Works put women back in the Holocaust picture


Art Column

October 10, 2007|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

"The horrors of the material are such that I have to go slow or I shall go mad!" wrote artist Judy Chicago soon after beginning the research for the emotionally wrenching series of mixed-media artworks titled Holocaust Project: From Darkness Into Light, which she embarked on in the mid-1980s.

By then, the Chicago native, who was born Judith Sylvia Cohen in 1939, had already won worldwide renown as a pioneering feminist artist and creator of The Dinner Party (1979), a monumental installation honoring great women throughout history that has since become an icon of the women's movement.

The Dinner Party was Chicago's deeply felt protest against women's systematic exclusion from the history books as creators and agents of change. But Holocaust Project forced her for the first time to confront her sense of "otherness" not as a woman but as a Jew.

Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity, an exhibition on view at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, explores how the artist's secular Jewish upbringing, with its emphasis on social justice and civil and human rights, shaped her ideas about art and politics.

The show was organized by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion Museum in New York, and its emotional center is a searing series of painted and photographed images from the Holocaust Project.

Executed in collaboration with Chicago's husband, photographer Donald Woodman, the Holocaust images link the destruction of European Jewry during the Second World War to the largescale genocide, slavery, homophobia and environmental devastation of the present day.

Both Chicago's father, a postal worker and union organizer, and her mother, an aspiring dancer, were descended from a long line of Eastern European rabbis. But Chicago's commitment to that tradition was tenuous until she visited the death camps where millions of European Jews were murdered by the Nazis.

"It terrifies me, but I did all the feminist stuff when I started & this [examination of my Jewishness] is just another step in being who I am," the artist wrote. "I wish I had more of an understanding of my tradition as a Jew."

Researching the Holocaust, Chicago found that even the vast literature documenting that event largely excluded the stories of Jewish women who perished at the hands of the Nazis.

In the ironically titled Final Study for Arbeit Macht Frei/Work Makes Who Free?, Chicago combined period photographs of Jewish men at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland with painted images of female inmates there as a way of reinserting women's suffering into the documentary record.

In Study for Banality of Evil/Struthof: Stairway to Death, Chicago re-created not only the Jewish women who were victims of atrocities, but the gentile women who participated in the conspiracy of silence that enabled and protected the killers.

The work, executed in pastels and ink on watercolor paper, depicts a well-dressed gentile woman enjoying refreshments with a German officer at an outdoor cafe, while in the background Jewish women are forced through the entrance to a barn that has been converted into a gas chamber.

The image is based on a photograph Chicago discovered during her research that shows both the cafe and the barn in close proximity. It makes plain the complicity of the town's inhabitants with the evil in their midst: Despite their later protests to the contrary, there simply is no way they could not have known what was going on.

Judy Chicago: Jewish Identity runs through Dec. 30 at the Jewish Museum of Maryland, 15 Lloyd St. Call 410-732-6400 or go to jewish

`Altered States'

Altered States, an exhibition of six large-scale, oil-on-panel paintings by Tonya Ingersol at Galerie Francoise II, is the latest evolution of this realist artist's long-term project to create a universal visual language of symbol and metaphor using African-American figures.

Ingersol's meticulously painted compositions suggest multiple alternative story lines, none of which may be definitive.

In Judith, for example, a middle-age, unprepossessing black woman wearing a brown overcoat and black horn-rimmed glasses is shown calmly walking away from a flagstone cottage carrying a basket with a severed head inside.

Is this the beautiful Jewish widow who, according to legend, saved her people from an enemy army commanded by the Assyrian general Holofernes in Biblical times, and who was a favorite subject of 17th-century Italian painters like Orazio and Artemisia Gentileschi?

That Judith was said to be such a beauty she could enter the enemy general's camp at night and dazzle him with her charms. After he drank himself into a stupor, she cut off his head with his own sword and made her escape, thus turning the tide of battle.

The woman in Ingersol's painting is no great beauty, however: in fact, she more resembles Judith's faithful maidservant, Abra, who is often represented as a black woman and who is supposed to have actually carried Holofernes' severed head back to the Jewish army encampment.

Perhaps Ingersol's painting is a spoof on the tale through role reversal, or perhaps she's slyly suggesting that the real heroine of the story was not the famous beauty but her humble black servant. Or perhaps the painting relates to an entirely different narrative.

Ingersol refuses to say which of these possibilities we should accept. Instead, she offers viewers a tantalizing fragment of a drama whose final interpretation remains just out of reach.

Altered States runs through Nov. 2 at Galerie Francoise II, 3500 Parkdale Ave, Building 1, 3rd Floor, Suite 20. Call 410-523-2787 or visit

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