As Theodor Adorno famously said shortly after World War II, "To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” That challenge continues to confront artists who attempt to depict the Holocaust.
How do you portray the Shoah? Do you create a literal description or work in the abstract? And as the actual survivors die off, can we do their memory justice – can we imagine their pain — are we in fact obliged to do so? Do we trivialize the holocaust by talking about it and portraying it ad infinitum or do we use the conversation to prevent it from happening again, to Jews or to others?
Charles Goldstein, a French artist and poet, grapples with these specific issues. Born in Paris in 1938, Goldstein spent the war years hidden in Southern France along with his immediate family, not knowing that an extended family remained in Poland, where most of them were killed. His parents never spoke about their murdered parents, siblings and cousins; Goldstein grew up aware of a void but unaware of its source.
In more recent years, Goldstein was able to partially unearth his family’s history: 84 members of his family were killed, either executed in the woods of Wisznice or deported to concentration camps. Believing that figurative painting couldn’t describe the unspeakable, Goldstein chose to define his identity and pay tribute to those who became “ashes and dust” through abstraction.
His paintings focus on a past that he did not know and a history that was not his own. The canvasses with their Rothkoesque gashes of stark color are somber windows into a black hole of nothingness with only an occasional faded photograph or torn Hebrew text providing hints of emotion and background. The painful abstractions are used to engage and exorcise his particular Holocaust history, bearing witness to something that he did not see but that haunts his soul.
As Goldstein says, “I'm working on nothingness, on the dust, on the smoke. I handle a topic that I do not understand, that I do not know, because I do not have memory."
Paintings by Charles Goldstein are on view at the Agora Gallery’s “The Essence of Abstraction” show through March 25, at 530 West 25th Street, Manhattan.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.