The culture as a shell (from the newspaper Klassekampen)

by Cathrine Krøger

“The first time I saw Holbein’s painting ”The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb ”, it made an indelible impression on me. Here there was nothing divine, nothing transcendent, no hint of resurrection. This was an image of a corpse, a dead human being.”

This is what the painter Frithjof Hoel says about the background for his exhibition "Contemplations on the Dead Christ” which is now being shown in Gallery LNM in Oslo. Hoel, who has studied archeology in Sweden, has also attended Statens Kunstakademi (the Norwegian National Academy of Arts) in Oslo.

- Your previous solo exhibition,”Contemplations on the Isenheim Altar”, staged in the crypt of Oslo Domkirke (1994), also had as its basis a suffering Christ?

-Yes, but with “The Isenheim Altar”, painted by Grünewald, hope is present in the depiction of the resurrection. And there is also compassion, with a Christ depicted through the perspective of Mary Magdalene. In Holbein’s painting, however, there is no hope present, something that Dostoevsky also referred to in his novel The Idiot, when one of the characters sees a reproduction of “The Dead Christ” and makes a comment along the lines of; “This painting could make one lose one’s faith”.

However compassion is also to be found in Holbein’s work, not in his depiction of Christ, but in his portrayal of a single human being’s death; death itself. There is a calm and dignified expression in his painting, a cool distance that displays a lack of illusion, a trait which could even be called modern. At any rate such a depiction of Christ was something quite rare in the 16th century, even despite the brutality of the period. Holbein himself lived in the midst of such brutality. After all, he was the court painter of Henry the VIII.

Morality and science

Hoel’s exhibition includes twelve portraits of German psychiatrists and doctors who worked in institutions which performed Euthanasia before and during the war, two small children’s portraits called “species of sterilization”, and a large painting of a naked body stretched out on a dissection-table. All the portraits are in black and white. In a small room there are around ten photographs of brains, human bodies, cut skin, and instruments for measuring the brain.

- What is the connection between Holbein’s painting and your exhibition?

- It happened by coincidence, really. I was in Paris, got lost, and then I came across some kind of memorial centre for Jews. Here I saw photographs, hideous photographs which had once belonged to a professor in Strasbourg who had wanted to assemble an “anthropological” collection of sub-humans and Bolsheviks. The professor had “dispatched” 115 people who he had first examined, and then gassed to death. These photographs I automatically connected with Holbein. I also received a travel scholarship within Germany, and went searching through archives there. In the archives I came across the photographs of German psychiatrists and doctors who had worked on the Euthanasia-project. It was frightening to see these ordinary faces, respectable citizens with a good education and background, but whose work primarily consisted of experimenting on living human beings, starving them to death, letting them only drink salt water, forcing them to lie in ice water, burning them, cutting them, and so on, and who then went straight on to performing autopsies on his victims after they had died. The doctors were, on the one hand, educated, humane, private people. At the same time they were totally dehumanised with a complete lack of empathy and acting with a professional emotional coldness. A frightening division between moral and science that is still topical.

- Your exhibition has been called a contemplation on the problem of evil?

- I don’t know if that is the correct term. This is not an exhibition about The Holocaust. I have based it, among other things, on the theories concerning race hygiene developed in the 1920’s, which attempted to control the process of evolution through conscious selection, through getting rid of the unwanted and the “under-developed” - an attempt to solve social problems by means of the scalpel. In the 1920’s the USA was the leading country in that field. We ourselves also had a world renowned race hygienist, Jon Alfred Mjøen, who worked in Vinderen biological institute. The two children’s portraits, “types of sterilization”, I found in Mjøen’s book about the under-developed species. They may have been Norwegian children.

The German mentality

- The Germans learnt from the Americans and the English. But unlike with these countries, they actually put the theory of race hygiene into practice. Now I am saying something I probably shouldn’t say, but I don’t think it was a coincidence that the mass extermination happened in Germany. Maybe it is to do with the German mentality - order and efficiency and at the same time a frightening urge to excesses. This would never have happened in a country like, say for example, Italy.
In fairness, it has to be mentioned that the Japanese were no better than the Germans when it came to experiments during the war. And there a lot of the doctors received amnesty from the Americans after the war in exchange for the results of their research, results which America then went on to use in the Korean and Vietnam wars. Therefore it did not end with the Second World War. In the 1970’s they routinely sterilized people with developmental disabilities here in this country. And remember that these doctors also worked on what was called a “euthanasia program”, that is to say active death assistance, a term which is also used today. In fact the prospect of being “selected” for such treatment is greater and the process simpler today thanks to, amongst other things amniotic fluid diagnostics.

-Your portraits look, to the casual glance, like photographs. What are you trying to achieve by not using the original photos, but your own paintings?

- I am a painter, painting comes naturally to me. I am working with photography as a starting point, but photography can become too direct. I want a layer between me and the photograph, a way of distancing myself. At the same time, a painting is not a phenomenon of the moment, like photography is. Painting takes time; time for reflection, meditation on the subject I am working on. These are not copies of photographs, but paintings constructed from original photographic material. I have added and subtracted. I am not overly concerned with the painting as such, but I know the technique, the artistic effects. Therefore I have also chosen to paint in black and white. Colours would have been too forceful. In any case I am fond of the grey tones. They provide a coolness, a distance which hopefully has the effect I desired. However, without wishing to force a comparison, this is exactly the distance and coolness which makes such an impression in Holbein’s painting.

-Your exhibition is not purely an exhibition of paintings, more an ”ethical project”. Is this an attempt at making the art more engaging?

-Yes, perhaps it is a reaction to the art I observe around me. Art has become more and more supercilious; it is entertainment, irony, jest. I want to re-introduce an earnestness, a quality which itself is one way in which art can engage the viewer. Art is not merely aesthetics. In this exhibition I have wanted to raise ethical questions, throw a glance at human nature. The peculiar thing is that we do not learn anything from history, says Hoel. It is terrifying, but it is also a fact which we all have to relate to. As such, there is no development in the history of humanity. The inclination to brutality is in us all. Culture is a shell, and when it cracks open, the predator in us comes out. It is hard to believe in mankind.

Last Updated Sunday, August 25, 2013 at 10:57 PM Published by Frithjof Hoel