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Reclaiming the monstrous kitsch of Dachau

by godlove4241
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Robert Russell, Liegendes Reh, 2023, oil on canvas, 40 x 55".

At first glance, “Porzellan Manufaktur Allach”, Robert Russell’s current solo exhibition at the Anat Egbi Gallery in Los Angeles (through April 22) is an in-depth study of kindness. But after spending more time with his large auratic paintings of porcelain animals – and learning their history – the glowing fawns, rabbits, lambs and puppies reveal a dark underbelly. All of these art objects were made during the Nazi regime by forced laborers in the Dachau concentration camp. Heinrich Himmler, among the leading architects of the Holocaust, oversaw their production, calling porcelain “one of the few things that gives me pleasure”. Russell doesn’t rid the figurines of their shiny, sugary charm, but under his gaze they take on new life. Transposed from a miniature scale to a monumental scale, and from porcelain to painting, these subjects are alchemized from kitsch to art, like golems fashioned in clay from their dark history.

DURING THE PANDEMIC, I made a series of porcelain teacup paintings based on pictures I had found on eBay, posted by people selling their grandparents’ wares, etc. This project inspired me to do more research on porcelain. Besides, I had done a lot of reading on the Holocaust. Sure enough, the history of porcelain suddenly dovetailed with Nazi history.

Most of the teacups I had painted had been made in a factory in Meissen, Germany, near Dresden. It is the oldest porcelain factory still in operation in the world. I saw a photo of Heinrich Himmler, the commander in chief of the Nazi army Schutzstaffel, who oversaw all of its genocidal programs, including concentration camps, visiting the Meissen factory in 1933. Himmler was obsessed with German folklore and Aryan mysticism, and apparently he commissioned the factory to start producing some figurines. The SS administration awarded these porcelain trinkets to its soldiers and officers on special occasions. Small vignettes, paintings by Fragonard, creatures of the woods, figures of idyllic peasants in lederhosen, stuff like that.

In 1936, Himmler took funds from the Third Reich to buy a porcelain factory in Allach, a small town near Munich. Allach Porcelain has recruited the best porcelain artists and its production has increased quite rapidly. When production outgrew this factory, Himmler moved the company to a larger facility near the Dachau concentration camp and used the prisoners as laborers for nearly a decade. That’s when the story spirals out of control, as far as I’m concerned. It is simply outrageous.

The Nazi Party was a very aesthetic movement. They were extremely careful with graphic design, architecture, and crafting a lexicon of symbols and patterns to support their ideology. Porcelain was well suited to Nazi philosophy, as it is all about purity and whiteness. They weren’t interested in anything avant-garde; their whole horrible project consisted in revisiting a mythical past. They were waging massive mechanized warfare while fantasizing about Lebensraum— “living space” — transforming all of Europe into the German countryside. I imagine that’s why Allach made so many pastoral and forest animal figurines.

View of “Porzellan Manufaktur Allach, 2023, Anat Egbi, Los Angeles.

All the images I used as sources for my paintings are from European war memorabilia auction websites. These auction houses are a far cry from Sotheby’s or Christie’s and have long German names. The figurines are very, very expensive: between twenty and thirty thousand dollars. I wanted to acquire one just to manipulate it, to see what its physical presence was like. But I didn’t want to spend the money — nor could I — and I really don’t want to participate in this market. So I have never seen one of these porcelain figurines from Allach in person.

One of the ways I think about these paintings is that I transform these figurines into Jewish objects. As a Jew who engages in and responds to this story, I consider these paintings to be Jewish works of art. I like to imagine that if someone researched Allach porcelain now, they would come across my work. I want to fit into the story and make it a story of Jewish recovery.

We think porcelain is bone white, but in reality, these shiny figurines soak up all the color around them. Most of them were photographed against a neutral gray background to avoid staining. But I didn’t want the paintings to look like they were stuck in the WWII era, like some distant historical artifact. The figurines still exist, and I thought they should appear more ethereal, like ghosts. I used a lot of alizarin crimson, a color that has been an obsession of mine for a long time. It has an amazing range – you can pull off so many deep and light shades from its pigment. It’s also very bodily. When you squeeze the paint out of the tube, it looks like dark red blood. But it’s mostly pink, and I took some pleasure in painting Nazi artifacts like these apparitions in pink and Prussian blue.

Scale was crucial. The objects are only a few centimeters high, but these paintings had to be much larger than life. They need to shout out their cuteness to you. Somehow, this cuteness brings their brutality to the fore. They are slowly turning into the monsters they really are. I needed this horror to be a physical experience for the viewer, rather than a strictly intellectual one. It’s one thing to learn the story, but it’s another to feel it on a deeper level, beyond what words can express.

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