The room was simple, with nothing to indicate that this was the front of the room except a few dozen folding chairs all facing the same direction. The ceilings were low, not typical of any church sanctuary or auditorium that I was accustomed to, growing up in Christian churches. There in the front, on a simple folding table, was a Menorah. On the ground there was a weathered aluminum container, a washtub of sorts, which was filled with piles of shattered glass. I shook a few hands, said hello, and took my seat.
“Thank you all for coming out here, this evening. We are here this evening to discuss portraiture, the mysterious way in which portraits, drawn or painted, capture the human spirit. But more importantly, we are here to discuss the Jewish artists who chose to paint these portraits of their fellow Jews, in the Holocaust. Arthur Ritov was a prisoner at a Nazi vehicle refurbishment facility, and was assigned to be a license plate maker. He stole paper from the facility, and in remote corners he would risk his life to sketch portraits of fellow Jewish prisoners. On scrap pieces of paper left over from medical equipment, Ester Lurie secretly sketched the faces of her fellow prisoners at the Stutthoff Concentration Camp, risking death to do so. Arnold Daghani painted horrific, pained portraits of his fellow prisoners at the Mikhailowka Labor Camp, those forced to construct the roads. In the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, Felix Cytrin was forced into the counterfeiting department, and he would steal art supplies from the engraving studios, and draw the faces of those around him- beautiful faces, warm faces… as if those drawn were beyond the walls of the camp. Portraits, portraits of people.
Though this is a Jewish temple, and though this is a Jewish event, we are pleased tonight to have friends from outside of Judaism, in particular a Christian portrait painter, who is here to discuss his view on the art of portrait painting. Kevin is a friend of our member, Saul Rosenstreich. Kevin, we’re pleased to have you join us tonight.”
The rabbi went around the room, and proceeded to hand out large prints. As the images made their way down the aisles, I was suddenly confronted with a beautiful charcoal, that of a man with large eyes, pained eyes, his eyebrows furrowed, his lips pursed. I was astonished by the pairing of such graceful, technical drawing ability, with such pain. The lips were a single stroke of calligraphy, the confident line of a master artist’s flourish. But the lips were frozen, agonized. The eyes were exquisitely rendered, successfully depicting the human dignity of the subject, but in the eyes were also a foreshadowing of death. Such a pairing of beauty and pain, a pairing like nothing I had never seen in all of my years of portrait painting, except perhaps the eyes of the prisoners that I had once painted.
“And so, Kevin, we would like to ask for you to come to the front of the room, to participate in our discussion.” A shot of fear ran through me- why did he call me? What? Now? Up there? I looked around the room, and all eyes were on me. I stood up, and walked to the front of the room. “Kevin was asked to come here tonight, not just because he is a portrait painter. Kevin volunteered to paint portraits of inmates at the Riverhead Maximum Security Jail. I saw his painting of the inmates, and in thinking of his portraits of the inmates, I could think of no better parallel to the portraits of people facing death during the Holocaust. We’re pleased to have you hear. Kevin, why portraiture? Why portraiture in a concentration camp? Why portraiture in a jail? Why realism as the mode? The floor is yours.”
I was speechless, my throat was dry. I looked around the room, and I saw the faces of dozens of people. Wide faces with watery eyes. Thin, gaunt faces, with kind, ceaseless smiles. Expressionless faces, leaning forward in silent expectation. Raised eyebrows hovering motionless above thick, impenetrable glasses, faint beards, hands folded, hands clasped, shoulders hunched, shoulders raised, bald heads, thick white manes of hair atop strong, square heads. Faces.
“Kurt Vonnegut wrote, in his book Bluebeard, about an artist, a modern master. An abstract expressive artist who had climbed to the top of the contemporary art world, and was coming to the end of his years in a small home in Southampton, Long Island, not far from here. When the main character, this artist, was asked what he painted, he replied “Nothing. I’ve painted nothing. That’s what we abstract expressionists are trying to paint. Nothing.” Forgive my paraphrasing, but as the story progresses, our character finds himself alone, lonely, set apart from the rest of humanity, disconnected. It seemed as if his success in this art of nothing had cut him off from the human experience…” The room was absolutely silent. I paused. “So in his final act of artistic expression, our character paints a broad, powerful scene of his experience in World War II. It was realism. He hung the painting in his barn, and people came. In droves, they came to see this painting. The art world did not come, but people came.” The room was still silent. “I think what Kurt Vonnegut was trying to say is that art is a “relaying”, a means of shared experience. Art is life passed through the alembic of me, to you. This “relaying” is so important, that these artists risked death, if only to overcome the Nazi’s efforts to exterminate their people. These artists won, because they bottled the souls of those slotted to be erased from the memory of the human race. They live on forever in an image, and decades later we sit here, and can see the person before us.” A few people shifted in their seats. A cough in the back of the room. “Society has lost, if society believes that life is about nothing. When these people, your people, were faced with the last few moments of life, just before the candle would be snuffed out, why do you think they chose portraits? It’s because portrait drawings are a tethering of sorts, a tethering by means of which we retain the soul of the person here on earth. We grasp at the material substance of the portrait sitter, we mystically bottle it, and the portrait sitter moves on in time. I’m not here to disparage modern art, tonight. It means nothing to me, which is perhaps, sometimes, its intent. I’m here to talk about something, about human worth. When we are faced with the last moments in life, we recall the things that matter most. Abstract art was at its climax amongst the vanguard in Europe, but when these artists were faced with death, they chose realism. There are no atheists in foxholes, and there aren’t any abstract artists either.”
As I paused, the rabbi stood and asked if anybody had any comments. He could scarcely get the words out, before the room erupted. A filmmaker spoke about Dante’s inference that immortality was achieved through literature, or storytelling. An older woman tearfully described the face of a young child in a soft drawing. A young, well dressed woman expressed shock at the courage displayed by the artists- drawing and painting in the face of death. An elderly man spoke about the incredible quality, the craftsmanship of the art.
The event went on for an hour more, the room filled with the emotional charge of the portraits. And as I looked out on all of the faces, all of the people, all of the souls caught up in such lively animation, I lifted up a prayer to God, and thanked him that he had given me the gift of being a portrait painter, that mystical gift of tethering to this earth the firstfruit of all of his creation.
I made my way out into the cold night air, sauntering across the street in front of the temple, and I suddenly recalled the words of my favorite poet, John Keats. Wishing that I had recalled these words during the night’s discussion, I opened the door of my truck. And as I drove, I heard the words in my mind
“A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.
Therefore, on every morrow, are we wreathing
A flowery band to bind us to the earth,
Spite of despondence, of the inhuman dearth
Of noble natures, of the gloomy days,
Of all the unhealthy and o’er-darkened ways
Made for our searching: yes, in spite of all,
Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits.”
-John Keats, Endymion
Please visit the website of Yad Veshem, the Jewish Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem, to learn more about the exhibition “Last Portrait: Painting for Posterity.” http://www.yadvashem.org/yv/en/exhibitions/last_portrait/ritov.asp