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A Weekend of Art

The cartoonist behind 'Maus' lectures at weekend events

by Michael Aushenker

November 19, 1998 | 7:00 pm

It was a dream come true for devotees of revered cartoonist Art Spiegelman last weekend, as the chain-smoking New Yorker flew into town to speak before capacity crowds at Second Generation and Skirball Cultural Center programs.

For those unfamiliar with his "Maus" graphic novels, Spiegelman uses the comics medium to weave a frank, layered narrative anchored by two central explorations -- the Auschwitz survival story of Spiegel-man's parents, as told by his father, Vladek; and the psychological ramifications of the Holocaust, which begot the tortured, complex relationship Spiegelman shared with his father and was a direct factor in the suicide of his mother, Anja.

Last Saturday, the 49-year-old Pulitzer Prize winner lectured on "Representations of the Shoah in Maus" at a seminar sponsored by Second Generation, the nonprofit affiliation of children of Holocaust survivors. Spiegelman, himself the son of Holocaust survivors, concentrated his discussion on the circuitous evolution of his "Maus" concept since the early '70s (following the death of his mother and the birth of the underground comics movement) and its 13-year execution, which originated in 1978 as serialized installments in his RAW anthologies.

Along the way, Spiegelman shared his distrust for historians, explored the creative process behind "Maus'" complex graphic compositions and juxtapositions, and addressed accusations by those who feel he has trivialized the Holocaust by using animals to symbolize Jews, Poles and Germans.

Spiegelman shot down any notions of "Maus" as catharsis, quipping, "One mustn't confuse art with therapy. I've done both. It's cheaper to do art." The cartoonist expressed his wariness for well-intentioned works like "Life is Beautiful" and "Schindler's List" that oversentimentalize the Holocaust and seek to extract optimistic, life-affirming lessons from its chaos. He also discussed his resistance to interest in turning "Maus" into a Hollywood motion picture and closed his talk with a humorous take on the uproar over his controversial New Yorker covers.

Alluding to the African-American woman he painted being kissed by a Chasidic Jew, Spiegelman joked, "She might be Sephardic."

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