How do you talk about the Holocaust in a way that has not been done before? How do you transcend the now-too-familiar images in literature, film and art of emaciated concentration camp victims, stony-looking Nazi soldiers and cattle cars jam-packed with Jewish families being transported to unspeakable horrors?
As the child of Holocaust survivors, artist Geoffrey Laurence felt compelled to create a response in painting to his feelings toward this horrific piece of history and, therefore, was forced to ask himself these questions.
“Even though everyone is striving to embrace and forgive and understand [the Holocaust], at the same time there’s this desensitization going on and people are not able to really feel it,” said Laurence. “I feel that painting allows me, at least, to try to say things that are not easily put in words, that are about a gut response.”
All the paintings in the series started with a single thought – from either a book, a photograph, a memory, or a concept, and then evolved into complex stories on canvas. The stories have a common purpose.
“Those paintings are questions,” said Laurence. “I painted them to make people ask questions.”
His signature piece, “ISWASWILLBE,” was one thought and then another. They came together as inspiration for a painting of a Nazi soldier in full uniform with his arm draped around a skeleton wrapped in a tallit (a Jewish prayer shawl), center stage with a spotlight encircling the pair.
“I was thinking, my goodness, here I am trying to deal with the fact that I’m a child of Holocaust survivors and I live with it every day and no matter what I do I will be in [the infamous German concentration camp] Dachau until I’m dead and then I thought – isn’t that interesting? Any time you say the word ‘Jew,’ the word ‘Nazi’ comes up immediately. It’s like we’re co-joined,” explained Laurence. “At the same time how curious it is that we call it ‘theater of war,’ as if it’s entertainment.”
Imagining the past
In “Those the River Keeps,” eight concentration camp victims are afloat on a wooden boat with a lit menorah to guide their way. Although Laurence says these eight people represent his family, he admits he has never seen photos of them.
“My relatives never got to say good-bye or get buried; no one said Kaddish [the Jewish prayer for the dead] for them,” he said. “They are stuck in this in-between place and I felt I had to paint this painting. So I imagined what they would be like. I put myself in different roles of different camp inmates: the loony, the ill one about to die, the angry one.… Each character has a different facet of what I imagined.”
Although Laurence’s parents were Holocaust survivors, his father having been at Dachau before he was freed, they did not speak about their experiences with Laurence – at all – while he was growing up. In fact, Laurence did not know for certain that he was Jewish until he was 46.
Once his mother confirmed his long-held suspicion, Laurence became obsessed with learning about the Jewish faith, traditions and rituals. It was soon after he learned that he was Jewish that he began to work on what would become his Holocaust series.
Although gallery owners and collectors discouraged him from working on such a macabre subject, saying that no one would show the pieces or buy them, Laurence felt “he had to paint it,” if only for himself.
“The work is not about making something to sell,” he said. “It never has been. How could it be? I just want people to see the work. What else is an artist painting for?”
Painting since he was three, Laurence earned a bachelor’s degree in Art from St. Martin’s School of Art in London and a Master of Fine Arts from the New York Academy of Art. He says he likes to marry the style of classical realism with modern painting – but is not a fan of more contemporary styles, such as installation art, video art or conceptual art.
While his oil-on-canvas paintings have a classical quality, reminiscent of the old masters he loves, such as Rembrandt and van Dyck, he says his compression of space makes his images more contemporary.
Exhibit curator Simon Zalkind interviewed Laurence on the exhibit’s opening night, discussing the artist’s inspiration for each painting, his influences and their common histories. Zalkind is also the child of Holocaust survivors. The two compared notes of what it was like to be what they call second-generation Holocaust survivors.
“You have to know what first-generation survivors were like to be a second-generation survivor. But we’re the last of that,” said Zalkind. “This project is enormously important.”