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Barbara Green at Lotus Fine Art

ART TIMES October 2007

The Circus Begins 1993 pastel

  DURING HITLER’S GERMANY, a joke began circulating among Berlin’s Jewish population and it went something like this: One day, a brown-shirted storm trooper grabbed the handlebars of a Jewish bicyclist, roughly halting the man in his forward motion. “Who started the war, Jew?” the Nazi demanded loudly. The Jew, head bowed down, said deferentially, “The Jews, sir.” And then, slightly raising his eyes, he added, “And the bicycle riders…sir.” Taken aback, the brown-shirt puzzedly asked, “Why bicycle riders?” The Jew, now looking directly into the Nazi’s eyes, shrugged his shoulders and, head tilted to one side, answered, “Why the Jews?”

Humor. Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, among other entries, defines “humor” as “the ability to perceive, appreciate, or express what is funny, amusing, or ludicrous…” And, as does Webster albeit more briefly, my Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary adds: “Distinguished from wit as being less purely intellectual, and as having a sympathetic quality in that it often becomes allied to pathos.” Jokes in the face of suffering. And “ludicrous”? What can be more preposterous than characterizing the holocaust as the opening of a Circus? Who would think of such a thing?

The Dialogue 1993 pastel

   Although Berliners of all stripes were famous for their “gallows” humor — when faced with their own pathos, the following jokes were being passed around amongst Germans as they huddled in bomb shelters around the city during the Allied bombing in 1945: “Be practical this Christmas — buy your loved ones a coffin” and “What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? The optimist is frantically learning English while the pessimist is resignedly studying Russian.” [1] — Jewish humor as a defense against despair is probably as old as their first displacement over 2,000 years ago. More than likely, it is the Jews who can be credited with “inventing” gallows humor — for who better than a Jew knows that, in almost all cases, it is the only “human” answer to the ludicrous, to the unreasoning senselessness of unwarranted cruelty, to the utter darkness of pathos at its nadir.

     It is in this tradition of seeing the “humorous” side of something as terrifying as a holocaust, that Barbara Green presents “Der Zirkus Beginnt”.* How else than by depicting Adolf Hitler as a clown foolishly gesticulating like a hanswurst before pictures of his “soldaten” painted on the side of a gaily-painted circus wagon or Heinrich Himmler as a stern-faced ringmaster in black cap, jodhpurs, and red uniform, can we get our minds around the enormity of this outrageous period of our history? After all, this was a “circus” in the grand Roman tradition of bloodletting as public entertainment, was it not? Why ought not the world applaud the spectacle of these forlorn and shoeless performers garbed in striped pajamas and dingy colors so dramatically depicted by Barbara Green — bareback riders on merry-go-rounds that go nowhere, tightrope walkers tethered to tent poles, sorrowful tumblers, angst-ridden figures sitting upon stools waiting for the lion (symbol of David?)-tamers commands — all responding to the raised whip of the handsomely clad masters while being surrounded in a festive atmosphere of noisy parades, vigilant brown-shirts with red, white and black swastika-decorated armbands, multi-colored balloons rising aloft, and handpuppenspiel? Did this debasement of the human soul not validate the ancient dictum of “might makes right” — a law that has been in force since the invention of the very first cudgel fashioned from an oaken tree limb?

The Pink Triangle 1994 pastel

Haunting images leap from the canvases and drawings of Barbara Green’s Zirkus — terrified family groups in open fields identified as a “sideshow”, indistinct faces looming out of darkened backgrounds, swastikas decorating walls and wagons, monkeys with umbrellas, a child clad in white in a sea of black, huddled mothers and offspring herded into tents under the watchful eye of Ringmaster Himmler and his gentlemanly admonition of “Women and Children First”, graffitied walls futilely asking viewers to “seek justice”, a pretty blonde waving a Nazi flag, regal eagles (German? American?) emblazoned on waving “fahnen” or silhouetted with outspread wings enveloping a hodge-podge of human bones under the paternal heading of “Fatherland”. Though nowhere as ghastly as those photographs taken after the liberation of Hitler’s concentration camps, Green’s color-laden images of one of the darkest of “Grim” fairy tales — in all their thinly-disguised horror, their inhumanity in the guise of entertainment, speak just as trenchantly, just as clearly, as do the black and white snapshots of dead, emaciated, and mangled heaps of bodies that were brought to world attention after the war.            

     Still, Green allows for some hints of lightness to alleviate the Stygian darkness of a world gone mad, some hope for a different future, a world where all are on equal footings. One glimpses a yellow Monarch butterfly, a dancing dog, a white rose in the hand of Sophie Scholl, an opening at the end of a wall, a small window letting a modicum of light into a concrete cell — insignificant perhaps in such a hellish context, yet tentative indicators that hope springs eternal.  Whether that world is still to come — whether it ever will come, is left for the viewer to ponder. This is not an exhibition designed to delight the senses, but it is one that will linger in the mind for some time. If there is what might be called a “bright” side, it is the fact that Barbara Green, teacher as well as artist, is a master story-teller, her skill with brush, pastel or charcoal stick as fluent — nay, more fluent — than the most facile of wordsmiths attempting to describe the atrocities of Nazism.

     Some twenty-five works — oils, pastels, charcoal drawings — make up this exhibit, more than enough to adequately tell the macabre story of the “Final Solution.” Green is a rare talent — an accomplished painter that goes far beyond skillful technique. She is an artist with sensitivity, compassion, vision, and a true sense of what all great art is about — the enlightenment of mankind.

Kudos to the co-owners of Lotus Fine Art, Director Jamie and her husband Doug Barthel, for both mounting this exhibition and for their efforts on the behalf of the victims of Darfur — today’s newest holocaustal victims.

This is a show you ought not miss.

*“Der Zirkus Beginnt” (The Circus Begins)—The Holocaust Series: Paintings by Barbara Green (Nov 10—Dec 2): Lotus Fine Art, 33 Rock City Rd., Woodstock, NY (845) 679-2303. At the Opening Reception, which will be held from 5 to 8pm on November 10, a Silent Auction will be held to benefit the ongoing Darfur Holocaust, and, at 8PM, Barbara Moorman, daughter of a WWII liberator, will show a movie about her family, which will be followed by a Q&A period.

[1] I cribbed these from Antony Beevor’s Berlin: The Downfall 1945, Penguin Books Ltd., London, 2004.

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