Grace Graupe-Pillard’s father escaped Nazi Germany during the Holocaust, but he was unable to save his own parents. The guilt haunted him his whole life, and his daughter, an artist, has reacted to the loss of 70 family members by creating a series of very large silhouetted figures, cut out of canvas, each with symbolic images drawn in pastel. “The Holocaust: Massacre of the Innocents” is on view at the Rider University Art Gallery through Saturday, December 18.
The larger-than-life black cut-outs squat along the gallery walls. One of these figures — it could be a man or a woman — is covered with tiny stars in the night sky, and a small boy and girl in blue and red sneakers walk tightrope-style over a log. There appears to be a constellation over them, taking the shape of two men hugging. Look closely, and the Star of David is on the hat of the man who has a long hooked nose. Look even more closely, and you see the man with the Star of David has his hand in the other man’s pocket.
“I wanted to incorporate the climate of ethnic hatred, taken from a propaganda leaflet, as seen by the crude caricature of a hook-nosed Jew embracing a business man while picking his pocket,” says Graupe-Pillard in a phone interview from her home in Keyport. “I contrast the innocence of children balancing on a floating log in the dark, starry sky with the vast cataclysm looming ahead.”
In another piece, a soft, furry rabbit looks out over the skeletal remains of children and countless names scrawled in white and red. “I chose the rabbit because there are many symbols attached to it: rampant proliferation, subject of medical experiments, as well as victim of mass extermination.”
In others we see a chain-link fence, a gas chamber interior, a swastika, yellowed photographs of the artist’s paternal grandparents, a grave marker, and Yahrzeit candles that burn for the dead.
It took more than three years for Graupe-Pillard to complete the series, begun in the 1990s when her parents were still alive. They collaborated by translating and providing letters, vintage photographs, a family tree, and personal reminiscences.
Curiously, Graupe-Pillard says she does not feel the pain of her family’s experience because she never knew her paternal grandparents; she knew her father suffered, and she felt compassion for his guilt. “The effect of the Holocaust has affected me as a political person. All my paintings are about displaced people,” she says.
The silhouetted figures — unframed, and simply pinned to the wall, giving them a rawness that echoes the harsh content — could either be praying or defecating and are intentionally ambiguous, Graupe-Pillard says. (Her original source material was an image of a woman cupping water from National Geographic.)
Each cutout is individually drawn, so each is slightly different. First they are covered in black pastel, and then the image is created, sometimes incorporating collage as well.
“Pastel is usually considered a women’s medium and is used for flowers and other soft things, not war,” says Graupe-Pillard. “I like using it in a new way.”
In addition to the Holocaust series, Graupe-Pillard has employed the technique of silhouetted cut-outs with pastel for homeless people, street people, and “others not integrated into society,” she says.
She has felt an affinity for such outsiders since growing up in Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. Her grandmother, Omi, lived with the family and told stories to Graupe-Pillard and her twin sister about the bygone days that were often frightening. Her father, an architect who dabbled in watercolors, took the family to the Cloisters and other museums. Her mother, a dressmaker who designed beaded evening gowns and whose clients included Jacob Javits’ wife, Marion, encouraged her creativity.
She attended the High School of Music and Art, where she first began feeling like an outsider because of her family’s heavy German accents and European lifestyle. At City College of New York, she earned a bachelor’s degree in history and political science with a minor in literature in the mid ’60s and “lost my ‘political’ virginity,” she says, confronting the “‘democracy’ that was my family’s refuge after fleeing the horrors of their birth country.”
After a year of graduate-level Russian Area Studies at CCNY, she returned to art, studying drawing at the Art Students League in Manhattan and teaching herself painting. She went to live in New Mexico for six years in the early ’70s. There, influenced by the big sky and an art community, she completed a series of poured acrylic abstract paintings.
She says the “gray area between abstraction and figuration” fascinates her. “Michelangelo was abstract as well as representational because every artist has to render three dimensions into two; there really isn’t a strict dichotomy,” says Graupe-Pillard, who has taught painting and drawing for more than 30 years in the Monmouth County Park System and teaches at the Edwin Austin Abbey Mural Workshop, National Academy Museum in New York. “Every painting has abstract elements. Every painting is an illusion — that’s what Cezanne taught.”
Graupe-Pillard says she cannot separate form from content. Without content, it is mere decoration “without the spine which is the necessary underlying structure of the work. Art is not only about talent, facility, and technique, it is about risk, mystery, and bringing your intelligence, emotional distinctiveness, and world view to bear in order to create a unique living presence.”
When she returned from New Mexico to New Jersey in 1974, she saw people living out of boxes at the Port Authority and began her interest in outsiders, recalling the stories her grandmother told of the immigrant experience. Joining the feminist movement, she began painting women who are not idealized — like older women with stretch marks.
Graupe-Pillard, whose work is in the collections of the Newark Museum, the New Jersey State Museum, the Jersey City Museum, and others, is well known for her figurative as well as abstract paintings. An 8-by-5-foot canvas of an elderly person in a rocking chair was recently on view at the New Jersey State Museum, in an exhibit from the collection.
Rider University Gallery director Harry Naar, who first discovered Graupe-Pillard’s work at the State Museum, recalls her nude self-portraits, but selected the Holocaust series because he wanted a show that went beyond depicting the figure but confronted the disasters of war. “These go way beyond illustrating the Holocaust,” he says. “They create stories within the womb of these crouching figures. They are not literal, but mysterious. If people spend time with them they can get insight into other tragedies.”
He compares Graupe-Pillard’s work to Nicolas Poussin’s “Rape of the Sabine Women,” Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” and other epic paintings about war and disaster. “If you think about war and the destruction and horrors, it’s not just a Jewish thing, all these other people were killed. The question is, what have we learned?”
“I don’t think art can make a difference,” Graupe-Pillard says bluntly. “Otto Dix painted the disasters of war, but very few people know of him or have seen his paintings because he’s not a rock star or a media star.”
As part of the Hudson Bergen Light Rail System Master Plan Artist & Design Team, Graupe-Pillard has created a 16-foot-tall statue for the Matawan station. “There are those people who look, but most ignore it, and it was vandalized,” she says. “I wish art would make more of a difference. I keep trying. I’m teaching adults to see. It’s important for me — I’m compelled to make art that will affect people.”
The Holocaust: Massacre of the Innocents, featuring the work of artist Grace Graupe-Pillard, on view through Saturday, December 18, Rider University Art Gallery, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrence. Gallery hours: Tuesday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. 609-896-5168 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.