Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 14, 2022
Rachel McGarry Envisioning Evil: “The Nazi Drawings” by Mauricio Lasansky Exh. cat. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2021. 160 pp.; 81 color ills.; 37 b/w ills. Paper $39.95 (9781517910518)
Minneapolis Institute of Art, October 16, 2021–June 26, 2022
Envisioning Evil: “The Nazi Drawings” by Mauricio Lasansky, installation view, Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2021 (photograph provided by the Minneapolis Institute of Art)

Visitors facing the entrance to Envisioning Evil: “The Nazi Drawings” by Mauricio Lasansky are offered only one glimpse of what they can expect if they choose to enter: a decorated Nazi officer raises his arm in a Hitler salute while blood-like drops fall from his wrist and smear the page. On his head is a terrifying bestial skull that appears both fixed and projected on the man’s scalp. A close look reveals smudges, partial erasures, hard pencil strokes, and tears to the paper. This work is steeped in rage.

Mauricio Lasansky’s (1914–2012) torment is on full display upon entering the exhibition space: in his words: “I was full of hate, poison, and I wanted to spit it out” (The Nazi Drawings by Artist Mauricio Lasansky, dir. by Lane Wyrick [Xap Interactive, 1999]). The thirty-three works comprising The Nazi Drawings together present the artist’s response to the state of total human degradation unleashed in the process of creating the Nazi dystopia. The full series is now on display for the first time in more than fifty years at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The museum is thus in an interesting position to present Lasansky’s series as both an artwork and an archive. Curator Rachel McGarry successfully conveys the brilliant rawness of Lasansky’s works while contextualizing his interpretations. In the meticulously researched catalog, McGarry situates The Nazi Drawings as part of a moment of transition in the history of Holocaust memory.

As historical documents, Lasansky’s works illustrate the significance of postwar trials against Nazi criminals in shaping public awareness of National Socialism and the Holocaust. He began working on The Nazi Drawings shortly after news of Adolf Eichmann’s capture in Argentina (Lasanksy’s birthplace) in May 1960 enthralled spectators worldwide. In the immediate postwar decades, trials such as Eichmann’s were a crucial medium that communicated information about the scope of Nazi violence, revealing horrifying details of the mechanisms of genocide and the pains of survival. Bits and pieces in The Nazi Drawings echo these encounters as they were mitigated by courtroom deliberations.

McGarry’s curatorship explicitly highlights the links between trials of Nazi criminals (and that of Eichmann in particular) and Lasansky’s works. A separate nook in the exhibition space invites visitors to view two short films: one including edited excerpts from the 1961 court proceedings; the second a news clip from a local Twin Cities TV station reporting on a Holocaust memorial service that took place in conjunction with the trial. Survivors who attended the service were interviewed and asked what they thought Eichmann’s sentence should be.

The significance of the trials, as seen in Lasansky’s works and in the curator’s choices, extends beyond the visibility of the Holocaust as a historical event. Legal procedures against Nazi criminals repeatedly generated heated debates about the nature and danger of human evil in the abstract, and about the particular strand of evil that fueled and lubricated the Nazi genocidal machine. Is evil banal? Pathological? Contingent? Were the Nazi perpetrators of genocide brutal sadists, calculated opportunists, or professional mass murderers? Trials against Nazi criminals forced a confrontation with these questions due to their procedural nature. The trials narrated unspeakable acts of cruelty while conforming to, reinterpreting, or inventing legal norms that would make these acts legally comprehensible.

As suggested by the exhibition’s title, the collective quest to uncover the qualities of Nazi evil resonates throughout Lasansky’s works in this series. It is present in almost every frame, manifested in the terror-inducing skeletal entities that sometimes appear to be controlling, sometimes attacking the human beings depicted. In many of the works, these entities take the form of a skull-like helmet that almost seems to fuse with a subject’s head. In other pieces, they appear as bony chimeras that consume human beings, sometimes witnessing and sometimes partaking in horrific acts of violence.

We are first introduced to these inhuman entities in six drawings (cats. 1–6) that depict portraits of Nazi soldiers and officials who bear the intimidating skull helmet, with portions of their impassive faces concealed by it. These six works were the first that Lasansky created for the series (around the time of the start of Eichmann’s trial), and they may have given him the space to interrogate the anatomy of murderers like Eichmann and to identify a force (or combination of forces) that could offer an explanation. The skull helmets seem to offer a tempting resolution: the men in the drawings are human beings who willingly don a heinous frame.

But the drawings that follow complicate the picture. The skulls adorn not only the heads of the pronounced Nazis but those of their victims as well. Forced prostitutes, camp prisoners, even children bear the skull helmets. The monstrous sacks of bones that recur in many of the pieces engulf the bodies of murdered and murderers alike. These haunting creatures are not merely signifiers of Nazism, spectral representations of Hitler’s dehumanizing enterprise. They do not simply indict the guilty but also tell a story of what it means to be human in a world where such violence is allowed to take place.

The final three pieces of Lasansky’s series (cats. 31–33) reinforce this premise. Together titled Triptych, they were completed last and added to the series after its first display in 1967. These drawings transport the imagery that he created in the series from the Nazi universe to the Civil Rights–era United States, asking viewers to see the common lineage of the gas chambers and the lynching fields. The terrifying skull helmet is turned into a Ku Klux Klan robe, and the familiar, partially human figures appear on a background of newspaper clippings from the 1960s, including reports on anti-Black riots in the southern United States. As historically specific as this series is, Lasansky intended its message to extend beyond the immediate context that inspired the drawings. The Nazi Drawings are not just about Nazis. They are an X-ray of human societies in which evil is allowed to take root, spread, and then act. The concluding piece of the series shows the artist in the midst of his work, naked and with his drawing instrument in hand, while the menacing figure of a skeleton positioned on top of him is gouging his eyes and heart out. Lasansky signed this piece upside down, hoping (according to curator McGarry) that spectators would approach and view it closely, a final raw confrontation with the artist’s restless rage.

Lasansky’s series features various recurring characters, and some of the most intriguing are female sex workers, presumably forced laborers who were selected for the role. As the catalog aptly describes, Lasansky’s depiction of sex work in the service of the Nazi regime was influenced by the contemporary fascination with concentration camp brothels. Presented as the pinnacle of Nazi sadism, the popular depiction of these so-called brothels also veered into eroticized sensationalism that bordered on the pornographic. Yet if the public imagination of these sites of slave labor tended toward salaciousness, the fictional works that popularized this theme depicted women who were imprisoned in the brothels as absolute victims of Nazi brutality. Lasansky’s treatment of women who bartered in sex, on the other hand, is far more ambivalent in its verdict. 

His portrayal of sexual violence during the Holocaust makes a clear distinction between those who are depicted as innocent victims of assault and those who are depicted as sex workers. In cat. 17, Lasansky portrayed a scene of sexual assault occurring inside a gas chamber. The face of one victim—a child—bears excruciating pain; another seems lifeless and possibly dead while being brutalized by a Nazi officer. In contrast to these agonizing figures, the sex-slave laborers depicted in cats. 7–12 embody voluptuous forms and are given a playful body language. All of them wear the emblematic skull helmet. Donning black high-heeled shoes and exposing breasts and genitals, some are groped by soldiers and unidentified figures while others appear to be displaying themselves for unseen spectators. Their frozen, enigmatic smiles appear too terse to indicate pleasure, but they are clearly separated from victims subjected to sexual torture in other frames.

Lasansky not only differentiates between sex workers and other victims of Nazism, but he also refrains from applying unambiguous judgment against the former (as he does against the Catholic Church, for example). Although the sex workers are not depicted as pathologically deviant, like the men and the monstrous figures who fondle them in ecstatic perversion, they are not easily identified with either victims or perpetrators. It is precisely the ambivalence reserved toward the sex workers that appears so unsettling in this series, which is otherwise unequivocal in the rage and anguish that it communicates.

Wanting to voice a universal condemnation of genocidal dehumanization, Lasansky avoided symbols and tropes that would bind the series strictly to the Holocaust. Swastikas and explicit signs of Jewishness feature rarely. In the time that has passed since he created The Nazi Drawings, the mainstream visual lexicon for interpreting this history expanded only to rapidly narrow and then harden. Themes that Lasansky explored in the series as they began to emerge into public discourse at the time are now more widely embedded in our understanding of this cataclysmic event. Yet his works continue to haunt and trouble, as they were intended to do. The exhibition under McGarry’s curatorship both historicizes Lasansky’s confrontation with evil and its outcomes and elevates its relentless relevance.

Sheer Ganor
Assistant Professor of History, University of Minnesota, Twin Cities