In his autobiography, Sauver par le dessein, France-based Artist Walter Spitzer describes the moment, when his life was, quite literally, saved by drawing. During the final months of World War II, the Polish-born Jew was an inmate of the Buchenwald concentration camp and was summoned to appear before the German political prisoner who was in charge of his barracks. Spitzer’s name was on a list of inmates to be sent off the next day to a work camp, a move which would mean certain death for him. His anti-Nazi barracks chief told the artist he would strike him from the transport list on one condition. Spitzer had to promise, if he survived, to “tell with your pencils all you have seen here.”
Spitzer was only 17 at the time and lived to honor his vow, providing post-war generations with an artistic record of the Holocaust and other 20th century crimes against humanity in harrowing works like the skeletal portrait of the Nazi “Death’s Head” Officer he created for an edition of French Writer-Statesman Andre Malraux’s novel about the Nazi Occupation, Le Temps du Mepris (Days of Wrath). Spitzer is represented in the Sacred Art Pilgrim Collection by lithographic studies of this kind, which he made in the 1960s to illustrate the collected novels of Malraux and French Existentialist Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.
Malraux was Minister of Cultural Affairs in the De Gaulle government, when he saw nine Spitzer aquatints of the Nazi concentration camps. He decided no one but Spitzer was capable of illustrating his historical-philosophical novels, La Condition Humaine (Man's Fate) and L’Espoir (Man's Hope), set during the failed 1927 Communist uprising in China and the Spanish Civil War.
Spitzer’s successful collaboration with Malraux led to further commissions to create a cycle of lithographs to accompany the existentialist fiction of Sartre, including his trilogy of novels, dealing with issues of human freedom and engagement in the war years, L’Age de raison (The Age of Reason), Le Sursis (The Reprieve), and La Mort dans l’ame (Troubled Sleep).
Few 20th century artists have Spitzer’s intimate knowledge of the terrain of hell. His shocking scenes of bayoneting and mass murder, heaped corpses and coffin processions, bring to mind what is, no doubt, the greatest work of art ever to depict human bestiality in time of war, 19th century Spanish Artist Francisco Goya’s etching series, The Disasters of War. In a two page spread from La Condition Humaine (see left page and right page), Spitzer pays homage to Goya’s monumental painting of a firing squad in The Third of May.
Some viewers may wonder what such disturbing views of cruelty and depravity have to do with sacred art. My answer: everything! What first draw me to Spitzer’s work was the Crucifixion image he created for Malraux’s novel, La Tentation de l’occident (The Temptation of the West), which presents the fictionalized correspondence between a European and Chinese intellectual, offering a questioning Oriental perspective on Western culture. Few works by Christian artists express so well the compassionate suffering of Christ as this portrait by a survivor of Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Crucifixion imagery recurs throughout Spitzer’s work. It is suggested in the outstretched arms of a woman, awaiting rape; echoed in a row of gaunt prisoners, hanging from crosses, while a fat, complacent priest goes about his clerical duties; suggested by the half-seen crucifix, looming above a Christian woman and an Orthodox Jew in prayer. In the anguished features of this devote man, soon to be engulfed by the Holocaust, I see a striking resemblance to Spitzer’s dying Christ, another on the endless list of Jewish victims of injustice--and I fall silent.