Karen Gunderson

BRATTLEBORO: Departures: The Newsletter of the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center: Moral Courage During WWII : Denmark and Bulgaria, Drawings and Paintings By Karen Gunderson: Spring, 2002

Karen Gunderson’s monumental black paintings and charcoal drawings commemorate the rescue of Danish and Bulgarian Jews during the Holocaust the the people of Denmark and Bulgaria.  In 1943, led by their king, Christian X, the Danish people assisted the escape by boat to Sweden of more than 7,000 Jews, most of Denmark’s Jewish population.  King Boris III and the citizens of Bulgaria prevented the Nazis, who occupied their country, from transporting the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to concentration camps.

Gunderson was inspired by stories she heard growing up in a Danish community in Racine, Wisconsin, and by what she later learned about Bulgaria while researching for her exhibition Kings.  In the works on exhibit at BMAC, she explores the themes of friendship and safety in extreme adversity and the moral courage required for such heroic acts of friendship.

In a series of nighttime scenes, she depicts the sea voyage from Denmark to Sweden, Four of the large charcoal drawings place the viewer in a boat with the rescuers and the rescued, looking to the north, east, and west toward Sweden, and to the south, back toward Denmark.  All that is visible are dark waves, sometimes a portion of the boat or a shadow on the water, and the night sky.  The stars and moon are drawin in the exact positions as they appeared in October 1943 during the rescue.  The danger, loneliness, apprehension, and isolation for both the Jews and the Danish fishermen who piloted the boats is thus made strikingly palpable.

The faces of some of the Bulgarian rescuers are memorialized in Eleven of the Many Brave, an 11-foot-long charcoal group portrait.  Pictured are the king in military uniform, his wife the queen, and others who effected the movement to rescue Bulgarian Jews.  Because Bulgaria became an Axis power during the war, a paradox existed in relation to the rescue of Jews.  Gunderson said she painted Boris’s military cap, pulled lower over his eyes in the large portrait King Boris III,  to suggest a mask, partly hiding the good man who operated behind the Nazi bureaucrat.

The portrait of Boris and its companion portrait, King Christian X, are made entirely in black paint.  Gunderson created light in the paintings solely with her brushstrokes, which catch and reflect the light differently depending on the angle at which the images are viewed.  She said her intention in this body of work was to express the light of moral courage in a time of great darkness.

James E. Young, a professor of Judaic and Near Eastern studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, and author of Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust (1988), wrote:  “How does an artist commemorate the heroic rescue of Jews…during the Holocaust without obscuring the much more pervasive darkness of evil that made this rescue necessary? … Karen Gunderson does not answer these questions so much as she brilliantly articulates them in her…meticulously wrought meditations on the goodness of a few whose scant light pierces, but does not dissolve, the darkness of this time