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Sunday, June 25, 2006 / 29 Sivan 5766
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The Lustig Code
Liel Leibovitz - Staff Writer
Valentin Lustig’s “Palimpsest with Aunt H. Taking Her Ecumenical Bath.” Aunt Hoka, who perished in the Holocaust, became a major focus of Lustig’s surrealistic paintings. Courtesy of Yeshiva University Museum

The new exhibit at the Yeshiva University Museum is one of the most remarkable artistic representations of the Holocaust mounted in recent years. And it is even more remarkable considering that the artist, Valentin Lustig, was born a decade after the end of the Second World War, and that his colorful paintings display none of the somber hues and stormy brush strokes often associated with Holocaust paintings.

Instead, Lustig’s canvases are bold and rich in detail, with a touch of surrealism and a strong emphasis on symbolism. As such, they provide the viewer with a complex, almost dualistic experience. At first, one is likely to feel stunned by the cornucopia of sheep, goats, fish and cats nearly omnipresent in Lustig’s work, overwhelmed by the painter’s packed narratives that offer an array of rich and strange small scenes unfurling before the eye.

Then, however, the decoding begins: Lustig offers his viewers the immense pleasure of weaving a seemingly unrelated chaos into a web of meaning.

Take, for example, his startling work, “The Letter Soup (We Are Near).” A family sits around a table eating flaming red soup with letters in it, while in the background men and beasts, including a gigantic cat, perch, and the ground is paved with a flock of dead fish and quizzical-looking seagulls.

It’s the letters in the soup that begin to unravel the enigma: “Nah Sind Wir,” or “we are near.” This is the opening line from a poem by Paul Celan, the famous Jewish poet who hails, like Lustig himself, from Romania. The most famous lines from the poem declare, “It was blood, it was what you shed, Lord / It gleamed / It cast your image into our eyes, Lord. / Our eyes and our mouths are open and empty, Lord.”

The red soup, then, is blood. The oversized cat ceases to be a fanciful creation; now, he is an enormous beast looming over the heads of the huddled masses. The fish, longtime symbols of Christian theology, are all dead. The excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibit makes Lustig’s intention perfectly clear: Like Celan, Lustig writes, he, too, used his art to explore a most troubling question, that of the lost of faith in the face of the horrors of the Holocaust. This is why the letters — the only way, according to Jewish tradition, with which to render the image of God — are slowly consumed in the bloody soup, as Lustig and Celan’s faith was consumed after having witnessed or learned about the mass murder of their kin.

Despite not having lived through the war, Lustig nonetheless experienced it firsthand. He is the son of survivors, born into a family that lost 55 of its members to the Holocaust. He himself, the catalog informs us, is a “replacement child,” named after an uncle who perished in Auschwitz.

And it is replacement in the widest sense of the word that guides some of Lustig’s work. In “Hoka-Neni,” for example, a series of seven paintings devoted to his dead aunt that constitutes the heart of the exhibit, Lustig quotes, paraphrases and adapts. “The Temptation of Hoka-Neni,” the fourth painting in the series, is the most striking example, quoting both from Gustave Flaubert’s “The Temptation of St. Anthony” and from an Hieronymus Bosch painting of the same name, Lustig paints his aunt kneading bread in her kitchen while all around her terrifying creatures roam. Unlike St. Anthony, however, the aunt is surrounded not only by monstrous creatures and demonic beings, but also by more concrete omens, such as a rolling Panzer tank, as well as by purely symbolic ones, such as a meat grinder. Her question, however, remains the same one that the saint, in exile in the Egyptian desert, pondered: why does God do bad things to righteous people?

In a time in which “The Da Vinci Code” and its likes spread the gospel of symbolic, pseudo-religious hokum, Lustig’s work is a delightful opportunity to ponder theology’s most difficult questions while rejoicing in art’s greatest gifts. n

“The Holocaust in the Paintings of Valentin Lustig” will run until Jan. 14, 2007, at the Yeshiva University Museum, 15 W. 16th St. (212) 294-8330. Call for pricing and schedule.

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