Visu­al Arts

Fac­ing Survival

  • Review
By – January 7, 2020

For over five years David Kas­san has been paint­ing high­ly real­is­tic, life-size por­traits of Holo­caust sur­vivors, and a large group por­trait of eleven Auschwitz sur­vivors. That polyp­tych and thir­teen indi­vid­ual por­traits were exhib­it­ed at the USC Fish­er Muse­um of Art from Sep­tem­ber 18th to Decem­ber 8th 2019, co-orga­nized by the muse­um and the USC Shoah Foun­da­tion. The exhi­bi­tion fea­tured not only the por­traits, some sketch­es, and draw­ings, but also an inter­ac­tive instal­la­tion, called Dimen­sions in Tes­ti­mo­ny,” a vir­tu­al con­ver­sa­tion muse­um­go­ers can have with sur­vivors who have been filmed.

Kassan’s project is a mar­riage of word and image. He begins by meet­ing sur­vivors and record­ing their tes­ti­mo­ny, then sketch­ing and pho­tograph­ing them. He looks at those pho­tographs and reflects on the sto­ries he has been told as he con­ceives his paint­ings. In some cas­es Kas­san first lis­tened to the record­ed tes­ti­mo­ny held in the Shoah Foun­da­tion archives, but face-to-face inter­ac­tions with sur­vivors remained inte­gral to his prac­tice. Sub­tle facial move­ments, ges­tures, and body pos­ture, along with objects brought by sur­vivors to the ses­sions, helped Kas­san cre­ate what he believes is a more authen­tic rep­re­sen­ta­tion of his sitter.

A beau­ti­ful­ly pro­duced exhi­bi­tion cat­a­logue accom­pa­nies that show, con­tain­ing twen­ty-four of Kassan’s paint­ings. The expres­sive and unflinch­ing por­traits appear as full-page repro­duc­tions on glossy paper, with half-page ver­ti­cal tip-ins on uncoat­ed paper that con­tain select­ed excerpts of the survivor’s tes­ti­mo­ny. This jux­ta­po­si­tion makes for a very attrac­tive pre­sen­ta­tion. The high qual­i­ty of the repro­duc­tions allow read­ers to see how metic­u­lous­ly Kas­san paints skin, fab­ric tex­tures, and oth­er details, all against a mut­ed back­ground. His use of oil on acrylic mir­ror pan­el, rather than a more tra­di­tion­al oil on can­vas tech­nique, aug­ments the lumi­nos­i­ty of the paint­ings. A dra­mat­ic fold-out of the polyp­tych offers a sense of the scope of his work (the paint­ing is 210-inch­es by 96-inch­es), and twelve pages at the end of the cat­a­logue repro­duce Kassan’s stud­ies in prepa­ra­tion for the final paintings.

Three of the four short essays and an artist’s state­ment use­ful­ly con­tex­tu­al­ize the exhi­bi­tion. The first essay, by exec­u­tive direc­tor of the USC muse­ums Sel­ma Holo, attempts to jus­ti­fy Kassan’s use of real­ism by degrad­ing avant-garde art. While real­ism has indeed been in-and-out of favor since the first decades of the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry that has no bear­ing on the impor­tance of Kassan’s project. The oth­er essays and Kassan’s artist state­ment describe his process and the seri­ous intent behind his endeav­or; his effort to cre­ate por­traits that con­vey his sit­ters’ Holo­caust expe­ri­ence, and also the resilience and rich­ness of their lives after. The theme run­ning through the catalogue’s essays is that of an art of tes­ti­mo­ny.” As Kas­san put it, words imbue my work so that each paint­ing becomes the embod­i­ment of wit­ness and pass­es their tes­ti­mo­ny onto the viewer.”

Saman­tha Baskind is Pro­fes­sor of Art His­to­ry at Cleve­land State Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author or edi­tor of six books on Jew­ish Amer­i­can art and cul­ture, which address sub­jects rang­ing from fine art to film to comics and graph­ic nov­els. She served as edi­tor for U.S. art for the 22-vol­ume revised edi­tion of the Ency­clopae­dia Judaica and is cur­rent­ly series edi­tor of Dimy­onot: Jews and the Cul­tur­al Imag­i­na­tion, pub­lished by Penn State Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

Discussion Questions