Karen Gunderson


Karen Gunderson's
Black Portraits of Rescue

How does an artist commemorate the heroic rescue of Jews by the Danes and Bulgarians during the Holocaust without obscuring the much more pervasive darkness of evil that made this rescue necessary?  How do we commemorate such heroism without assigning it a singularity of motive and purpose?  To what extent are the individuals portrayed in this gallery of rescuers representative of their compatriots’ actions during the Holocaust?  And to what extent are they necessarily the exceptions who prove the rule of bystanders’ indifference and complicity?

Karen Gunderson does not answer these questions so much as she brilliantly articulates them in her stunning assemblage of black-on-black and charcoal portraits, meticulously wrought meditations on the goodness of a few whose scant light pierces, but does not dissolve, the darkness of this time.   These are not celebratory portraits of larger-than-life heroes and heroines, blinded by their bright goodness, so much as they are human-scaled images of people who did what they could, even as they remain haunted by the knowledge that this may not have been enough.

I remember how taken aback I was the first time I saw Karen Gunderson’s “black paintings” several years ago.  She had been highly regarded for her lighter-than-air skyscapes of puffy white clouds in translucent blue skies, paintings that seemed magically¾if paradoxically¾to capture the ephemerality of the clouds, their constant movements and changing shapes, in the fixed medium of paint.  Suddenly, however, all lightness was put to flight and replaced by thickly-applied black paint.  But then I realized that through her brush strokes and the stippling of her brush work, the artist had actually created haunting images in the reflective surfaces of her black paint:  a butterfly, a king’s crown, a candle, a six pointed star.  Luminousness here emanated not from within the depths of the paint but literally from the artist’s stroke itself, which caught available light and seemed to imbed it into its surface. 

The technical paradox of light glinting out of darkness is thus formally enacted in these works, an irony extended thematically in the subjects of her black-on-black series, “Kings” (1998).  As a medium, it is even more appropriate to the themes of this current exhibition:  scant light in a dark time, the heroism of a few non-Jews in saving their Jewish compatriots in Denmark and Bulgaria.  For it is a heroism which has built into it a paradoxical ambivalence toward such acts.

According to historian Leo Goldberger, in his recollection of his own rescue from Denmark as a child, two Danes knelt at the edge of the water in thankful prayer as his boat left the quay.  In Gunderson’s drawing of this moment, these two figures on the shore appear small and forlorn, and are almost obscured by the chop of waves.  In the four directional drawings, we see what the artist imagined the rescued and rescuers saw:  an endless expanse of moonlit seas and vast, black heavens, empty save for the same constellations of stars that guided their boats to Sweden’s shores.  Here the artist captures what is often lost in retrospective depictions of such events:  the palpable sense of isolation and danger experienced at the time by both the Jews and the Danish fishermen ferrying them through the night.  At the time of the operation, it was not yet a rescue¾but an extremely painful and forced abandonment of home and friends, a dangerous foray into the unknown.

Indeed, ambivalence remains animate in these images for other reasons, as well.  On the one hand, the stories of the Danes’ rescue of their Jews during World War II that Karen Gunderson heard as she grew up in a Danish American community in Racine, Wisconsin stirred great pride in her young heart.  It was no doubt a relief to know she was descended from the righteous and not from the killers or bystanders.  But as she grew into a more complex world of shadows and grey, the darker side of this rescue also began to dawn on her:  for it showed just what could have been done but was not done for nearly 6 million other European Jews during the war.  The rescue belied the self-exculpating myth of bystanders that “there was nothing we could do” or that “we didn’t know.”  In a terrible way, therefore, such rescues had to be celebrated and mourned at the same time.

Other historical facts also mitigated against an altogether self-congratulatory series of “heroic portraits.”  Denmark had, after all, shut its borders to German Jews during the 1930’s when they had desperately sought refuge from the Nazi state next door.  The national, self-aggrandizing story of rescue is complicated further by newly emerged historical evidence (also portrayed here) that it may have been the Nazi S.S. commander of the German occupation forces himself who tipped off the Danish underground to the impending roundup of Denmark’s Jews¾and that he may even have turned a blind eye to the rescue operation itself.  The formally articulated ambivalence in Karen Gunderson’s black-on-black “anti-heroic” portraits is not intended to refute Denmark’s reigning self-idealization as a perennial haven of refuge, but only to pierce the self-congratulatory side of any national story that blinds us to other, conflicting historical realities.  For the artist is aware that every national story necessarily occludes as much history as it recalls.

In Karen Gunderson’s vision, the heroism of King Boris III of Bulgaria, who prevented his country’s 50,000 Jews from being deported to the Nazi death camps, is similarly tinged with ambivalence.  For it was partly through his accommodation toward the Nazi’s that he accomplished the actual rescue of the country’s Jews.  Good and evil cleave together in this world, each defining the other, Gunderson’s portrait of King Boris III reflects the king’s mixed means toward a blessed end:  his eyes are shaded, even masked slightly, preventing us from peering very deeply into his motives; bedecked with medals of the normally self-aggrandizing kind, the king also remains curiously oblivious to these customary signs of honor.  His hat is part halo and part stiff military decorum, a mix of menacing and protective authority.

Only the two kings¾Christian of Denmark and Boris of Bulgaria¾are consecrated in paint here.  The other rescuers remain suspended in the “drawing stage” of charcoal, works in progress, now fixed only for the purpose of our viewing.  Charcoal is a kind of ash, of course, a medium created in fire and burning, which famously allows for shades of gray.  Like black-on-black paint, charcoal does not hide the artist’s hand so much as reveal it through its traces, movements, and fingered smudges.  Unlike black-on-black paint, the charcoal surface remains fragile, vulnerable to human touch, unfinished.

Of the individuals portrayed in the artist’s gallery of Bulgarian rescuers, “Eleven of the Many Brave,” none evince any trace of self-satisfaction.  Their smiles are wan, if they smile at all, and two appear to be somewhat down-cast.  The expressions on the other faces are decidedly cryptic and hard to read:  all have their own stories, which they seem to be keeping to themselves.  The reasons for their bravery may be as disparate as the individuals themselves.

On her drawing of King Boris III of Bulgaria with his back turned to a Nazi official berating him for not sending Bulgaria’s Jews to their deaths, the artist has remarked, “This drawing was incredibly difficult:  not only to just make it, but to make it art.”  For it is art that asks whether light can, or even should, be seen emanating from a time as dark as the Holocaust.  Yes, the artist seems to answer, but only if it remains defined by the darkness itself.  Such paintings and drawings represent not just the goodness of rescuers during the Holocaust, however inspiring such goodness may be.  But they also underscore what historian Saul Friedlander has called “the ambiguity of good,” the mixed motives of rescue, its mixed legacy¾and our own ambivalent attempt to celebrate the goodness of rescuers even as we mourn the terrible loss of the unrescued.

                                   Essay by James E. Young

James. E. Young is Professor and Chair of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; he curated “The Art of Memory” at the Jewish Museum in New York (1994).  He is author of At Memory’s Edge (2000), The Texture of Memory (1993), and Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust (1988).