FIRST PART: The Newborn Hoka-Neni, Keenly Observed by HerAncestors, 2001-2002

Oil tempera on canvas 474 x 40 in (120 x 100 cm)


Why were there knees to receive me

and breasts that I might be nursed?

Job 3:12


This scene represents the newborn Hoka-Neni in her family's home in Cluj-Kolozsvar. The composition is divided into two parts: a quasi-­realistic lower part; and an imaginary, phantasmagoric upper part. A similar division is often found in late-Renaissance and Baroque paintings, such as El Greco's The Burial of Count Organ (1586).

The lower portion represents a modestly furnished family room. The mother gently holds an infant, expressing enjoyment; the father and grandmother look on. Here we begin to see the conflation of Hoka-Neni with Lustig himself: the arrangement and specific details of the room were drawn from the artist's childhood memories, and when he was born his older sister would have been about the same age as the little girl playing with the doll.

As the cycle continues, it will become apparent that the kitchen utensils, the candle and the little blue snowglobe in the cupboard are important symbols. Lustig’s handling of these objects recalls the raise-en-scene of the pioneering Russian director Constantin Stanislavski: a gun seen hanging on the wall in the first act is never merely a decoration, but will be fired before the end of the play The cyclical form of Hoka-Neni allows the artist to develop the meaning of his symbols over time. Barely noticed at first, they gradually start speaking to viewers from below the surface of the painting, like the "disguised symbols" in fifteenth-century Flemish art.

Although the lower part is generally rendered in a naturalistic mode, it does contain unrealistic elements as well. The door boarded up from inside, so that no one can leave or enter, probably symbolizes the protection of the family nucleus from an increasingly hostile outside world. Anti­-Semitism was already on the rise when Hoka-Neni was born, as it was in the Communist era of the painter's experience. Another unusual feature is the lamb in the middle of the room. The lamb is often present as a symbol in Christian nativity scenes-for example, Jan van Eyck’s The Ghent Altarpiece (1432) -and has a complex, multi-layered significance. In the sixth-century mosaics at the Basilica S. Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, lambs symbolize the twelve Apostles and the Christian faithful. In the Revelation of St. John, the Son of God is always referred to as the Lamb, and the lamb's blood flowing into a chalice signifies the sacrifice 0f Christ, who died to save the world "like the lamb who let itself be led to the slaughter" (Isaiah 53:7). This passage from Isaiah, traditionally regarded by Christians as a prefiguration of the Crucifixion, here serves to prefigure the fate of the Jewish population of Cluj, who were herded off to concentration camps in 1944. Most of them—including Hoka-Neni and her four children—were exterminated.

In the upper, visionary portion of the painting Hoka-Neni's ancestors look down upon her. They, no less than the middle-class room below, are rooted in Lustig's childhood experience. Fifty-five members of the Lustig family died in the Holocaust, and Lustig, though he never knew them, began his life very much in their shadow. He often asked his parents, "Why don't I have grandparents like the other children on the block? I know my uncle was killed in Auschwitz, but why did you name me after him?"

Lustig has imagined and painted his ancestors -a vast throng of children, adults and old people-in a ghostly, emotionally-charged manner. The reproach in their vivid eyes is terrifying. Why are you alive, they seem to ask, when all of us have perished? Unlike the living, who are painted in vivid colors, the ancestors are rendered in monochrome, in grisaille, a technique traditionally reserved for the trompe-l’oeil sculpture on the exterior panels of Northern Renaissance altarpieces and for inanimate objects in general. The crowding of the figures effectively conveys the impression 0f an unbearably oppressive atmosphere, one from which Hoka-Neni eventually tries to escape.


© by Edith Balas