LONDON — The Holocaust has long been a staple of the film industry, from “Schindler’s List” to “Life Is Beautiful” to “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Literature has produced searing treatments of the subject, from Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel onward. And art?
According to David Breuer-Weil, a Sotheby’s-trained expert in modern art, there is very little. The 20th century was the “most apocalyptic in history,” including two world wars and the Shoah, and yet, with few exceptions, artists have largely failed to grapple with the implications.
“Pop art was the dominant form to emerge after the Holocaust,” he says. “Culture — the collective unconscious — turned away from dealing with what it had to.”
It is a problem he wants to help rectify. He sees his own work, which is receiving increasing attention in his native Britain, as a direct response to the Holocaust — although this may come as a surprise to visitors to his latest solo show, Project 4. Nowhere in any of Breuer-Weil’s paintings or sculptures is there any reference to the genocide, or indeed to any other historical event. Instead, his theme is the condition of humanity: its place in the universe, the passage of time, the role and pitfalls of civilization.
“A lot of pieces that try to illustrate the Holocaust don’t succeed as works of art,” he says. “Mine are deeper — how has our world view been influenced by knowledge of [the killing]?”
His current exhibition — whose run has already been extended twice, now to March 24 — is housed in an appropriately primordial atmosphere: in the the Vaults under the Waterloo tube station. The cavernous space is accessed through a long, graffiti-sprayed tunnel, and trains regularly rumble overhead. The 70 canvasses displayed are as mammoth as Breuer-Weil’s artistic ambitions, measuring up to four meters (13 feet) wide and with striking, bold colors. There are also another 60 works on paper and in bronze.
The opening room is dominated by “Emergence,” a four-part sculpture that shows man rising up in stages from the mud. While evolution is alluded to, here there are no monkeys; man appears immediately. But neither does there seem to be a creator. The final homosapien — scarred by marks and written words, including the word “Adam,” or man, in Hebrew — is a powerful creature, pulling itself up with muscular arms and marching purposefully forward.
In a jarring juxtaposition, this is the first and last time man is portrayed as so powerful. Elsewhere, Breuer-Weil’s humans are tiny cogs in an infinite universe, at the mercy of physical and temporal forces beyond their control.
One series of paintings looks to the skies. In “Orbit 2 (Interiors),” rooms drift helplessly around the sun, each containing a person engaged in a day-to-day activity such as taking a bath, watching television or — in an apparent self-reference — painting. They seem entirely unaware of their situation. Similarly, in “Milky-Way,” tiny human figures hurl around what seems to be a white hole together with other planets and suns, all unable to escape the force of its gravity.
Breuer-Weil is “struck by the idea that we are all balanced on an absurd bit of rock orbiting in the middle of nowhere,” he says in his brochure.
Humanity seems to be traveling similarly through time. In a series of paintings that, like his astronomical works, are dominated by circles — he confesses a fascination with orbits, “the ultimate structure of the universe, from atoms to the largest object” — Breuer-Weil depicts societies perched on unfurling rolls (or possibly scrolls) and balls of string. Civilizations always look exactly the same at every point, with houses, trees and fire, but history is clearly unraveling, and has an end point.
The seeming irrelevance of individuals in the bigger scheme is emphasized by the almost total absence of close-ups of people, although Breuer-Weil says that this is the decision of the curator, who had to winnow down hundreds of pieces of work, and that in other pieces, not displayed, individuals are central. In “Visitor Triptych 1,” groups of humans are huddled together, naked, almost oblivious to the giant feet walking among them, which have presumably crushed some of their peers. It is an absurdist image reminiscent of the classic foot-stomp in “Monty Python,” and can be read as a political or economic comment on the powerless, as well as a broader statement about humanity’s vulnerability.
Overall, visitors might be excused if they find Project 4 a depressing, and perhaps disempowering, experience. But Breuer-Weil does not see it that way.
The figures in his paintings, he says, “are in calamitous situations, but they are quite calm . . . They’re showing stoicism. It’s not positive to avoid the fact that man is not in control or that nature is dangerous — these are facts. It’s positive to accept that, and be peaceful in that scenario.”
He also emphasizes the playful aspects of his work, citing Shakespeare as an early influence in his creation of a “dialogue between tragedy and comedy. There is definitely a strong sense of the absurd in my work, but it’s deadly serious.”
“Visitor Triptych” is not the only painting in which a familiar or benign household object is used to threaten destruction, with a comic twist. In “The Edge,” for example, an enormous broom threatens to sweep unsuspecting humans over a cliff.
In this particular painting, Breuer-Weil confesses that he sees a Jewish message beyond the universal one.
“The image of the broom — to some degree in my mind, that is almost what the Jewish people have been through. The broom is the persecution,” he says, adding that the metaphor applies equally to Israel. “It’s a terrifying thought, but who can say otherwise? It’s only by the grace of God that ‘brooms’ don’t sweep everyone to the sea. It feels like a mission and a duty to paint this image.”
‘The Talmud is almost like cubism. Like Picasso, [rabbis] see one object from different perspectives simultaneously’
While Breuer-Weil says that his painting is not specifically religious, “except in the sense that it’s a search for meaning,” Judaism clearly informs much of his identity, and hence his work.
He was born in 1965 in London to a father who had escaped Vienna in 1938 and a Danish mother whose father had been killed by the Nazis. The family was religiously observant, as he still is today, keeping Shabbat and kosher and studying Torah on a daily basis. He was sent to an Orthodox school, Hasmonean, at a time when a Jewish education was still quite rare among British Jews.
After studying at the Central Saint Martins School of Art and literature at Clare College, Cambridge University (“although I was painting most of the time”), he was awarded a scholarship to work in different departments at Sotheby’s, where he stayed for nine years, including a three-year stint as the head of modern art at Sotheby’s in Tel Aviv in the early 1990s. While he calls Sotheby’s “the greatest art school in the world,” the experience left him disillusioned with the modern art world, which he found excessively commercial, with too many artists producing work simply because they think it will sell.
“Artists have to earn a living, but it’s not the same as doing a work of art for the market,” he says. “I almost want to produce what the market doesn’t want. You need courage. I don’t want to be censored by what people might find pretty on a wall.”
(His own work is nevertheless selling well, adds Breuer-Weil, who with his designer glasses and smart jacket could easily still pass for the Sotheby’s expert he once was.)
In 1997, Breuer-Weil, who lives in the tony neighborhood of Hampstead Garden Suburb and has three children, left Sotheby’s to pursue his “calling,” his own art. He professes to have no political or other agenda in his work, but instead is guided by images that come into his head almost prophetically. He carries with him a little black notebook into which he jots sketches, sometimes filling a book a week, a small number of which are developed.
“The image comes first,” he emphasizes. “My interpretation can be wrong, too — I’m preoccupied with that. I’m smaller than my own image, fighting against imagination, which is stronger than the rational mind.
“It’s very instinctive,” he adds. “I’m not even aware of what I’m doing most of the time.”
Between 2001 and 2007, he held three solo exhibitions — logically named The Project, Project 2 and Project 3 — the last at a disused multi-story parking garage, reflecting his taste for underdeveloped, subversive venues. He hopes one day to install all four shows together. Other work has been exhibited by Sotheby’s and installed in public spaces in London.
His success has not been entirely uncomplicated, however.
“There is a very long tradition that Jews do not produce visual art,” he says. “It does feel transgressive even now to me. But I’ve checked it out with a rabbi, and what I do is okay.”
The issue has clearly preoccupied him because, when asked which rabbi, he exclaims, “I’ve got a few!”
Rather than seeing his art as contradicting religion, though, he says it is inspired by it, particularly the Talmud.
“People get Jewish thought wrong — they think it’s dogmatic,” he says. “But it’s about exploring alternative thoughts. The Talmud is almost like cubism. Like Picasso, [the rabbis] see one object from different perspectives simultaneously.”
Similarly, in his own work, “I see the world on different levels. Even physically, people exist simultaneously in different realities.”
In several of his astronomical paintings, for example, people stand on different planets, perhaps making a philosophical, and slightly sci-fi, point about the possibilities arising from each of our choices.
In the entire exhibition, only two works are explicitly explained as referring to current Jewish reality. Two paintings, both called “Cut,” show an idyllic landscape populated by naked, androgynous people sitting around blue oases, watching passively, or perhaps paralyzed by shock, as enormous saws cut the land in two. On the universal level, this is a critique of the general human need to break up territory. But it also refers to the struggle over land in the Middle East.
While Breuer-Weil says he “does not know” what his political views are, he felt an obligation as an artist to address the issue of a country facing physical division.
The painting seems anomalous when compared to much of Jewish art nowadays, which seems dominated by images of rabbis dancing with Torah scrolls and similar kitsch. Breuer-Weil blames an excess of sentimentalism, as well as reluctance among the religious to study art. But most of all, he laments a too-narrow view of what makes up Jewish culture, limiting artists’ subject matter.
“I don’t accept that it means bagels and ‘Jewish Mum of the Year,’ ” he says, referring to a recent British reality show.
“Jewish philosophy and literature form the basis of Jewish culture, and they are much grander and magisterial. Jewish thought is mystical, universal, inspiring, life-changing. Jewish culture is what you think of the universe and time. We’ve sold ourselves short.”
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