At first sight, the exhibition “Contemplate Evil” does not appear to be malicious. Featuring the work of Argentine-born American artist Mauricio Lasansky, the show begins with a series of portraits – of his 13-year-old son, Leonardo, with large, round black eyes and clasped hands; of himself, shown in profile in a high-necked white turtleneck; of a Roman Catholic cardinal, created during a Guggenheim Fellowship in Spain.
These are just portraits. Evil begins in the adjoining gallery, with its labyrinthine entrance to “Nazi drawings”, on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art until next June. In this series of 33 drawings, most made between 1961 and 1966, Lasansky blasts the horrors of the Holocaust off the page, down your throat and into your stomach, where they’ll simultaneously simmer and stab you.
“He’s so angry, he’s pressing so hard, it feels like his pencils are breaking,” said Rachel McGarry, associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Lasansky was born in Buenos Aires in 1914 to Jewish immigrants. He resided there until 1943, when he moved to the United States and became a well-known engraver.
His motivation to raise awareness of the Holocaust hit in 1961, when the Jerusalem District Court tried and ultimately executed Adolf Eichmann, a senior Nazi official and one of the main organizers of the Holocaust, who had fled to Argentina and was then captured by Israeli agents.
At the start of the series, the Holocaust was not known as the Nazi attempt to genocide the Jewish people, as it is today. Lasansky also wanted to convey the suffering of Roma, Sinti, Poles, Soviet POWs, LGBTQ people and many others. He chose to do so through drawing, a medium accessible to all.
His drawings toured the United States from 1967 to 1970, with a stopover in Mexico City. In 1972 the series was acquired by Richard and Jeanne Levitt of Des Moines, granting Lasansky’s wish that the designs be kept together.
The 33 larger-than-life designs are filled with death, often represented by a bare skull taking over a human’s head. In one drawing, a Nazi soldier standing inside a gas chamber raises a bloody hand in the “heil Hitler” salute, and a skeleton seated on his shoulders points the shower at youth.
“He also plays with erasing, erasing things so that people seem to disappear, people seem to disappear,” McGarry said.
Lasansky also takes aim at the Catholic Church for its inaction as millions were murdered in Europe. In one drawing, a bewildered pope, standing in a “Pieta”-like posing — usually used to show mourning for the body of Christ – holds a dead, naked child in her arms.
“A lot of church leaders have failed to speak up,” she said. “Why the Pope [Pius XII] speak out? He was in a position of power.”
One of the reasons this show has come to Mia now is a decreasing Holocaust awareness among millennials and Gen Z generations. In a survey published early last year, 63% thought the death toll was less than 2 million (the true total is 6 million). More than half could not name any of the 40,000 concentration camps.
In another drawing, “No. 30”, the artist’s own body becomes possessed and mutilated by a skeleton, as if working on this decade-long series destroys it.
Unlike most exhibits, artist’s statement comes at the end.
Lasansky, who died in 2012, wrote that dignity is a force by which man survives, and once stripped – as was the case in Nazi Germany – man becomes a self-destructive animal that erases history and poisons the future. Evil can lurk within all of us, he warns, making this series even more haunting and timeless.
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thu.-Sun. until June 26.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Ave. S
Admission fee. Masks strongly encouraged. 888-642-2787 or artsmia.org.