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Jewish Journal

Art of Imprisonment

by Naomi Pfefferman

July 26, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Alexander Deutsch with "Hope through the Wall."

Alexander Deutsch with "Hope through the Wall."

Alexander Deutsch secretly painted watercolors in an Argentinian political prison after he was kidnapped, tortured and incarcerated by the paramilitary regime in the late 1970s.

His disturbing, meticulously detailed work, now on display at the Bernard Milken Jewish Community Campus in West Hills, was rendered on flattened cigarette packages or paper stolen from the jail's infirmary. In some of the paintings, half-naked prisoners slump in a dark corridor or use the pail that serves as a common latrine. In others, they are beaten or searched. One sketch depicts inmates unraveling socks to make a rope to smuggle contraband from a neighboring jail cell.

"That is how my watercolor set was sneaked into the jail," says the 80-year-old Jewish artist, who now lives in a sunny duplex in Los Angeles.

During seven months in custody, Deutsch completed more than 80 watercolors, half of them portraits of fellow prisoners. During the day, he painted when the guards weren't looking; at night, he hid his art supplies in a crumbling brick wall. Had they been discovered, the penalty would have been torture, or worse.

"But I felt compelled to keep working," says Deutsch, who believes his experience in prison made him a stronger person. "The jailers wanted to break my spirit, but my painting cheered me. My body was imprisoned, but my work allowed me a freedom of mind."

Not long after the 1976 military coup, the Hungarian-born Deutsch learned that Jews were disappearing from his upper-middle-class neighborhood in the mountain resort of Cordoba, Argentina. The anti-Semitic regime was targeting Jews, among others, for covert arrests on trumped up charges of "subversive" activities. At Around 1:30 a.m. on Aug. 27, 1977, they came for Deutsch, his wife and three daughters.

Policemen broke into their home, blindfolded and handcuffed the family, then drove them to a camp where they lay on a cold concrete floor -- still cuffed and blindfolded -- for days. "I heard crying and screaming coming from the torture room," the artist says. "One night we heard them dragging someone across the floor in a canvas bag."

When it was his turn, Deutsch was interrogated about his alleged political activities and subjected to torture by electrical shock. "They told me to take off my pants," he says of his inquisitors, who attached electrodes to his legs. "The electricity burned like a fire."

After his transfer to a penitentiary in Cordoba, Deutsch was forced to share a tiny, lice-infested cell with eight fellow prisoners. For two months, the pajamas he had been wearing when he was arrested were his only clothing.

Meanwhile, relatives in the United States were waging a fierce campaign to free the artist and his family, rallying the support of congressmen and Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League. Eventually, President Jimmy Carter asked the Argentinian president to release the Deutsches in the name of human rights.

The request apparently worked. By late 1978, all the Deutsches were free and en route to a new life in the United States. But memories of the horror lingered. During the long airplane flight to Los Angeles, the artist's then 19-year-old daughter, Liliana, described how she had been subjected to "the submarine treatment" -- a form of water torture. "The guards kept pushing her head into a bucket of water until she passed out," Deutsch says in a hushed voice. While she was telling him the story, he couldn't help but cry.

After moving to Los Angeles, the artist says he painted grotesque, stylized memories of jail to "help liberate myself from the nightmare."

"The Prisoner of Rivera" recounts the time he peered out of a window and saw an anguished woman behind barbed wire in a lush, green field. In the painting, the prisoner appears as gaunt and tormented as a medieval saint.

"The Submarine" shows Liliana in the torture room, nude, blindfolded and gasping for air. A large, disembodied hand grasps her blond curls, ready to submerge her again into the water barrel.

Painting his daughter enduring torture was one the most difficult endeavors of Deutsch's career. "But I felt compelled to document the cruelty," he says. "This kind of thing is still happening around the world. My work bears witness to man's inhumanity against his fellow man," Deutsch says.

Deutsch's "Prisoners Without Cause" and "Synagogues of the World" exhibits are running through Aug. 3. For more information call (818) 464-3257.

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