb's former student at Ohio Wesleyan, said that when she saw Kalb's Holocaust Series for the first time, she was surprised by how the images pulled her in.

"For me, like most people, my reaction has been to turn away ... (but) when I saw Marty's drawings and paintings, I stood there for a long time staring at them," she said. "I realized I had been given permission to look carefully at this stuff and I had a very different reaction to them."

Kalb, Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Ohio Wesleyan University, will be the featured speaker at this week's Evening at Egan presentation, "Holocaust Portraits, Victims, Perpetrators, Witnesses." The lecture begins at 7 p.m. in the Egan Library at UAS. Kalb's visit to Juneau is co-sponsored by Terzis and UAS associate professor of history, Robin Walz, and will continue next week with visit to UAA and UAF.

Kalb's Evening at Egan presentation draws on, but is distinct from, his Holocaust Series, which focuses mainly on victims. It includes a chronological progression of images from as early as the late 1930s, and some text, and is silent.

"The images are of people, they're portraits, so to speak, of perpetrators, victims and witnesses," Kalb said. "I want people to see who was involved as human beings."

Though it's tempting to view them as monsters, bringing the perpetrators back into the human realm is a step toward understanding how such brutality is possible. Looking at photos of the doctors, responsible for some of the most horrific crimes, Kalb said he was struck by how harmless they looked.

"You look at them and they look like somebody's grandpda. I want that sense of their presence as people."

By grouping victims, perpetrators and witnesses together, Kalb also underscores the idea that everyone involved in the Holocaust, either directly or indirectly, was in some way a victim.

"Even though they might not all have been tortured, or in some way or another physically harmed, they were, in my view, victims of a situation that caused them to do things that are inhumane."

Kalb, who is Jewish, began his Holocaust series in the 1990s, but it is by no means his only artistic focus. His subjects range from colorful landscapes and waterfalls to female figures and abstract geometric pieces, many reflecting his attraction to things that are "outwardly and conventionally beautiful." His work is included in more than a dozen major museums throughout the country, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.

The works that make up the Holocaust Series are based on documentary images in the public domain. Kalb's drawings and paintings combine the realism of those images with more abstract elements, and tend to be "a little less real," allowing room for a more emotional connection. In one drawing, a young girl of about 14 or 15 lies on the ground with a bullet hole in her cheek, her eyes completely blank. In another, a girl looks out from a train bound for Auschwitz. Though unidentified in the original photo, Kalb later learned she was of Gypsy decent, and, after extensive research, was able to give her back her name.

In addition to their more abstract nature, the drawings and paintings show evidence of the artist's presence, unlike a photograph, a difference that Kalb said may help create a kind of shared experience between artist and viewer.

"The message coming from the work is in a sense mediated ... they're saying in a sense, 'look at this with me.'"

Terzis said she met Kalb in the 1960s, when she was an undergraduate student at Ohio Wesleyan, where Kalb taught for 40 years before retiring two years ago. She said one of the main things she took away from her experience with him - other than a friendship, which has continued to the present day - has been to present her artwork from the heart.

"He was a great mentor to me," Terzis said. "In fact, he taught all the classes that I teach at the university now. He had a tremendous amount to do with my becoming an artist."

Terzis, chair of the humanities department at UAS, said she's explored disturbing themes in her own work, such as in her solo show, "Prayer for the Protection of All Beings" at the Alaska State Museum in 2005. In that show she created 52 graphite drawings of the same face on different bodies, each with a subtitle that began with the words, "I have the capacity ..." Endings ranged from disturbing ("to kill") to reassuring ("for kindness"), provoking noticeably different reactions in the viewer, Terzis said. Her artist's statement for the show included a quote from W.H. Auden: "Evil is unspectacular and always human / And shares our bed and eats at our own table."

Kalb's work may raise more questions than it answers about morality and the nature of evil, but to him, this is as it should be.

"My work is for me a small part in raising these questions," he said.

"In the end, you don't have as an individual the answers to all the problems, but you need to be involved in helping to solve them."

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