Because I Was a Painter Dir. Christophe Cogne

[Jour2Fête; 2014]

Styles: documentary
Others: Grizzly Man, Anselmo

In a famous anecdote about Picasso’s painting Guernica, it is said that a Nazi officer pointed to a photograph of it and asked, “Did you do this?” to which he responded, “No, you did.” Whether this story is fact or fiction, it alludes to the multiplicity of issues surrounding the depiction of human suffering. At the forefront is the question of the place of beauty in representing atrocity, a question that opens up a host of others about the identity of the artist and the context in which art was made.

Christophe Cognet’s film Because I was a Painter documents the Holocaust through the artwork of those who experienced it firsthand, exploring their compulsion to create. Art for historical documentation. Art as a means of escapist fantasy. Art as proof of the endurance of the human spirit. These and countless other reasons for why people made artwork at the risk of death emerge as the film guides us through concentration camps and drawings by prisoners, scrawled on bits of paper salvaged here and there.

Through interviews and readings of memoirs, the film explores different positions towards the role of aesthetics in describing tragic events. Some of its subjects, for instance, are intrigued by the horrific sights they bear witness to and compelled to process these experiences through art. In a memoir, the artist Zoran Music writes, “I don’t dare say it. I shouldn’t say it. But for a painter it was incredibly beautiful.” Music’s drawings of mounds of corpses are grotesque, but also drawn with a grace and sophistication that exhibit a quality one might describe as beauty. Like Francisco Goya’s Disasters of War series of etchings of cadavers strewn on trees, visual seduction and traumatic imagery work hand in hand to deliver disturbing messages.

To reconcile the coexistence of beauty and tragedy on the same page, artist and survivor Walter Spitzer explains, “The beauty comes from the artist, not the corpses.” He goes on to to discuss his own work, a painting of a voluptuous woman posed in various stages of agony boxed inside a canvas which serves as the metaphorical enclosed space of a gas chamber. In contrast to Music’s works, which appear to be drawn from memory, Walter Spitzer’s painting idealizes the figure and aspires more directly towards beauty. Referencing Guernica, and Goya’s work, he defends beauty: “You can paint the most tragic thing but it must be beautiful… If it’s ugly, the viewer will just turn and walk away.”

On the opposite side of the spectrum, other artists who survived the Holocaust express only disgust, rejecting the notion of beauty in the context of the death camps. Artist Samuel Willenberg, for instance, vehemently asserts, “There was no beauty. It was devoid of beauty.” His artwork consists of metal castscold, brackish figures sculpted with an untamed touch reminiscent of Giacometti. However, even though artists in the film speak of the concept of beauty differently, their responses seem to be two sides of the same coin. They all hint at a sense of awe before the enormity of tragedy, and they all grasp to preserve their own humanity through art.

Director Christophe Cogne’s position on the presence of beauty in the context of some of the the ugliest events in human history is indicated in the scenes of landscapes that are woven between interview segments. Roaming through trees, memorial sites, and the concentration camps themselves, the camera guides the viewer through striking vistas and spectacularly composed scenes. The innocence of nature stands in contrast to the evil that the camp architecture represents. As the viewer follows the camera’s eye, one can’t help but observe unmistakable beauty amidst the places of tragedy. Slow and meditative, recalling the cinematography of Tarkovsky’s Stalker, Because I was a Painter creates an awesome space in which to meditate on the role of the artist and the definition of beauty in the context of war.

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