A few hours before we were to dine with him one evening in Paris, retired French banker Jean Nicolas stopped by the studio of his late friend, artist Julien Outin. As executor of Julien’s estate, Nicolas had been working for several months with the artist’s principal heir, American composer Eugene Kurtz, to settle the estate and to clear out the contents of Outin’s studio of a lifetime accumulation of art and other possessions. The major part of their labor had been done and many of the most valuable works of art, including a number of early drawings by Ellsworth Kelly, whom Outin had known as a young art student, had been sent to auction, sold privately, or given away. On this evening, Nicolas found Kurtz, elderly, ill, and exhausted, getting ready to throw out all that was left in the studio. On top of the trash pile that was about to be taken out to the street was a portfolio of un-stretched oil paintings and works on paper. Jean spotted it, looked through it, and told Kurtz that he would like to show it to us for he thought we might be interested in purchasing it. We were and we did.
The portfolio contained a number of works by friends of Outin, including those we were most interested in: paintings and drawings by the African-American painter Avel C. deKnight who studied in Paris after the Second World War and remained close to Outin throughout his life.
There were also a dozen or so drawings and paintings that were obviously not by deKnight. Some of them were signed and some of them were not. Among them was one small, haunting pencil drawing of a bald and emaciated man in an overcoat seated on a bench and, next to this figure, two studies of gaunt faces in profile.
The drawing is signed and inscribed twice. It is signed “Boris Taslitzky/ 45”and above that signature and date is an inscription in French: “ un témoignage à une très vielle amitié, Boris” (In witness of a very old friendship, Boris”) followed by the date “46.”
It is one of the drawings that Taslitzky made while interned in Buchenwald concentration camp, drawings later published in an album and considered major works of art bearing witness to the horror of the Holocaust.
Boris Taslitzsky (1911-2005) was born in Paris to Russian Jewish refugees. When he was four years old, his father was killed in combat in World War I. At the age of seventeen, he began his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts and later studied with sculptor Jacques Lipchitz and tapestry designer Jean Lurçat. No doubt influenced by his experiences as the son of Jewish refugees, Taslitzsky early identified with Leftist causes and used his art to portray social problems in Europe, much as Social Realist artists like the Soyer brothers and Ben Shahn were doing at the same time in the United States.
In 1939, Taslitzsky was imprisoned by a military tribunal for having “executed several drawings intended for Communist propaganda.” He spent time is various jails before being transferred to the French prison of St. Sulpice near Toulouse. While there he painted frescoes on the walls of seven cells, using paint that was supplied to him by the archbishop of Toulouse.
He escaped from St. Sulpice and joined the French Résistance. He was recaptured by the Nazis in 1941 and sent back to Saint Sulpice. In 1944, along with 662 other prisoners, he was deported to Buchenwald. According to his obituary in the European Jewish Press: “From the moment of his arrival (at Buchenwald), Taslitzsky was determined to do what he could to record what he saw, both as a way of resistance and as a testimony for the future. He participated in the clandestine life of the camp and received help to be able to draw. People supplied him with paper, pencils, and watercolors. He made his drawings on fragments of Nazi circulars and sheets of stolen Ingres paper. And he risked his life to paint scenes of daily life, a series of portraits, expressions of dead people.”
Buchenwald was liberated in April of 1945 and Taslitzsky returned to Paris with about 100 of his drawings and four of his watercolors. In 1946 the writer Louis Aragon published them in an album entitled 111 Drawings Made in Buchenwald.
Taslitzky later wrote: “If I go to Hell, I will draw what I find. After all, I have already been there and drawn it.”
Julien Outin, born in Landernau (Finistère), came to Paris to study art when he was a very young man, just before the Second World War. He lived at a pension de famille in rue Saint-André-des-Arts. The pension, according to Jean Nicolas, was home to a number of artists and also to a number of Jewish refugees, and it seems likely that is where he met Taslitzky. Jean remembers Julien speaking of Taslitzky and also of the artist André Fougeron, with whom Taslitzky worked on murals for public schools in the Paris suburbs. In addition to the drawing, the almost-discarded portfolio contained a handsome, unsigned oil portrait of a youthful Outin. Because if its similarity to other portraits by Taslitzky, the portrait of Julien is almost certainly also by him.
On November 4th of this year, my partner, John Copenhaver, and I presented the drawing to the U. S. Holocaust Museum in memory of our friend, the late Holocaust scholar Bryan Burns. Some years ago, Bryan stayed with us in Fredericksburg while he was doing research in the Holocaust Museum, taking the train to Washington each day. Bryan, who died of cancer in 2000, was instrumental in starting the first master’s degree program in Holocaust Studies in Britain at the University of Sheffield where he was a professor of English.
On accepting the Taslitzky drawing for the U. S. Holocaust Museum, Kyra Schuster, Curator of Art and Artifacts for the Museum, said: “We are incredibly honored to receive the drawing for our permanent collection.” Many of the drawings that Taslitzky made at Buchenwald are in the Museum of National Resistance, a museum in the suburbs of Paris that is dedicated to the history of the Résistance. His works are also found in a number of major museums, including the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Tate Gallery in London. While the rare book room of the Holocaust Museum has a copy of the 1946 album in which the drawing is reproduced, this is the first piece of original artwork by Taslitzky in the Museum’s collection.