THE FEDERMAN CYCLE (A PORTION THEREOF)
DEBRIS & DESIGN OF THE HOLOCAUST
How to speak the unspeakable? How to represent absence? These questions have been asked, over and over again, for more than fifty years now. But perhaps they were the wrong questions to ask. To say that it is impossible to say what cannot be said, to represent what refuses to let itself be represented, is indeed a dead end, unless one makes of this impossibility, of this void, this absence, the essential moral and aesthetic concern which displaces the original event, the Unforgivable Enormity of the Holocaust, towards it erasure. Perhaps these were the wrong questions to ask, because once the fire is out, only the smell of smoke remains -- and the debris.
The horrible fire is extinguished, and in spite of all the frantic activities still going on in the world today to gather, to record, to preserve, to remember what refuses to speak or be represented, the Unforgivable Enormity will inevitably vanish into its own silence and its own absence.
The historians, the statisticians, archivists, memorialists have done their work. The accounts have been written, the monuments have been erected, the memorials have been sanctified, the museums have opened their doors to the Holocaust tourists, and still the Unforgivable Enormity refuses to make sense. The bodies have been counted. The damage estimated. The reparations paid. The great fire is now extinguished. But the smell of the smoke that always lingers after a great fire still pervades.
And so when the historians close their books, when the statisticians stop counting, the memorialists and witnesses can longer remember, then the poet, the novelist, the artist comes and surveys the devastated landscape left by the fire -- the ashes. He rummages through the debris in search of a design. For if the essence, the meaning, or the meaninglessness of the Holocaust will survive our sordid history, it will be in works of art.
Harvey Breverman has understood this. He has understood that one cannot represent what refuses to be represented -- what has been absented forever. There are no people, no cadavers, no mass graves in the Federman Cycle. What one sees there is only debris, the remnants of the Unforgivable Enormity. Fragments of stained photographs, unreadable ripped documents, undecipherable symbols, numbers and dates, official seals, illegible signatures, and the ever present yellow humiliation. In other words, the ashes of the great fire -- greyness.
Black, or rather grey is the dominant color in these drawings. The Holocaust was black and white. The visions that are left of the Holocaust are black and white, like the ugly costumes the murderers invented for the victims. Steven Spielberg remembered that when he made Schindlerís List. He remembered it, for a while, until he sentimentalized his own film by coloring the happy ending. There is no possibility of a happy ending after a fire. There is only the unbearable smell of smoke and the debris that the fire has left behind.
Harvey Brevermanís drawings are not sentimental. They are a mixture of peacefulness and sadness. They do not bring sentimental tears to our eyes, they make us pause and reflect. They make us understand that deep behind all works of art lies sadness, pain, suffering, and death too. Thatís what great art is always about: creation and destruction, life and death.
Two bright colors intrude into the greyness of Harvey Brevermanís drawings: yellow and red. The yellow humiliation of the wandering star. The red of the spilt blood. And here and there spots of blue and brown that remind us that what we are looking at are works of art -- debris and design.
As a writer who experienced the Holocaust, however directly or indirectly, I know how difficult, how impossible it is to speak, to write the unspeakable -- to name the unnameable. How can the visual artist, the painter especially, represent what refuses to be represented? Harvey Breverman is one of the few artists I know who took the risk of trying to represent, not the Holocaust, but the debris of the Holocaust -- not the fire, but the smoke and the ashes.
I have watched the Federman Cycle being created piece by piece. Breverman knew from the beginning that one canvas would not suffice. That the smoke lingers on and on. That it was only through repetition and variation that perhaps he could grasp the debris and make a design. The series grew to twenty pieces, thirty pieces, and perhaps it is still growing. The Federman Cycle is one large canvas, fragmented into multiple icons. The fragments of unreadable documents reappear in various positions. The blurred photographs of the boy staring out of the fire, classified as a survivor on the unreadable documents, are dispersed in the deliberately chaotic space. And there, intruding into the greyness, the crumpled, wrinkled yellow star torn from some soiled overcoat.
If these fragments are all part of a large canvas, an endless devastated landscape, yet there seems to be a progression from one piece to the next, or rather a disintegration of the elements of the work. Gradually, the yellow star seems to want to disappear into the greyness. The pen, the pencil that was here to try to write the impossible story is suddenly broken. Only the pebbles that mark the visitation to the grave remain untouched, solid, stubbornly casting their somber grey shadow. And then, suddenly, fingers reach inside the drawings for the yellow star. A hand appears on the scene, a hand reaching for the debris, a hand wrapped in the ceremonial leather straps of the Tífillin of prayer. But the hand remains empty. Nothing here can be grasped, can be touched, nothing here can fall into place. The space of Brevermanís drawings is a fragmented space, a space that cannot contain all the debris left behind by the fire. The debris refuses to fall into a neat pile. Nonetheless, in his obsessive effort to hold in his hands some of the debris, the detritus of the Holocaust, Breverman has managed to make us see, make us touch, what so far had been unseen and untouched.
That the name Federman should be part of this design moves me deeply, for it is not only my name, but the name of those in my family who were reduced to ashes. For this, I am immensely grateful to Harvey Breverman.