Mauricio Lasansky working on "The Nazi Drawings" in his studio in Vinalhaven, Maine, in 1962. Photo courtesy the Lasansky Corporation.

How unspeakable tragedy inspired the art of “The Nazi Drawings”

By Tim Gihring //

In May 1960, Adolf Eichmann was abducted in Buenos Aires by agents of Mossad, Israel’s secret service. He was interrogated, drugged, and put on a plane to Jerusalem, where he stood trial nearly a year later for orchestrating the deaths of millions of Jews in the Nazis’ so-called Final Solution.

The trial was televised world-wide, and featured the testimony of some 90 Holocaust survivors, detailing the horrors of life—and mostly death—in the concentration camps. The Eichmann affair, from capture to conviction, was dramatic in a way that the earlier Nuremberg Trials were not, and as a media phenomenon was more akin to the O.J. Simpson trial. Viewers were reckoning in real time with crimes that, for various reasons, had been subsumed by the broader catastrophe of World War II—16 years after the end of the war in Europe, the true nature of the Holocaust was finally sinking into popular culture.

Mauricio Lasansky, the son of Jewish immigrants in Argentina, had moved to the United States in 1943 and was a renowned printmaker by the time of Eichmann’s trial. As it unfolded, and he too was struck by the enumeration of genocide, he began “The Nazi Drawings.” Now, some 50 years after they first toured to wide acclaim, Mia is showing the original series in “Envisioning Evil: The Nazi Drawings by Mauricio Lasanky,” opening October 16.

I spoke with Rachel McGarry, Mia’s Associate Curator of European Art and the organizer of the exhibition, about the power of Lasansky’s vision, then and now.

Do you remember when you first encountered these drawings and the impression they made on you?

I was introduced to them by Leonardo Lasansky, one of Mauricio’s six children. After having dinner with him one night, I looked at the catalogue from 1966. And I was just floored by the expressive quality and power of the works, and certain unexpected aspects of the drawings that I wanted to better understand. They have only been shown in the Twin Cities once before—in St. Paul, for two weeks, in 1977.

How did this exhibition come together?

When the drawings first toured, from 1967 to 1970, they made a huge impact and the shows were very popular. A lot of institutions were interested in acquiring a single drawing from the series, but Lasansky wanted to keep them together. Richard and Jeanne Levitt, who were philanthropists in Iowa, wanted to acquire the whole series. And so they did—they bought the drawings in 1972 for their foundation, which has lent them and made them available, especially at the University of Iowa where the Levitts went to college and Lasansky was a professor.

A few years ago, I was talking about the drawings with Erwin Kelen, a supporter of Mia and a drawings collector; he knew “The Nazi Drawings” well. He had grown up in Hungary during the war—he was 10 years old when the Nazis invaded Budapest—and the work touched him personally. He asked if I was proposing this as a show. I said yes, and he said, “I know the Levitts and I’d like to help you.”

In the catalogue for the show, you recount the moment in your childhood when the Holocaust begins to sink in for you—in a friend’s basement, doing gymnastics, while a documentary plays in the background.

Yes, I went back and researched this documentary I had seen, Kitty: Return to Auschwitz, which aired in Minneapolis in 1981. It was gripping, this story of a woman in Auschwitz—the flood of memories and her vivid language. I think we’ve all had that moment when you come to terms with what actually happened in the Holocaust, whether it’s watching footage of the Nazi camps or seeing a survivor’s arm tattooed with a registration number.

Like a lot of people, I’d made the false assumption that the United States joined the war effort to stop the Holocaust, when in fact it was downplayed by the government. It was shocking to learn the truth. The more you learn, the worse the tragedy becomes and the more difficult it is to explain how it happened.

Has your understanding deepened with this project?

The big takeaway from this project, which has coincided with the pandemic and the racial reckoning following the killing of George Floyd, has been the role that storytellers play in shaping collective memory. After the war, a great number of Holocaust memoirs were written but few were published. The Holocaust, as the historian Peter Novick put it, was “swallowed up by the carnage of war.” People didn’t want to think about it. They were rebuilding.

To see how the Holocaust was being covered at the time, I read the cover of the New York Times every day from 1938 to 1945. And I was surprised to see how the coverage of concentration camps was buried, how the Jewish dimension was buried. Even when the camps were liberated in Germany, reporters were so horrified by the conditions that they didn’t necessarily report that the victims were Jewish—they’re instead identified by nationality.

The trial of Eichmann, in 1961, really made people realize this was a singular tragedy in the war, and that changed everything. The earlier memoirs were republished in the 1960s, and artists felt they could start working on this subject again. There was a whole explosion of interest in people wanting to understand it through films, literature, historical studies, plays. It suggests the huge role that artists and writers and television have in shining a light on injustices of the past—events taking place right before your eyes are sometimes only understood in hindsight.

Mauricio Lasansky, No. 29, c. 1965-66. “The Nazi Drawings,” Levitt Foundation © Lasansky Corporation

Some of these drawings reference the Catholic Church and its complicity with Nazis—indeed there were priests helping Nazis escape to places like Argentina after the war. How much of that story was known in the 1960s and how might viewers have reacted to it?

It was a major issue in the 1960s. It was being investigated by journalists and was even dramatized on the Broadway stage, in a play that caused scandal wherever it went. There was criticism of Pope Pius XII, in particular, for not speaking out publicly against the Nazi genocide. But Lasansky is criticizing German Protestants as well, the German Christians. And because he has an incredibly vast knowledge of the history of art, he’s incorporating Christian iconography to make searing statements about Christian culpability in the genocide.

There is a phrase by Peter Novick, this idea that “every generation frames the Holocaust, represents the Holocaust, in ways that suit its mood.” This is true of Lasansky in the ’60s. And when we look back at, say, Schindler’s List, by Steven Spielberg, it looks different than if someone were to make a movie about the Holocaust today.

Women in these drawings are often shown as prostitutes—in bed with evil, so to speak. How should we think about these depictions, in the context of the time?

In the 1960s, there was a lot of discussion of brothels at concentration camps—it was a staple of Holocaust films and literature at the time. Subsequently it’s been shown that they existed, certainly, but because of Nazi racial laws it was not Jewish women in the brothels, as was assumed in the ’60s. Lasansky, who is so well-versed in art historical imagery, is also tapping into German Expressionist art by artists like George Grosz and Otto Dix, who depicted prostitutes as a symbol of the depravation of society.

Most importantly, this is an opportunity to consider a part of the war that is often marginalized: sexual violence against women and children. Women did suffer from sexual violence in the war, that we know. And surprisingly, sex crimes were not prosecuted as war crimes until the 1990s.

Mauricio Lasansky, Triptych, 1963–71, “The Nazi Drawings,” Levitt Foundation © Lasansky Corporation

Lasansky also references the battle for civil rights in the South, a suggestion that these issues were playing out right here in the United States?

The final work in the series is a triptych completed after the original exhibition tour, and here he’s really brought many of the issues in the 1960s. He depicts a woman with a 1960s hairstyle and he’s collaged all these 1960s newspaper articles and classified ads: an article on racial strife in Alabama and segregationists committing violence against Civil Rights activists, op-eds about Governor George Wallace and what Kennedy is doing. What Lasansky seems to be doing is equating Nazi racial crimes with white supremacists.

He generally ripped out the headlines, but I was able to track down the articles. And on an adjacent page in the newspaper, for example, are pictures of the Ku Klux Klan marching in the South. So he’s clearly seeing that on the day he’s creating this work. He gives the figure in the central panel of Triptych a KKK capirote hood. He’s warning that this could happen again.

He created a self-portrait that he intended to close out the series, to be the last thing people see. Why did he put himself in these drawings?

He seems to be referencing Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters. He has a pen in his hand and is actually being torn apart by a skeleton—it’s tearing out his heart and meddling in his head. It shows that he’s tormented by the act of producing these drawings. But I also think he’s saying that evil could lurk in any of us.