The Holocaust in the Painting of Valentin Lustig, by Edith Balas

By C, Stephen | Shofar, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

The Holocaust in the Painting of Valentin Lustig, by Edith Balas


C, Stephen, Shofar


Pittsburgh: Carnegie Mellon University Press, 2002. 64 pages including color plates. $29.00.

Valentin Lustig is the son of Holocaust survivors from Cluj, Romania. Art Historian Edith Balas calls him not a child of survivors (Lustig was born in 1955) but "a child of the Holocaust" (p. 10). Lustig studied art in Romania with Lazlo Toth, arrived in Israel in 1974, went on to study painting in Florence, and now lives in Europe. Well exhibited in Europe, his work on the Holocaust has largely been unknown until the welcome research by Edith Balas helped create this volume, which appears more like a catalogue.

Lustig's paintings, well-documented in this work, strike one at first as surrealist in nature but also harken back to the Renaissance style of Breugel and Bosch, and more recently to the fantastic realism of Vienna artist Erich Brauer, who also painted some extraordinary themes about Jewish history and the Holocaust. Most significantly, of the twenty-five paintings shown and discussed in this volume, none have titles that mention the Holocaust. In terms of subject, a viewer not familiar with the Holocaust might discern ominous symbols in these works but no clear narrative dedicated to the representation of Jewish suffering.

Thus, an essential question that runs through Lustig's painting, and all such post-Holocaust painting, is the question of what the artist intends to represent, and how it should be represented. Among post-Holocaust artists, many have sought new inroads of representation but have become slaves to the well-known symbols of oppression, which by now have become clichés: the guard tower, barbed wire, railroad tracks, the Yellow Star, the camp uniform, the Swastika, and so forth. Chances are the proliferation of art laden with such symbolism will be relegated to the trash heap, despite the serious intentions of every artist. Those artists who have created works with new insights seem to be those who have used elements such as classicism and mythological references, fragmented images not dependent on those so well-known from the camps and ghettos themselves, new symbolic language, metaphor, contemporary poetry, subjects and mediums with an edge, and even "beautiful" images with strong colors.

Lustig falls into this latter category. His works are allegorical, mysterious, colorful, sometimes fantastic and even beautiful. Once the artist's biography is introduced, a Holocaust context is established which becomes easier to comprehend. One such image is of exile. "The Traveler" (1992), "Cautious Approach to the Monuments" (1997), "The Solemn Reception of Maria Theresia in the Harbor of Klausenburg" (1999), "The Never-Ending Ascension to the Alps" (1999), and "Ellis Island" (2000) all contain images of presumably Jewish refugees in some stage of their exile carrying suitcases. Lustig, however, does not make this theme so obvious, as the images are often concealed in a complex landscape that includes foreboding places, competitive events, and the gaze of onlookers. In essence the viewer gets no easy answers but has to play detective.

The images are powerful, but they also raise the issue of alternative interpretation which is so common and necessary in art. "Cautious Approach to Monuments," for example, is sufficiently generic with its refugee image and East European landscape to be symbolic of not only the Jewish issues, but also more recent refugee questions in Bosnia and Kosovo. …

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