MINNEAPOLIS, MN — In 1961, millions of people across the globe watched the trial of the Nazi SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann. The former head of Jewish Affairs for the Gestapo was responsible for the mass deportation of millions of men, women, and children to Nazi extermination camps throughout Europe. Eichmann showed a complete lack of remorse for his heinous acts in his memoirs, and pleaded not guilty to the charges levied against him by the Israeli court. During the trial, the world watched Eichmann remain chillingly expressionless as 90 Holocaust survivors described their horrifying ordeals.
Eichmann’s trial was shown daily over the course of nine months in 38 countries. It reached some 80% of television viewers, and was broadcast even more widely by radio. Until then, the world hadn’t really known about the Nazi’s “Final Solution” plan, or that it had specifically targeted Jews. The survivors’ televised stories opened the world’s eyes to the horrors of the Holocaust. Creatives around the world took action, responding to the trial’s gruesome revelations in their films, books, music, and artworks. And in the US, the Argentinian artist Mauricio Lasansky began The Nazi Drawings, a project that would occupy the next 10 years of his life.
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Envisioning Evil: “The Nazi Drawings” by Mauricio Lasansky at the Minneapolis Institute of Art presents all 33 of the artist’s large-scale, mixed media pencil drawings on paper along with his earlier print-based work, Holocaust-era artifacts, and video selections of survivors’ wrenching testimonies given at Eichmann’s trial. Curated by Rachel McGarry, the exhibition marks the 60th anniversary of the Eichmann trial. It also opens half a century after the original debut of Lasansky’s series, which drew massive crowds as it toured major museums in nine US and Mexican cities between 1967 and 1970.
Lasansky’s visceral, body-sized pictures of Nazi soldiers, sympathizers, and victims confront viewers with unthinkable evil. At the same time, the exhibition’s excellent catalogue explains how those messages of evil were suppressed in the years before Eichmann’s trial, and situates Lasansky’s project within a complex, worldwide awakening to the Holocaust that took decades to catch on. Together, Envisioning Evil is a moving, timely interrogation of the ways that history and trauma are remembered.
The son of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania, Lasansky was born and raised in Buenos Aires, the same city where Eichman had lived freely until his arrest in 1960. Lasansky gained success early as a skilled printmaker and teacher, and was named the director of the Fine Arts department of Córdoba’s Universidad Nacional at only 22 years old. Despite his renown, Lasanksy’s deep commitment to left-leaning, anti-fascist, and anti-imperialist causes made it dangerous for him to remain in Argentina, and he immigrated to the US in 1943.
During the war, Lasansky tried to respond to the conflict through Picasso-influenced, quasi-abstract prints like “Apocalyptical Space” (1944-45). But, like other artists of the day, he was frustrated. “Many factors inhibited Jewish artists from exploring the Holocaust in the 1940s and ’50s,” McGarry writes in the exhibition’s catalogue. These included antisemitism in the US, a fear of marginalization, trauma, and perhaps most crucially, a lack of information about the tragic nature and unfathomable scale of the devastation.
At the time, mainstream media outlets in the US minimized or omitted information about Nazis specifically targeting Jews and other ethnic groups. Instead, reports often referred to victims only by their nationality or as political prisoners. This trend continued even after the Allies discovered and liberated the Nazi concentration camps. “The shocking thing is that there weren’t many articles or news stories looking at the Holocaust after the war,” McGarry told Hyperallergic in a recent tour of the exhibition. “In the late ’40s, the tone was really about the Nazis committing terrible atrocities to everyone. It wasn’t about the Jewish dimension of the tragedy.” But nearly two decades after the conflict ended, the survivors’ testimonies at Eichmann’s trial finally exposed the Holocaust for what it was. In the 1960s and ’70s, survivors’ memoirs and artworks made during and just after the war reached a wide and willing audience.
Spurred on by Eichmann’s capture, Lasansky returned to the idea of making work about the war, but with a different approach. “In 1961, Time magazine called Lasansky the nation’s most influential printmaker,” McGarry told Hyperallergic. “But when he took up the Nazi series, he decided to do drawings because it was a much more basic and accessible medium.” The artist was a master draftsman, but it’s clear that here his hand was guided by a deep-seated, corporeal sense of rage and disgust. His frenetic, scratching pencil marks look like masses of hair, and his washes of turpentine and reddish asphaltum stain the thin, skin-like paper like spilled bodily fluid. Seen in person, Lasansky’s larger-than-life drawings physically confront viewers with the tortured figures they contain.
The series begins with portraits of Nazi soldiers crowned by skull caps and muzzled by high-necked uniforms. These seemingly mindless men echo the many Nazis who claimed to have only been following orders when brought to trial. In “No. 5” (1961), a highly decorated official raises his bloody hand in the Nazi salute. His shorts are a reference to the many criminals who, like Eichmann, found refuge in Argentina and other South American countries after the war.
Lasansky’s depictions of women are especially brutal. Several works show smirking, scantily clad seducers engaging Nazis and skeletons in a modern-day danse macabre. “No. 8” (1961-66) is especially disturbing. Like those whose heads were publicly shaved after the war as a punishment for fraternizing with occupying Nazis, the woman is bald. She smiles, though her lowered undergarments recall the many horrible war photos of female corpses that were left with their clothing cruelly wrenched away and genitals exposed. Sexual violence towards women and children is a repeated theme throughout Lasanksy’s series.
“These aren’t precious, beautiful drawings,” McGarry noted. In fact, they’re often difficult, if not excruciating, to look at. “No. 18” (1963-66) shows a naked woman and baby hanging upside down from a cross made of contemporary newspaper clippings. In others, Lasansky collages Bible pages with images of an apathetic, ineffectual pope, implicating the Roman Catholic Church for remaining silent and complicit in the face of the war’s human rights catastrophe. As the scholar Ziva Amishai-Maisels wrote, “Lasansky reverses the old blood libel: it is not the Jews who kill the Christian child, but the Church that helps to crucify the Jewish children, the kin of Christ.”
The final work in the series shows the artist himself standing in the nude as a skeleton tears at his head and heart. It’s unclear whether Lasansky is suggesting that he, too, could be consumed and guided by evil forces like the soldiers at the start of his series, or whether he’s showing that the process of creating these powerful works has damaged his soul. “Lasansky wanted to draw attention to the Holocaust, but he wanted to universalize it so that people saw that it could happen again,” McGarry said. As time passes and Holocaust awareness declines among young people, Envisioning Evil is a poignant reminder to never forget.
Envisioning Evil: “The Nazi Drawings” by Mauricio Lasansky continues at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (2400 3rd Ave S, Minneapolis, MN) through June 26. The exhibition was curated by Rachel McGarry.