Robin Bernstein, “The Arc of History”
Robin Bernstein, “Lorenzo’s Primo,” 2019, string and wax on wood
Anyone paying attention to current politics realizes that a culture war, not policy, is in the driver’s seat of our national handbasket to hell — and high water. Our media diet of identity politics, i.e. white tribalism, larded with nostalgia for a whitewashed past that never existed, short-circuits rational thought, paralyzing action that is desperately needed. Consider the news items that Representative Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) is encouraging college students to drop out [https://www.newsweek.com/madison-cawthorn-urges-fellow-conservatives-leave-college-i-am-proudly-dropout-1661932] and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is touting Florida’s Stop Woke Act, enabling parents to sue school districts if their precious innocents are tainted by unpleasant historical realities [https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/12/15/desantis-stop-woke-act-mlk-crt/].
The visual arts play a role in combating historical and political amnesia. Unfortunately, too much contemporary art is overtly tendentious, guilty of the cardinal sin denounced by the defensively thoughtless: “It tells me what to think.” Artists might do better to preach less to the choir of progressive peers and to present the facts more neutrally in compelling and comprehensible terms by letting the viewer — possibly stunned by being treated as an adult — consider the evidence and decide for themselves. We need a revived history painting entirely different from the jingoistic battlefield panoramas of the nineteenth century that glorified the status quo.
A good candidate for such a revival was Robin Bernstein’s recent “Beauty and Terror” exhibition (at Transmission Gallery in Oakland in 2019). The show was a magnificent commemoration of the Holocaust, exhaustively researched, visually compelling and emotionally cathartic. The eighteen “string paintings” — eighteen will be the final number of pieces in the series, symbolizing ‘life’ in Jewish numerology — are affecting on several levels: as a pure aesthetic experience; as an intellectual and emotional catharsis; and as a demand that such horrors never recur. Bernstein’s deep dive into history informs her resplendent commemorative plaques, replete with putti, banner inscriptions, and simulated Baroque frames. They rescue history from oblivion. Bernstein’s website explains, “Robin’s current subject matter combined with her artistic technique is her way of shouting from the rooftops: those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Let’s consider a few individual pieces. Each is accompanied by a paragraph of explanatory notes. It is essential that viewers take the time to read them. Bernstein informed me of at least one viewer who thanked her for the education the show had provided.
“The White Rose” memorializes the University of Munich students who in 1942-43 covertly distributed pamphlets that called for opposition to Nazism. They were caught, promptly convicted, and quickly guillotined or imprisoned, unrepentant to the end. Bernstein’s painting depicts a skull whose eye sockets have been filled with white roses, signifying purity and innocence in the face of evil. Ornamental volutes and swags frame banners inscribed with the names of eight White Rose members, and a simulated marble pedestal bears the single word, Courage.
“Harvest Festival” remembers the 43,000 Jews separated from other prisoners and ‘harvested‘ by the SS and collaborators on November 3-4, 1943, in Majdanek, Trawniki and Poniatowa, in the Lublin district of Poland, in order to discourage further resistance from slave laborers. Bernstein amplifies the irony of the Germans’ Aktion Erntefest code name (Operation Harvest Festival) by presenting a traditional still-life cornucopia of fruit and vegetables, signifying God’s bounty, atop a badge or escutcheon surmounted by a glowering imperial eagle and the wry caption, “Waltzes Played All Day.”
“Ratlines” with its pink rat, splayed as if crucified or dissected, commemorates the escape routes through Italy and Spain used by fleeing Nazis at the end of the war — an Underground Railroad for slave masters, run with the complicity of the Vatican and the Red Cross. The orb and cross symbolism of the Holy Roman Empire is here transformed into the Red Cross logo, surmounted by a halo naming the staunchly anticommunist Pius XII as Hitler’s Pope. The rat’s ribs are named after the South American countries that provided refuge: Bolivia, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Peru. And the tangled tails of this singular “rat king” name the war criminals who evaded international justice for at least awhile: Mengele, Bormann, Barbie, Eichmann, et al.
“Lorenzo’s Primo” celebrates the humanity of Lorenzo Perrone, an Italian forced laborer at Auschwitz who secretly fed a young boy every day for five months, thus saving his life. Seven years after the war that prisoner, Primo Levi (1919-1987), who would become a chronicler of the Holocaust, found his benefactor, still in the town of Oświęcim, dying. In gratitude and affection, the chronicler praised the “humanity, pure and uncontaminated,” of Primo’s Lorenzo.
The elegiac memorials of Bernstein, products of extensive and emotionally exhausting research and of months of disciplined string-by-string labor, prove that art can confront and transfigure the big questions of life. She proves that art need not abandon reality, smirking at its own supposed impotence and irrelevance. Art, at its best, can and must still champion the ostensibly old-fashioned values of liberal humanism, especially in our dangerous, degraded times.
Robin Bernstein, “Harvest Festival,”
2019, string and wax on wood
Robin Bernstein, “The White Rose,”
2019, string and wax on wood
Robin Bernstein, “Ratlines,” 2019, string and wax on wood