May Lilith haunt the dreams of judges and Hekate light our road

The current exhibition at the British Museum brings together “sculptures, sacred objects and artworks” across time and place exploring a question, framed by classicist Mary Beard as “How do you represent feminine power or desire in material form?”

I cannot post these sketches from the exhibition without saying this. Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States of America overturned a decades old ruling on privacy that had defended women’s right to choose with respect to abortion. This horrifying misogynistic attack will coerce, control, incarcerate and kill women across the USA. This assault on women is of a piece with world-wide assaults on bodily autonomy, for example the increasing exclusion of trans people from affirming health care and civil society, and a rise in violent homophobia. As we increasingly celebrate diversity and fluidity in ourselves and others with regard to gender and sexuality, the reaction is to police our behaviour and expression within narrowly defined limits. These are spear points to fracture and exhaust us, and distract us, so we stumble down a road leading to fascism.

The female form has been exploited across time and six continents as a vehicle to express ideas about our very nature as evolved, natural, thinking, creative, social, hierarchical and transgressive beings.

The exhibition takes six themes: Creation and Nature, Passion and Desire, Magic and Malice, Justice and Defence, Compassion and Salvation.

Passion and desire are driving forces, in manifestations extending from lust, ecstasy, rage, wisdom and conquest. It is a transgressive disrupting force and can be a glue holding together relationships and society. The 1994 sculpture “Lilith: the first woman” by Kiki Smith shows Adam’s first wife, expelled from Paradise for desiring sexual dominance, crouching on a vertical surface above our heads. My little drawings, attempted twice, did not capture the majesty of this bronze figure. May Lilith haunt the dreams of the justices.

Monstrous women, demon goddesses, witches sit both at the fringes of society and at its heart, independent, aggressive, protective, vengeful, wise. The Roman god Hekate symbolises transition, gazing at three pathways. She is light in darkness. May we choose well our future direction.

Cafe and Klezmer: stop hating

At the STOP café in Krakow, the words on the wall say “STOP HATING yourself for everything you aren’t and start loving yourself for everything you already are”.

Walking the passageway leading into the Klezmer Hois restaurant in the Kazimierz district of Krakow, I had to navigate round piles of literary magazines. The tables are set amongst well-stocked book shelves.

Here there are nightly performances of Klezmer, the instrumental folk music of Ashkenazi Jews. When I was there, they played a song so well known that even I (two generations estranged from this heritage) know and play it. Hevenu Schalom Alejchem translates to We Brought Peace Unto You. Listening to this suddenly felt like an emptiness, in this place, with this history. I am wrong. Here, in the summer, takes place the largest annual Jewish Cultural Festival in the diaspora. The 31st season is June to July 2022. Watch this clip for a flavour.

The picture is absence

Content warning. This post references the Holocaust.

“A photograph of a boy in the rain, a boy unknown to you or me … the image conjures up the vivid presence of the unknown boy. To his father it would define the boy’s absence”. John Berger and Jean Mohr, A Seventh Man, Pelican Books, 1975.

This is a binary: the stranger and the family member look on the same portrait image differently: one sees a person, the other feels their absence.

Genocide creates another dynamic altogether.

In these pictures, drawn of the exhibits at the Auschwitz Memorial Museum, I have drawn samples of the huge collection of things taken from people, mostly Jews, before they were murdered, remnants of very personal and intimate plunder.

These are examples of what is exhibited at the Memorial under the heading “Evidence of Crimes”.

In Block 4 of the Auschwitz I camp is displayed a huge quantity of human hair cut from the inmates, before or after death. Some has been woven into cloth. Photographs are not permitted and I did not draw these human remains. These can be seen on the link above.

My drawings do not bring to us the “vivid presence” of unknown people. To whom did these many spectacles, this plethora of orthopaedic aids, belong? Who was each child who wore each pair of shoes? Who were the men who wore the Tallit, the prayer shawls?

This is what genocide is. It is not just killing. It is eradication. These images, these many objects, do not make their owners present to us, strangers in a future time. Their family, who even generations later might have felt their absence, they too were wiped out in this conflagration.

A small sample of many thousands of spectacles taken from murdered people
A Jewish prayer shawl: the Talit
These were at the front of a huge pile of shoes taken from murdered children
Back braces and prosthetic limbs

On the study tour earlier that day, I was disconnected from the reality of this camp of slaughter, even standing at the wall where families were shot, or looking down into the unroofed chamber where people undressed before being crammed into the gas chamber. However, I wept while drawing these images, and do so again posting them here.

Follow @AuschwitzMuseum on Twitter. Daily, the museum posts photographs of Auschwitz inmates with what little we know of them and their fate. These photographs of individuals bring their presence to us who are strangers.

Oświęcim

(content warning – this post is about the Holocaust)

exterior of the Auschwitz I concentration camp from the bank of the Sota river

The remnants of the former Nazi concentration and death camp at Oświęcim, Poland are now preserved as a museum. The history, layout and functioning are described on this link. Last week, I joined a six hour study tour of the Auschwitz I and II (Birkenau) sites. There was no time to draw as we walked (the hurried sketch below was the only one during that tour). I returned without a guide at the end of that day and the next to get a few drawings.

Auschwitz I concentration camp – tourists walking the spaces between the blocks that housed horrors

I had thought it would be hard to walk this site without tears, but the reality was a surreal dissociation. The sheer scale of the camp defies emotional connection. We were not seeing the people here, but the remnants of the infrastructure designed and built on the orders of the Nazis (though on reflection, here are the remnants of the work of the inmates).

Foundations of multiple barracks at Birkenau (Auschwitz II) concentration and death camp

As for the site itself, these were my impressions. The scale is immense, as large as a town, Birkenau itself divided in to long strips of semi-autonomous camps . Its functioning was complex, with different categories of prisoners. None the less, the overall purpose was death. Slow death for slave workers over weeks or months in the concentration camp, deprived of the essentials for survival, above all nutrition and protection from the cold. Immediate death for those selected as unfit for work: the unknowing walk from the train to the purpose built units comprising a room to undress, gas chamber and crematorium. The rate limiting step was the disposal of the bodies. Death as punishment including at the infamous Block 11.

The end of the railway in the Birkenau concentration and death camp. On the left is the memorial built by the Polish government. On the right is the rubble from the gas chamber and crematorium destroyed by the retreating SS at the liquidation of the camp.

The other purpose was the ruthless expropriation of value from prisoners: belongings, gold teeth, hair, labour. A huge warehouse complex at one end of Birkenau, called Kanada, housed plundered goods to be sorted and sent to the Reich. This was already on fire when the camp was liberated. Each year archaeological work turns up more remnants of the items taken from prisoners. The Auschwitz complex supplied slave labour to the I.G. Farbenindustrie chemical industrial plants. Four Jewish women were murdered by hanging for stealing explosive material from the Union-Werke armaments factory where they worked. We were told they carried the material bit by bit under their finger nails. The Sonderkommando, who operated the crematoria, mutinied on October 7 1944, destroying one crematorium, breaking out, killing three SS men. Around 250 Jews were killed in a knowingly futile fight without weapons, their hoped for reward, we were told, “three lines in the history books”.

into this

(content warning: this post relates to the Holocaust)

“It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave.” Jacob Bronowski 1973

Jacob Bronowski was a mathematician, poet and philosopher who fronted a television series called The Ascent of Man documenting the development of scientific thought. I watched this when I was 12 and it profoundly influenced what became my identity as a clinician-scientist. Episode 11 included the sequence filmed by the gas chambers and crematoria at the far end of the huge Birkenau concentration and death camp complex. In my late teens, I wrote out his words and drew his face over them.

His voice saying these words have played and replayed in my mind for 48 years. As he speaks, he walks out, in his best shoes and suit, into the water, stoops and takes a handful of the mud. “We have to touch people” he says.

My journey last week to the Polish town of Oświęcim (German version, Auschwitz) was, I suppose, a kind of pilgrimage. I stood and drew, with my evening shadow stretched out across those waters that had been made the final resting place for a murdered population. I had come to honour the dead.

grey pens

Wawel Cathedral, Krakow

Before setting off for Poland, I asked fellow art blogger, Outside Authority, what they would take as a lightweight art kit. Their advice included “something you can make quick bold lines/shapes with (e.g. sharpie/gel pen/ink pen), something to make smudgy lines/forms/shadows with (e.g. soft pencils/ink with water, conte)”.

Inside the courtyard, Wawel Castle, Krakow

They also reminded me to match my drawing equipment to the size of the paper. I had selected a moleskine watercolour pad 13x21cm that neatly fitted my coat pocket, to minimise what I was carrying. Separately I had a carry case with A3 paper in various tones.

Bastion and cobbled walkway, Wawel Castle

So before leaving I bought a pack of double ended fine marker/brush pens in shades of grey from very light to black. My plan was to use these to make the bold lines, and, as they are very water soluble, also to use these in washes.

Statue of random dignitary, Krakow

I supplemented these with my india ink fountain pen and water brush. I used the first day in Krakow to experiment with these tools, and also get my eye and hand back into drawing.

stone image of the crucifix, St Mary’s Basilica

The interior of St Mary’s Basilica, incorporating a millennium of evolving building styles and with fantastic painted inner surfaces, overwhelmed me. I didn’t know where to even start (I should have remembered, “bold lines, smudgy shapes”). I ended up sketching the crucified Christ, but even this went awry with the arms out of alignment.

I doodled another version later.

Façade of St Mary’s Basilica across rooftops, evening

I developed an approach that built the sketch mainly in grey tones, only at the end putting in selected detail with black fine pen, or the tip of the brush. It worked better for some sketches than others.

I finished this day’s drawing by the Vistula, with the city’s iconic dragon, and went back to collect my rucksack to get the train to Oświęcim.

Castle trees

Out drawing with OutsideAuthority at Newark (and earlier in the day Southwell Minster). Here we were looking across the river, through trees on the near bank, to the castle. I am trying to get something of these twigs that cascade down from the main branches.

I look back at stuff I have done before and it almost feels like i have forgotten how to do this.

In this next one, I am looking at the pub (longingly). The idea was roofline, toned paper against grey sky, tree, white front to buildings, stop. I have put in too much. OA was there, and wondered why I threw in so many lines at the end.

Next time we draw together, hopefully early March, we are considering an landscape exercise based on the structure of 90 minute life drawing sessions: use a timer, do sketches in rapid sequence 2 mins, 2 mins, 5, mins, 10 mins, 10mins, 20mins x3.

H charcoal squares and shapes (17 sketches, a journey)

I have been using a pen and Indian ink, drawing texture from inside shapes as in the next two pictures. However, I want to simplify my field sketches.

I have approached these next drawings differently. I start by mapping the image mentally onto a square and then apply simple blocky shapes to build the sketch.

The instrument I chanced upon is an old charcoal pencil. It is an unsubtle H grade, unyielding when mark making. Even sharpened it quickly reverts to a chisel.  The squared-off edge imposes jerky movements and irregular polygonal shapes.

Even so, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to try for shading tones and building textures, as in the evening fields below (I was out looking for owls and observing Jupiter and Saturn rise). But the tool is too crude for this purpose.

Below are two attempts at the same woodland, looking through the leaf-clad trunks rising from dense fern undergrowth.  Light filters through from the sky and there is dense shade in a hollow made by an A of two leaning trees and a bush.  The hard charcoal cannot offer the contrasts of shading I wanted.

Further along the same woodland (I was cycling the Tarka trail between Great Torrington and Bideford in Devon) I tried again.  This time I licked the drawing point (and a little grossed out, dipped it in water) to deepen the tones.

In the next pair of drawings, now from a cliff top, I started with a charcoal sketch overdrawn with a soft graphite stick.  I then redrew this, reverting to heavy lines and crude shapes, splodging it with watercolour from a fat squirrel hair brush.  Interestingly the H grade charcoal seems pretty water-fast.

In another clifftop view, the charcoal and watercolour is overlaid with a black marker for depth of tone and conte crayon for texture.

At the estuary at Bideford, a boat drawn up onto the bank gave the foreground, with the Torridge bridge behind.  On a baking afternoon, the sun behind me, there were few variations in tone. I found myself simply colouring in my shapes, making this a naive (= childish?) painting.

Further up river, from the Landcross bridge I drew a crenellated building on the river bank, set against trees.  A search on the internet reveals this to be ruined lime kilns, shaped according to the landowners whim. This simple fast drawing is closer to my purpose: the paint should not simply follow the lines.

I lost the charcoal pencil  from my drawing kit.  So I reverted to the pen, but now keeping the lines to a minimum.  I could not use the bite of this smooth paper to capture the reflected sky sparkling from the water.  Instead I used a white conte crayon as a resist before dragging wet colour across. I also used crayon to adjust the intensity of tone on the distant hills and overlay the near grasses.

A shout to Outside Authority whose enigmatic drawings always influence me.

what can I possibly say …

I sat with OA by the side of a Manchester canal and we wondered how we speak through our drawings, in the way David Lynch captured whole narratives in one or two still images and a bunch of words.

My drawings in pen and conte crayon continue to represent what I see, however much I want to abstract from them.

OA’s latest series of drawings are of a male face and move away from simple representation, somehow capturing more sense of story.