From Ashes to the Rainbow: The Art of Alice Lok Cahana
by Barbara Rose

Among the artists inspired to illustrate the Hell described in Dante’s Inferno, who
include Botticelli, William Blake and Robert Rauschenberg, only Rauschenberg had
access to literal images as opposed to entirely fanciful recreations of the tortures of the
damned. Using a transfer process, Rauschenberg incorporated newspaper photographs
into his images of Hell as a banal, everyday world of ordinary people in ordinary
situations. If Hell is a state of mind, as it may be, Rauschenberg’s Inferno illustrations
are perhaps a more accurate metaphor than Hieronymous Bosch’s compelling imaginary
tortures. IN either event, neither Rauschenberg nor Bosch ever experienced the physical
reality of Hell, or were eye-witnesses to murder or torture. Few artists have been; even
fewer could communicate what they saw to the world.

To make an artistic statement that would last as permanent testimony to her first-hand
experience of the Holocaust was the task that Alice Cahana set herself. Determined
to overcome the contradiction between aesthetics and mass murder, two irreconcilable
opposites representing the highest and lowest levels of human consciousness, she
experimented with techniques, imagery and style until she felt she had the means to
speak the truth she had witnessed as a teenager in the Nazi death camps of Auschwitz
and Bergen-Belsen. The decision to bear witness to what she had experienced was
difficult since Alice Cahana began her career as an abstract painter, much indebted to the
transcendental color field paintings of Morris Louis, whose mysterious “veil” paintings she
rightly understood as the expression of a mystical vision. Her early art training in Sweden
augmented by years of study at the University of Houston and at Rice University, where
color field abstraction was the dominant style, prepared Cahana to pursue her natural
inclination toward a modernist art of pure light and color, a lyrical statement implying a
cosmic consciousness. Moreover, in Houston, where she has lived since 1956, Clement
Greenberg, who visited the city to lecture, was a decisive influence on local taste and
collecting. As a result of his influence, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston assembled an
outstanding collection of works by color field painters like Helen Frankenthaler, Kenneth
Noland and Morris Louis, which Cahana came to know well.

However, Cahana’s development as a lyrical abstractionist came to an abrupt halt
in 1978, the year she decided to return to her birthplace in Hungary. That there was no
memorial to the vast numbers of Jews who had once played an important social, cultural,
and economic role in Hungarian society, who had been dragged from their homes and
sent to Nazi death camps, shocked her to the point that she felt she could no longer paint
abstractions. When she realized that no one remembered her own mother, who had
perished in Auschwitz, in their native town of Sarvar, 120 miles from Budapest, where the
family had a large carpet weaving factory, Alice Cahana felt she must dedicate her art to
creating the memorial that was lacking to those who had been murdered and forgotten.
At the same time, she believed that art could not be a negative statement and that her
message had to be about the transcendence of the human spirit, the triumph of human
spirituality over inhuman evil and bestiality. From the horror of her experience, there was
one positive image: that of Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish diplomat who risked
his life to save the Jews of Budapest.

For years, Wallenberg’s fate as a prisoner in a concentration camp, where the Soviets
had interned him after the War, was met with the same stony silence and indifference that
the world expressed when news of the “final solution” became known. Raoul Wallenberg,
who set up a series of “safe houses” in Budapest where he sheltered an estimated
hundred thousand Jews to whom he had issued false Swedish passports throughout the
war, had saved Alice Cahana’s father. Because he had gone to Budapest the day the
Jews of Sarvar were herded into the trains heading for Auschwitz, her father was able to
get one of the schutzpassen Wallenberg handed out to protect the Jews under the fiction
that they had Swedish passports. In her mixed media polyptych, Raoul Wallenberg,
Cahana has incorporated some of these faded passports as collage elements. The
series of works dedicated to Raoul Wallenberg, the series generically titled 1940-44 and
the two series of paper works, the Pages from Mother’s Prayer Book and the Children’s
Poems, which incorporate poems mothers asked their children to write before they were
taken to their deaths in the gas chambers, were done between her visit to Hungary in
1978 and 1984. During this period of feverish activity, she felt she had to remember and
record as much of her experience as possible so that memory would not be obliterated
over time. Concerned that the Holocaust should be seen for what it was—a unique event
in human history and not simply another example of brutality and barbarism—Cahana
used actual yellowed newspaper photographs and documents, newspaper clippings,
and archival material in these works which combined techniques of staining pigment
with collage. The latter was an art form that had never interested her because, in the
tradition of Jewish mystical artist such as Rothko, Newman, and Louis, Cahana believed
art should be the expression of wholeness, of the singleness and unity of the Hebrew
conception of the deity. Yet she was confronted by the fragmented nature of memories
of the Holocaust, as well as by the literal fragmentation of consciousness that human
psychology underwent when confronted with such an experience. Moreover, she was
determined to make certain that no one could explain her imagery as simply fantasies
of an artistic imagination. For this reason, she used literal photographs and documents:
factual evidence that could not be disputed. However, the images she chose to imbed in
her collage paintings, although identifiable with the Holocaust, were hardly the shocking
material visible in Holocaust museums. There are photographs of groups of people,
of bewildered deportees carrying their belongings. In the works dedicated to Raoul
Wallenberg, there are photographs of Wallenberg at different stages in his life, which she
uses as testimony to demonstrate that one man could make a difference—that one life
could be heroically used to confront a seemingly invincible force of evil. Of course, the
destiny of Wallenberg himself, a hero who became a victim of Soviet totalitarian fears of
his leadership potential, adds to the tragic dimension of his life, and to the universality of
his action. Thus, for Alice Cahana, Wallenberg was not only a hero, a transcendent spirit,
but also a victim of indifferent silence that a work of art may shatter by confronting the
world with his image and deeds.

The works dealing with the Holocaust theme are no longer purist works like her
abstract paintings; they are hybrid, collaged, textured works that tae from “life” as well
as from “art.” Although they differ both in subject matter and technique from Robert
Rauschenberg’s collaged “combine” paintings, there is no doubt that Rauschenberg’s
works are the other source of Cahana’s artistic background. Once again, that she
lived in Houston, close to Rauschenberg’s home town of Port Arthur, Texas meant that
she would know his work well. In that Houston is the cross-roads of the two streams
of contemporary American art, the intersection where stained color field abstraction
contends with an equally strong local tradition of Southern narrative art, Cahana was
fortunate to find an alternative mode of expression both contemporary and artistically
advanced, but which permitted a focus on content that purely formalist art did not offer.

Rather than use sensationalistic imagery, Cahana chose to use the language of
metaphor. In this choice, she remains firmly within the conventions of fine art, eschewing
the facile imagery of illustration. For her work does not illustrate the Holocaust: it
conveys the feelings—the filth, the exhaustion, the laceration of body and mind, the ashes—of
one who experienced this singular catastrophe. Because it is not illustrational, but
metaphorical, her art continues to ally itself with poetry rather than journalism. To deal
with such charged material in such a sensitive way through the use of metaphor, is an
exceptional achievement. Thus the surface is subject to various processes: it is burned,
scratched, stained with blood red pigment; the images are grafted, buried, partially eaten
away. These processes duplicate the fate of human beings in the camps in aesthetic
metaphor. The clouds of swirling dust are not the ashes of the crematoria; they are like
the flaming images in El Greco’s paintings that signify souls ascending into heaven. In
the three-dimensional work Requiem, the row of yahrzeit candles symbolizes the annual
ceremony commemorating the death of a loved one. The stone-like forms smudged with
black receding before us evoke the feeling of the long marches through the dirty snow.
White is pigment and also ice. Red is a color and also a wound. Black is death and
mourning and also mud, slime, filth. The yellowed stained backgrounds bring to mind
ancient parchment, while also evoking the horror of artifacts made of human skin.

Alice Cahana does not use images that would revolt or turn away the gaze. We are
drawn to look at her colors and textures, her rhythmic calligraphy, her carefully structured
compositions. When we look, however, we begin to feel directly, rather than merely
intellectually or visually, the emotions of those who actually experienced the Holocaust.
No sado-masochistic identification, such as that provoked by sensationalistic Holocaust
literature ad films, is possible because sado-masochism is not depicted. “I wanted to use
photographs of normal people, to show we were not different from the rest of the world.
We were not freaks; we were just like everyone else,” she has said.

To create a universal message that communicates a subjective emotional experience
is the task of the true artist. This task becomes particularly difficult if the artist, like Alice
Cahana, has to confront the darkest moment in human history, depicting an inferno that
is not imagined but real. Cahana has said she used numbers and statistics because
the reality of the nightmare was statistical, the reduction of a person to a number, to be
classified, identified finally as a thing. In her works dealing with the Holocaust, she was
determined to focus on why the Holocaust was different from any previous examples of
genocide, not only in its magnitude, but also in the application of all that man had created
in the name of scientific progress to the creation of a technology of mass murder. In its
structure and emphatic presence, Requiem has some of the qualities of an icon, as do
the other works dealing with Raoul Wallenberg. However, it is not an icon to be prayed
to, but an emblem of remembrance: a very specific historical memento mori.

When Goya drew and etched his celebrated series of scenes of the Disasters of War,
he apparently recorded directly the massacres that had taken place in 1808 at the Puerto
del Sol as an eyewitness. “Yo lo vi—I saw it,” he wrote. When asked why he chose such
subjects, he answered he wished his art to record what had happened so that people
would remember and not repeat history IN the paining of the massacres of Spanish
civilians by Napolean’s troops titled the 3 de Mayo, he appears to have used his fingers
to apply the red pigment depicting blood pouring from the head of a dead man. There
is a mystery about the processes Cahana used to stain and burn her surfaces, what
materials she used to convey the impression of withering and decay. This mystery adds
to the power of her works to move the viewer, to find a direct means of communicating
the unspeakable. In Arrival, for example, the train tracks converge rapidly toward a single
vanishing point, hurtling us through space toward the blood red dead end, making us feel
what those who were herded into the jammed, airless cattle cars must have felt. Space
is compressed, becomes claustrophobic. We look at the images of the series 1940-1944,
and we, too, feel imprisoned behind the black bars, jammed as space in the paintings is
jammed. The origin for the series of works dealing with Holocaust themes, which make a
strict artistic order often based on a grid, is to be found in the first figurative work Cahana
did, a small etching she made while a student at Rice University titled, The Six Million.
The grid pattern, Hebrew calligraphy and floating numbers are already present here. In
the series dedicated to Wallenberg, and the series titled 1940-44, they will be elaborated

Perhaps the culminating work of the almost colorless works dealing with the
Holocaust, which are unique in Cahana’s oeuvre because of the absence of bright
colors, is the horizontal scroll-like work on paper, Shabbat in Auschwitz. Here pages
from Hebrew prayer books are stuck together, unified by delicate calligraphic tracery
suggesting Hebrew script, once again in a dark red that looks drawn in blood. The work
commemorates a specific experience: The children in Auschwitz spoke many languages,
but they had a common language in Hebrew prayers. When they realized they could
hide in the latrine from the Nazis for a brief time and say their prayers together, they
organized Sabbath services, to feel their common bond and remember their traditions.
Through the traditional, ancient prayers, memory was retained, even in circumstances of
psychological extremity. As the psychologist Victor Frankel has pointed out, writing of his
own personal experience in a camp in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, a sensitive
person can survive horror by disengaging himself, becoming the observer rather than the
participant in his own life. He kept his sanity fantasizing the lectures he would deliver on
the psychology of the concentration camp. Similarly, Alice Cahana dreamed of the art
she would make, of the rainbow colored clouds she would paint and the story that she
knew one day she would have to tell in art.

This concentration on the importance of memory, of a continuous historical memory
that the various psychological pressures threatened by the degrading experiences of
the camp, designed to destroy not just the body but the mind as well has been seen as
more and more critical to survival of extreme situations. To create her Holocaust works,
Alice Cahana has added to the fullness and substantiality of an episode in historical
memory that was intended to be obliterated. The vividness, the directness of her ability to
communicate without words is the lasting achievement she has sought. The high degree
of formal structure—the usage of grids as structure, the repetitions of the horizontals and
verticals of the tracks and bars echoing the framing edge of the support as in a Mondrian,
creates a stable, formalist structure—a rational container for material and feelings that far
exceed the rational mind. This, too, is a kind of tour de force in Cahana’s art: to use the
metaphors of bricks and mortar, railroad tracks and roads built by slave labor as devices
to keep the material depicted in the painting from spilling out in a non-artistic lack of
control. Although her experience was of chaos, as an artist she understands completely
that the task of the artist is to create some kind of order from this chaos so that others
may have an understanding of the nature of ungovernable, inchoate, primitive behavior.

Because she does not wish to be literal, sensationalistic or journalistic, there is a
cerain degree of ambiguity in Cahana’s works. Close inspection, however, reveals that
there is an unmistakable specificity in her choice of imagery and in the way that the works
are created, through a process of mortification that makes them appear ruined, old,
layered—like memory itself—the opposite of a pure, slick shiny photograph of a bright
silk-screen of Warhol’s decorative electric chair.

Many of her images deal with prayers, for prayers were a daily part of lie in
Auschwitz. The burning and ascending symbol of the Hebrew letter shin, first letter in
Shalom or in the Shemah—the traditional prayer Jews recite to glorify the monotheism of
the deity who is indivisibly One. The paper in the Pages From My Mother’s Prayer Book
and the series based on Children’s Poems are concentrated on devotional images. In
many, the gritty ash-like black (a textural effect she achieved by adding coarse salt to her
pigments) is reminiscent of ashes; but the action of swirling upward, entering heaven, is
a pronounced directions. The image is one of aspiration, of transcendence, of liberation.
The transformation of matter into spirit is of course the essence of alchemy. Through
her husband, Rabbi Moshe Cahana, Alice also became interested in the mystical Jewish
literature of the Kabbalah which speaks of the possible transmutation of matter into spirit.

In the camps, Hebrew prayer, a communal activity, was an important means of
remembering a collective tradition and of preserving that memory. In the painting Oseh
Shalom, based on a prayer, there are images of the conflagration. There is no need to
be able to identify precisely the activity: the colors, surfaces add to the sensation of a
world on fire, going up in smoke and ashes in many of these works based on poems.
But now there is the possibility of ascension, of color coming back into the world, as
the artist perhaps feels that through poetry and prayer transcendence is once more
possible. The use of the Hebrew shin, its strong trident form often unifying a composition
is deliberate: the books may be burned but the prayers will endure in memory. And that
is finally the objective of Cahana’s art: to make a beautiful, moving, esthetic experience
that nevertheless transcends the eerily esthetic to become a spiritual marker for further
generations. Art incarnates in the present moments of past history in a physical, tangible
sense. The events and experience that produced them are no longer a reality; yet their
existence in the present and the future means that those who follow us come face-to-face
with the meaning and continuity of history. Speaking of why he continues to write about
the same themes, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has said that: “The fear of forgetting
remains the main obsession of all those who have passed through the universe of the
damned.” When George Segal recently completed his monument to the Holocaust,
which is far more explicit in its imagery than Cahana’s works, Segal, an American with no
experience of the camps, used a more graphic reference to the fate of European Jewry in
the image of a pile of chalk-white bodies piled up behind a barbed wire fence, in a studied
arrangement imposed by the artist in his will to art rather than to simply documentation.
“If I were to recreate the chaos,” he explained, “I’d have to use the Nazi brutality and
contempt to arrive at a solution. I don’t think it is the function of the artist to repeat that
kind of bankrupt frame of mind. It is more important to make room for the private tendrils
of response everywhere.”

Here of course is the heart of the difficulty of making art about the Holocaust. Only
now does it seem that sufficient time has elapsed that this painful material may be
integrated into the collective human consciousness as a permanent memory never to be
confused or effaced.

First published in From Ashes to the Rainbow: A Tribute to Raoul Wallenberg, Works by Alice Lok Cahana, 1986