Beauty & terror

A few days ago I watched a film which affected me in a way only a handful of films did (recent ones include Lars von Trier’s Melancholia, Lukas Moodysson’s Lilja 4-ever or Jan Komasa’s Suicide Room.) From Inside is an animated movie created by John Bergin (credited as writer, producer, director, and animator), based on his graphic novel about a young woman’s surreal train journey across a nightmarish post-apocalyptic wasteland. It is a journey through blood, corpses, pain and fear, with no happy ending. The film is on one hand impossibly bleak and depressing, but on the other – impossibly beautiful. Combining CGI and simple drawing animation, it is filled with frames which could go on a wall at Tate Britain right next to Francis Bacon’s works.

I admit that the film made me feel very upset, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly it was that distressed me so much. I am quite fond of exploring the dark side of human psyche, I like graphic imagery, I draw skulls and blood myself — my Crow paintings are the best example of it. But I felt a strange tension and it was only today that I realized where it comes from: the combination of beauty and terror is what creates such an emotional whirl in me. A few years ago, when I studied post-modern philosophy and aesthetics, I got interested in the concept of the “sublime” and its interpretation by various philosophers, notably Kant and Jean-Francois Lyotard.  The 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke was the first to emphasise the dichotomy between the beautiful and the sublime: he compares beauty to the light, and the sublime to the darkness, for it possesses a dual emotional quality of fear and attraction. “The sublime may inspire horror, but one receives pleasure in knowing that the perception is a fiction,” we can read on the Wikipedia page.

I had a long discussion about the meaning of film with my partner Colin, who interprets it as a meditation on depression. Personally, I saw it more as a dark fantasy of the inevitable end of the world, just like in Melancholia. I also thought that this sort of Apocalypse for many people was the Nazi occupation across Europe in World War II. Sadly, I haven’t actually found any more in-depth analysis of the concept by Bergin himself (other than that he jokingly calls it “the most depressing film ever made”); in a very interesting interview with Bergin in Make Magazine, he explains it very briefly. The review of John Bergin’s film on the Quiet Earth website is very nicely written, but is also someone else’s interpretation of the film.

I was digesting From Inside for a day or so, when I proceeded to work on my current painting-book project, based on childhood memories of my grandmother. I must say that there are times when I curse the internet for its tremendous ability to properly distract me from whatever I am doing. There are also times when, impulsively clicking, I come across something amazing. Like I did yesterday.

I was looking at architectural photographs of Kielce, a city in Poland where I grew up and where my grandmother lived, when I stumbled upon Gershon Iskowitz, a Polish-Canadian painter, who was born in… Kielce. One link followed another, and I found myself reading about the Second World War.

Iskowitz planned to study at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts (where I did my MA) and would have probably ended up staying in Poland, if it hadn’t been for the Nazis who invaded Poland in 1939. Being a Jew, Iskowitz ended up at Auschwitz, Dachau, Majdanek and Buchenwald concentration camp, and he was the only one from his family who survived. His parents, one brother and a sister were gassed to death at Treblinka; his other brother was killed in Auschwitz. Iskowitz’s story is remarkable. He managed not only to survive four years of torture, but also to draw. When cleaning rubble from allied bombing attacks, he looked for any materials he could work with, then sketched at night and hid the drawings in the morning. According to Colin S. MacDonald, he escaped from Buchenwald and hid in a nearby bush but was shot in the leg by a guard and left for dead. He fractured a hip but later that day was brought back to the camp by his fellow prisoners, and not longer after that, the US troops arrived. On the National Gallery in Canada website, we read that:

After the liberation on April 11, 1945 Iskowitz was sent to recuperate at a hospital near Munich. Two years later he began formal art studies at the Munich Academy of Art, as well as private studies with the Austrian artist Oskar Kokoschka.  In 1949 Iskowitz would immigrate to Canada, settling in Toronto.

Iskowitz’ both war time and early post-war paintings were heavily influenced by the horror he had witnessed and gone through. Below is Selection, Auschwitz (1944-45) with small, naked, almost ghostly figures of the prisoners, a giant Nazi officer and a barbed wire fence in the distance.

In later years, he became fascinated with Canadian landscape which he depicted in a much more abstract way (I am not a big fan of abstract art, therefore I am much more interested in his earlier, more expressive and at times surreal, paintings.) He continued working until his death in 1988. Some of his paintings, like Escape from 1948 (below) somehow fit into Bergin’s bloody landscapes.

It has been a while since I revisited the subject of Nazi and Soviet Union occupation in Poland during the Second World War. When I was at school, a good chunk of one year’s Polish and History class was dedicated to this historical period. I cried whilst reading various excruciatingly painful diaries by ex-slaves, such as Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions, Seweryna Szmaglewska’s Smoke Over Birkenau or Gustaw Herling-Grudziński’s account of his life in the Soviet Gulag, A World Apart. I learned that approx. 6.7 million Poles and Jews were killed in the German camps. Given how little chance of surviving the prisoners had, it is absolutely remarkable that Iskowitz managed to stay alive, keep his faith and passion for art. As soon as he recovered from being hospitalized after the war, he got into the Munich Academy of Fine Arts where he won a scholarship in 1948. MacDonald quotes Kildare Dobbs who said that:

This painter had none of that self-defeating pride that answers evil with silence, as the minstrel boy in the song tore out the strings of his harp that they might not sound in slavery. Iskowitz made himself a witness.

Another remarkable “witness” I discovered through researching Iskowitz was Felix Nussbaum. This talented German Jew from an upper-class family was becoming a rising star in the Berlin art world in the mid 1920s.

In 1933, he was studying under a scholarship in Rome at the Berlin Academy of the Arts when the Nazi Minister of Propaganda came to Rome in April to explain a Nazi artist’s duty to promote heroism and the Aryan race. Nussbaum got expelled from the academy soon after that, and together with his newly married wife Felka Platek (also a painter), spent a decade in exile in Belgium. After Nazi invasion of Belgium in 1940, Nussbaum was arrested by Belgian police as a “hostile alien” German. He was sent to the Saint-Cyprien camp in France where he pleaded to the French camp authorities to be returned to Germany and managed to escape on the train journey from Saint Cyprien to Germany, and join his wife in Brussels. That marked the beginning of  hiding in a shelter and living in fear, a feeling so stunningly captured on his Angst painting (below).

On June 20th 1944, a few months after his parents got killed in Auschwitz, and less than three months before Brussels got liberated, a building where Felix and Felka were hiding got raided. They were found at an attic, sent on a last train to a transition camp and finally to Auschwitz. They were murdered a week after arrival and not long after that, the rest of Nussbaums got executed or died from exhaustion. If the building in Brussels hadn’t been raided, they would have survived the war. Where Iskowitz was lucky to have survived both the camp and being shot, Felix lacked the good fortune — after years of hiding, he got caught. The body of work he produced in these terrifying conditions, existing outside of the society as “blacklisted,”  dependent on friends who risked their life helping him and Felka, is truly astounding, both in terms of their volume and quality. His dedication to the art is impressive too. Every time he went to his studio, which was located in the basement of another building, he risked his life. Finally, his paintings were left with a friend with the following note: “If I disappear, don’t let my paintings die. Show them.”

Looking at his work in relation to his tragic fate is of similar experience like watching John Bergin’s From Inside. I am mesmerized by the beauty of the paintings, disturbed by the foreboding tension and palpable pain they evoke, and deeply distressed that Nussbaum’s life ended so early, in such a tragic way. Looking at them, I can’t help thinking about Bergin’s film and the main character who says: “When the end of the world has come, it’s too late to wonder why.”

Below is an exquisite biographical slideshow of Nussbaum’s works, which provided inspiration and information for my post. It was created and posted on YouTube by someone with a nickname IAMALLOUTOFBUBBLEGUM, featuring soundtrack by Nine Inch Nails and Trent Reznor.

* Images of Nussbaum’s paintings are from the Felix Nussbaum Foundation website.