Bruce Gendelman is a very thoughtful, private artist who for the past four decades has created a very large body of work that represents a statement about his life, his family and his perspective on the world. Although he works out of a cavernous studio in West Palm Beach, Florida, few have had the privilege of viewing his entire collection.
Recently, Stay Thirsty Magazine had the opportunity to sit down with him to talk about his most recent work that deals with the Holocaust. It is nearly impossible to convey the intensity of emotions that well-up standing in the presence of his very large, elegiac paintings and his tour de force installation entitled Birkenau Bunks Diorama as he discusses the family members he lost in the Holocaust and his personal journey to walk through the ashes of history.
STAY THIRSTY: What sparked your desire to devote so much of your time and artistic energy to the Holocaust?
BRUCE GENDELMAN: I became extremely moved during a trip to Eastern Europe with my sister Nina and her husband, sculptor, Richard Edelman. Richard was
dedicating “Shofar Krakow,” an 18-feet
tall stainless steel working shofar made from broken stars of David, installed next
to the new JCC in Krakow, Poland. The trip extended into a broader “roots
journey” to massacre sites with Father Patrick DesBois, then to Auschwitz II-Birkenau,
and then into Ukraine to see what happened to my mother’s father’s family, who
was exterminated in the Holocaust.
STAY THIRSTY: Which of the mediums that you work in brings you the most satisfaction in expressing your feelings about what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust? What is it about that medium that is so compelling to you?
BRUCE GENDELMAN: This is a question that is difficult to answer. For me, the photography sets the current record and then provides a starting point for my expression through painting and the epic-scale “Bunks” installation sculpture. In my studio, I spend the greatest amount of my time painting. This subject matter is extremely emotionally difficult for me. The scale of the work is extremely large – 8 feet high by 5 feet wide – in very heavy oil paint impasto. I do my best to feel and then convey the anguish and darkness of the evil that the Nazis perpetrated.
The entire painting series has as its premise to paint the landscapes, or as I call them Deathscapes, of the horrors of Birkenau. The “Chimney” works are a permanent remembrance of those nameless leagues of men who died as slave laborers constructing and living in agony in the barracks. All that now remain are the ruins of the chimneys – standing as lone soldiers, monuments to the lives and their suffering. The paintings are made with trowels, the same way that the chimneys were built, brick by brick, rising up into a dark sky of despair. There are three works that I “saw” in my dreams (nightmares), that depict in a more abstract emotional way, my interpretation of the despair and chaos of the camp.
|Birkenau Barracks Memorial 2 (2015)|
|Birkenau Barracks Memorial 3 (2015)|
|Birkenau Barracks Memorial 4 (2015)|
The final work is in progress. It is an 8-feet high x 12-feet wide bird's-eye view landscape of a Birkenau sunset that has over 500 lbs of oil paint on it. It's a sunset that competes with the fire and ash of the crematorium. It intends to show in an offsetting way the German precision of the industrial design of the death and labor camp and the hopelessness of those who lived in the barracks.
STAY THIRSTY: Where did the idea for your installation entitled Birkenau Bunks Diorama come from? How did you go about designing it and what motivated you to have your face appear as the face of each prisoner?
BRUCE GENDELMAN: The concept also came to me in a dream. I was haunted by the many images of the faces of the men in their bunks, in several famous photographs. I sought to create an artist's version of that despair and anguish. In touring the camps, there, of course, are no people – it's only through these few historical photos and first hand written accounts that we can begin to “see” their state of starvation and how they clung to life.
I had been thinking about the concept for about six months before I realized how I could create an impactful image. The installation sculpture is 22-feet wide, 20-feet deep, and 9-feet high. It is a foreshortened three-point perspective “diorama.” I built a matrix of string site lines in my studio, and from that, I was able to determine the correct measurements and angles for each piece of wood. I created over 60 men, slave laborers, in decreasing size to compliment the illusion of depth.
I wanted to show the bunks with human forms. As I was making the men I had several choices as to how to portray them. I could have realistically painted the actual faces of the men from the historical photos, or I could have imagined men and painted those. I quickly dismissed these as disrespectful. On the other hand, I wanted, as an artist, to do my best to have viewers of my work try to feel the horror, in effect to put themselves in the inmate's place, three generations later. I decided there was no better way to do that than to put my image, with various expressive views, on each man. The idea is the artist wants you, the viewer, to imagine yourself there – he has attempted to do it, “you” can also. As unrealistic as it is, the message is: If everyone could feel the human agony, they would never hurt others.
|Birkenau Bunks Diorama|
STAY THIRSTY: In addition to creating your art, you hold lectures in your studio about your family’s experience in the Nazi extermination system and its impact on your work. How do audiences react to your talk and your art? What moves them the most? What surprises you about how a contemporary audience reacts to events that happened over 70 years ago?
BRUCE GENDELMAN: I have been very honored and moved that, through word of mouth, various people and groups call and come to the studio after previous attendees tell them “you must see this.” Then they see it, and call their friends and family and tell them to come. It’s been a steady stream of visitors.
I have had Holocaust survivors, scholars, Rabbis and school groups. Almost unanimously, the reactions have been quite overwhelming. I have developed a 30-45 minute presentation that starts with my photographic images and Bob Miller's brilliant poetry, then moves on to my description of how and why I created the large scale oil painting series, then moves on to a short video presentation of historical clips – Hitler's words, which lead to the burning of books, which leads to the death camps… and then I unveil the “Bunks” installation. When the unveiling happens – there are always audible gasps, sighs, tears and outright sobbing. For the school groups, I weave a case study of how political philosophy of words through propaganda can lead to genocide.
STAY THIRSTY: You have also written a book about your journey, Sifting Through
Ashes, Words & Images, co-authored by Robert Miller. The book memorializes your
photography and oil paintings on the Holocaust and includes poems written by your co-author. At the end of the book’s Preface, you quote Auschwitz survivor, Viktor E.
Frankl: “What matters, therefore, is not the
meaning of life in general, but, rather, the specific meaning of a person’s
life at a given moment.” How do you feel in your life at this moment about its
meaning and about what you are doing with your art?
BRUCE GENDELMAN: That answer requires a great deal of introspection. Briefly, I view life as fragile and short, even if one lives to an old age. The extermination of six million of my fellow Jews, by men in power in a civilized society, a society not unlike ours today, is unspeakable in its depravity. I feel compelled to convey to the best of my ability, to anyone who will listen, complicated multiple threads that brought this about, not only to emote the horror through art, but to teach young people how to critically understand the influences around them.
As a special addition to this interview, Poet Robert Miller has contributed the following poem from Sifting Through Ashes (2016, Gefen Publishing House Ltd.):
You would no sooner deny the sense of what is present here
than you would the odor of flesh rotting in a room,
although nothing is here now of what was, not really.
No shrunken ghosts, no torturers strutting among diseased and decaying bodies,
gone the fear, the hunger, the endless hunger,
the fences electrified while victims sagged with the deadness of despair.
Yet, in another sense, all that happened is here, right now,
you cannot ignore this presence, this fog of lingering evil.
A shrine now sterile, yet the past’s depravity surrounds you like the air itself.
How can we still perceive in place what is lost forever in time?
The earth, patient, swallows the stench of our worst deeds,
proof that we and it are made of the same stuff,
water and magma, tied to each other as we hurtle through space,
away from, or towards, the pungent past.