Jewish Journal

Infernal Art of Adolf Frankl

Ian Shulman

February 24, 2013 | 11:11 pm

How should a Holocaust art look like? Are there any functions which it needs to execute? Should it follow any cautious guidelines; inspire any actions or thoughts; inform, remind or alarm? Adolf Frankl’s permanent exhibition in Vienna, called ‘Art against oblivion’ (‘Kunst gegen das Vergessen’), seems to have its own mission too. Yet his paintings approach Holocaust from a very personal and, therefore, a very unobvious viewpoint.

Adolf Frankl was born in 1903 in Bratislava and studied art with renown Slovak artists of his time. During his studies he also worked as a cartoonist and a painter. Being Jewish, In 1944 Frankl and his family were captured and transported to Sered’ concentration camp. Having spent a bit more than a month there, the painter was deported to Auschwitz. Later Frankl was moved to a typhus barrack in Althammer (Stara Kuznia), a neighbouring camp of Auschwitz. In 1945, he was saved by the Red Army. Right after his rescue, the artist moved back to Bratislava and started to work on his most prominent creation, inspired by what he has seen during the Holocaust - the cycle ‘Visions from Inferno’. In 1949 the communist regime has forced Frankl to leave Bratislava again, his ‘beloved native town’ as he called it in the names of his paintings. This time the artist has left his town forever. Frankl lived in Vienna, New York and Germany and died in Vienna in 1983.

Frankl has devoted more than 50 years of his life to art. Learning painting in the interwar Central Europe, the artist couldn’t remain unaffected by the major tendencies, which have drastically changed the fine arts. His works were to a certain extent inspired by Chagall, Picasso as well as by lesser known artists.

Holocaust is not the only topic of Frankl’s countless paintings - but among his cartoons or scenes of the pre-war life in Bratislava or Vienna, it obviously plays the central role. The artists takes a very individual touch to the representation of this topic. According to the memories of Thomas Frankl, the artist’s son who runs the exhibition in Vienna, Adolf has hardly spoken about his Holocaust memories. Instead, these memories were voiced through his art.

But apart from artist’s war memories and sketches, Frankl’s works feature many reflections, full of hidden and apparent comparisons, symbols and metaphors. Thus, Frankl constructs Adolf Eichmann’s face from the bodies of suffering victims (‘Adolf Eichmann - anthropomorphic description’); while countless faces, figures and Bratislava city patterns can be found on a mosaic-like ‘Remembrance of the Bratislava rabbis’. Being an important element of Frankl’s inspiration, Bratislava is beautifully portrayed on ‘The approaching doom’, where mysterious faces and images, symbolizing the nearing disaster, have filled the sky over a picturesque city skyline.

The dynamism, inherent to Frankl’s paintings, is aimed to depict the transformations, which happen to human nature in times of disorder. These transformations are, again, approached from a metaphorical, maybe even slightly ‘naive’ viewpoint (which is rather mentioned in the context of ‘naive art’ than literally). ‘The tornado’ portraits ‘the eruption of evil and the animalistic inhumanity are portrayed in the numerous figures’, and ‘The persecutors’ intends to ‘describe the hatred of human creatures becoming animals. It is the wild animals with their bloodthirsty mouths chasing the weak and defenceless ones’.

Apart from the permanent exhibition in Vienna, opened in 2006 at Judenplatz, the historic center of Viennese Jewish life, Frankl’s paintings have been presented at various shows during the past forty years in Austria, Germany, Israel, Poland, the USA, Italy, and, finally, in Slovakia.

Slovakia has an especially significant meaning in this list. Thomas Frankl recalls accompanying his father in his trips to the Austrian borderline, where only a border fence separated him from his beloved city of Bratislava. Frankl could clearly see the Bratislava castle and the city skyline on the other bank of the Danube, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, with no hope to ever come back to the city of his birth. Years after the artist’s death in his ‘Viennese exile’, his paintings have eventually passed the already fallen border.

Frankl’s art offers an offbeat approach to the hard and constrained topic of Shoa. Being very personal by default, these paintings do not aim to win the masses. Yet, their ability to fascinate and puzzle does not need to be proven.

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