Karen Gunderson

CAMILLE HOWELL: The News Leader: "The Danish Rescue" a "Schindler's List on Canvas": Feb 11-13, 1994

With "Schindler's List" at the top of everyone's "must see" list these days, it's an especially appropriate time for an exhibition now at Drury's Cox Gallery titled "The Danish Rescue."

In 1943, the people of Denmark rallied round their Jewish population and were able to save more than 7,000 Jews from a Nazi roundup.  The Drury exhibit of charcoal drawings and paintings by New York artist Karen Gunderson chronicles this extraordinary historical event.

The entire rescue took just a few days, beginning with a tipoff from a German diplomat named Duckwitz to Hedhoft, a Dane, that a countrywide sweep to pick up Jews was about to begin.  Practically the entire population of Denmark, sympathetic to their countrymen’s plight, joined together and helped almost all the Danish Jews escape to Sweden in small sailing boats.

Gunderson who grew up in the Danish community of Racine, Wis., wanted through her artwork to breathe life into this story, and in a monochromatic, almost naïve, style, she has done just that.  These works on display, some of which are cartoons for paintings commissioned by a Lutheran church, are in many cases simply conceived and executed, but they pack power.

Especially effective are Gunderson’s drawings of the ocean and the sky, which give the viewer a feeling of what it must have been like to be in a small wooden boat, leaving home for a new start in a nearby yet foreign land.  In particular, a room of four large drawings representing views from a boat is effective.

To the north, the direction the vessel is headed, there are only ocean waves and a black, starry sky.  To the east, a foreshortened oar is visible going into the water, and to the west, a moon-light-induced shadow of the boat and the outlines of two people are thrown upon the water.  Finally, to the south, you see the shore these travelers have left behind.  Barely visible, two Christian women kneel on the shore and pray for their Jewish friends.

“This is a show about Christians for Christians,” said Tom Parker, chairman of Drury’s art department.  “There’s such a vast anti-Semitic myth.  This is about Christians treating Jews righteously.”

Parker’s sentiment seems to echo that of Leif Donde the Danish consul general in New York.  In a recent interview in U.S. News & World Report, Donde recalled making the trip to Sweden as a 6 year-old Jewish boy.  Where the Holocaust is concerned, Donde said, “You need the good stories as well.”  Good stories are exactly what Gunderson allows us to see and appreciate in her work.

“The Danish Rescue” continues through Wednesday at Drury.  Gallery hours are 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Camille Howell is Director of publish relations for the College of the Ozarks and art critic for the News-Leader.  Her column appears on alternate Fridays in Weekend.