Thursday, September 7, 2017

"David Kassan: Painting a Link to the Past" by Christine Egnoski

Louise and Lazar Farkas, Oil on Panel, 46" x 42"
You could feel the level of excitement and anticipation at the 19th annual The Art of the Portrait awards ceremony as David Kassan's name was announced as the winner of the Draper Grand Prize.  David was welcomed to the stage with a standing ovation.  Selected from over 2,100 entries, David's painting titled Love and Resilience is a portrait of Louise and Lazar Farkas and inspired by their story of love and survival.  It is the latest in a series of paintings of Shoah Survivors that has changed the course of how David thinks about life and his art.

Upon accepting the award, David said, "Thank you so much Portrait Society of America...This was definitely a dream for me, and I share these awards with the Survivors, whom have all shared their sometimes painful, but mostly glorious and inspiring lives with me." 

Louise's story began in Northern Romania, where her parents led a comfortable middle class life producing dairy products and running a store.  Lazar spent his youth across the border in Czechoslovakia where he attended business school and then worked in a wholesale grocery business. For a while, the borders between Romania and Czechoslovakia were open, and Lazar would cross over to socialize, talking over coffee and walking the sidewalks with a group of young women, one of whom was Louise. 

Portrait of Sam Goldofsky, Survivor of Auschwitz,
Oil on Aluminum, 41" x 27"
As anti-Semitism in German-occupied countries grew, Lazar was pressed into forced labor. Working from early morning to late night, he helped build bunkers. Louise was about 20 when she was deported to Auschwitz: “A woman that was in power at the time liked my shoes,” says Louise, “and she took them and I had no shoes. I was barefoot. It was cold...we struggled.” Louise lost her parents and three of her siblings. But the tides were turning against Germany and security was unraveling. “We walked out of the camp. Just simply,” says Louise of her and her sister’s escape. “We had no place to go and no money and no food. We went from country to country from there."

Lazar also managed to run away from his forced labor. “I wound up somewhere in Poland, I don’t know where," he says. He eventually volunteered with the Czechoslovakian army and ended up stationed in his hometown. He learned that people were escaping from the camps and wanted to look for Louise.  Eventually, after several times of just missing each other, Lazar found Louise and the two were soon married.  Lazar's uncle was able to arrange for their immigration to the United States and they settled in Brooklyn where Lazar got a job in the grocery business.

Twin Survivors of the Holocaust; Roslyn and
Oil on Panel, 56" x 43"
Love and Resilience is one of several paintings David has completed of Shoah survivors.  He is calling the project the EDUT (Hebrew for testimony) Project: Living Witnesses, Survivors of the Holocaust. His first portrait of Auschwitz survivor Sam Goldofsky was selelected from over 2,500 entries to be part of the BP Portrait Award 2015 held annual at the National Portrait Gallery, London.  A portrait of sisters Bella Sztul and Roslyn Goldofsky, whose mother hid them from the Nazis with the help of Catholic families, was also completed last year. David says, "With the paintings I've completed so far of the Survivors, I feel that I have a responsibility to not only represent them in the most authentic possible way, but also to document a deeper understanding of their lives and not just the horrors of what they witnessed early in their lives.  My goal is to capture their resilience throughout their lives. This goal is a tall order for a painter."

Meeting with Survivors of Auschwitz at the
Museum of Tolerance. Photo by Andy Romanoff
Always trying to improve and challenge himself with paintings that are of increasing complexity and importance, earlier this year David traveled with videographer Chloe Lee from New York City to Los Angeles to meet with eleven Survivors of Auschwitz. His idea was to take his current series of paintings to the next level, so he is now working on a life-sized representation of all eleven Survivors.  The finished painting, which will take approximately two years to complete, will be 18 feet long and 8 feet high and consist of 5 panels put together, a work that David hopes will be, "so large that it can't be ignored."  David explains, "Chloe and I have been filming interviews with all of the Survivors in the series in order to document their lives and inspiring words. We are also going to film each step of the process in the creation of this large painting in order to educate about the artistic journey as well as the journeys of the Survivors." He is documenting the entire process on

Setting aside his gallery and commission work, David has dedicated himself exclusively to the project.  Plans are in place in the Spring of 2019 for an opening, exhibition and catalog featuring the large work and drawing studies, as well as the film, at the Fischer Museum of Art.  David's commitment to the project runs deep; he says, "These paintings represent the perseverance and the strength of the human spirit. I endeavor to respect and show the dignity of each survivor and tell his or her story."
Digital painting thumbnail for composition purposes. [painted in ArtRage on the iPad Pro]

David sees his role as a conduit: to listen with my painting and to document it in an intensely intimate way. He feels there are three components to each painting -- the artist, the subject, and the viewer -- and he does not want his 'painting ego' to get in the way of the viewer and the Survivor. Each aspect of his work is in service to the accurate and honest representation of the Survivor.

Work in progress for one of the five 
panels for the large painting
David also has a very personal connection to the project. In 1917, a young Murray Kassan immigrated to the United States, escaping ethnic cleansing on the border of the Ukraine and Romania by the Cossacks. Murray was David's grandfather, and his story of survival is a vague unfocused legend in his family for many reasons. When his father was fifteen years old, Murray was estranged from the family and his father never saw him again. He passed away when David was very little and he never got to meet him. His grandfather's story of survival is now only fragmented memories for David. "Painting for me is also my way of understanding the world around me, my way of connecting, and my excuse to interact and learn. In this project, it’s my personal way of connecting to my grandfather’s lost story. With every survivor’s story that I hear and record into a painting, I feel that I move closer to the connection with my grandfather that I never had. My brush paints a link between us."