Artist paints a painful history

Juliette Crane

Students wandering through the Katherine E. Nash Gallery in Willey Hall might be surprised by the contrast between two current exhibits.
In the main space, there is work by artists who use food in their art. But walking into the visiting artists’ gallery, one is confronted by a much more serious theme.
New York-based artist Diana Kurz presents paintings that document her family history.
Born in Vienna, Austria, Kurz’s family left the country in 1938 to flee the Nazis. Kurz’s uncle, who went to Holland, was taken by the Gestapo. But his children survived, later moving to the United States to live with Kurz.
Kurz buried her past for years, until an elderly aunt showed her some old family photographs. What she did not realize then was that those photographs would be the inspiration for a series of paintings about the Holocaust.
This series is now helping raise public awareness of both historical and recent incidents involving genocide.
Stephen Feinstein, director of the University’s Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, said, “The show has a visual quality that is accessible to students.”
Unlike many other Holocaust paintings, Kurz does not portray the grotesqueness of the actual event, instead, she allows the viewer to see memories in her paintings — not hers, but the memories of others.
This approach has been the subject of some criticism by students who viewed the exhibit.
Some students have questioned the authenticity of the artwork, asking how Kurz could put together such emotionally charged work without having experienced the Holocaust herself.
But, Feinstein said, even if someone does not know the physicality of the Holocaust, “one can derive such images from the world around them and still have an incredible impact” on the viewer.
In Kurz’s case, her inspiration came from family photographs. Some were well-known and in public collections, while others came from her own family photo album.
Out of respect, she did not want to paint anything that she hadn’t experienced. Therefore, much of her work concentrates on individual people and their personal stories. Other pieces take on universal themes.
One piece was painted as fighting in Bosnia broke out. Kurz wanted “to show that things really haven’t changed, that racially motivated violence and ethnic cleansing are still going on today.”
However, Kurz does not overwhelm audiences with this theme.
She paints with bright and high-key colors. Often working in pastels, the color adds vibrance and life to a relatively dismal theme.
Kurz said by keeping the colors realistic, and even appealing, the images stay truer to life, often more poignant and memorable.
After years of working on this series, Kurz had never returned to Vienna. But in the summer of 1997, she was finally given the opportunity to go.
Awarded a grant that allowed her to paint and live in the city, Kurz spent time researching archives and found out what had actually happened to much of her family.
Kurz said her experiences in Vienna helped her understand some of those past events, and she hopes her work will do the same for others.