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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Quand Boris Taslitzky dessinait l’indicible

by By Marie-José Sirach

A Time when Boris Taslitzky drew the Unspeakable

Translated by Ann Drummond

Translated Friday 27 January 2006, by Ann Drummond

At the age of 94, the artist Boris Taslitzky died on 9 December in Paris. Through his work "111 Drawings made in Buchenwald", he will continue to bear witness to his detention in a Nazi concentration camp.

In December 1943, from the depths of cell 5-2 in Saint-Sulpice detention camp in the Tarn region, Boris Taslitzky wrote, "I have had a wonderful life. A life of luxury. The luxury was being there when the blows rained down, and human dignity was at stake." Several years later on his return from Buchenwald concentration camp, he added, "If I end up in hell, I will make sketches there. Besides, I know all about it - I’ve been there already and have done drawings there!"

Boris Taslitzky died on Friday 9 December in Paris, the town of his birth on 30 September 1911. The son of Russian immigrants who had fled Russia after the failed revolution of 1905, at a very early age Taslitzky lost his father, who enlisted to help defend France at the Front during the 1st World War. He was raised on his own by his mother, who herself did not return from Auschwitz, and then went on to art school in Paris, the École des Beaux-Arts, in 1928.

His whole life was to be devoted to painting and drawing, which was inextricably linked to his political activism. Wherever he found himself, and unfortunately history led him to the gates of hell, he never missed the opportunity of capturing an expression, a look, a sigh, or encapsulating an attitude or gesture. Violence, fear, anger, rebellion, satisfaction and pleasure - he sketched them all with a sharp and accurate hand. He painted both everyday life and special events, from the commonplace to the exceptional, on the dozens of notebooks which filled his pockets and were scattered around his studio.

A man whose kind and reserved nature stood the test of time, he would, even until recently, walk down every Sunday to the corner of the Rue de Bucci to buy his Sunday Humanité. French Communist Party member Henri Malberg tells of "the emotion still felt by Boris when he spoke of the fellow prisoner in Buchenwald, who stole paper from the Nazis so that he could draw. It could have meant an immediate death sentence for him." And on the occasion of his 90th birthday, a more recent recollection of Fabien.(1) Malberg recalls, "Boris began to talk casually about the years in which the relationship between the Communist Party and intellectuals was forged by passion and rage, in the midst of great ideological debates and unfair expulsions." So what did Boris say that day? "We were too stupid to realise that our differences were what made up the rich tradition we all shared." He told of the time in 1936 when one of the organisers of a Party training school said to him, "The intellectuals should just keep quiet." He was about to get up and leave when someone said to him, "Don’t go. The next session’s Politzer." (2)

Alongside Picasso, Léger and Matisse.

At the end of 1933, Taslitzky became a member of the Association of Revolutionary Writers and Artists, and in 1935, he joined the Communist Party. At that time he described himself as a "realist painter of social subjects". When Romain Rolland’s play "Quatorze Juillet" (Fourteenth of July) opened in 1936, he exhibited alongside Picasso, Léger and Matisse in the entrance hall of the Alhambra Theatre. The first edition of the Communist newspaper "Ce Soir" appeared on the 2 March 1937. Louis Aragon and Jean-Richard Bloch gave Taslitzky the task of producing the illustrations for it. In 1938 he became general secretary of the Cultural Centre’s Painters and Sculptors section in Paris, taking on responsibility for the association’s newsletter.

He was called up, and subsequently imprisoned after the ’phony war’. He managed to escape the first time, but was then arrested again. He was held in Riom central prison in Le Puy-de-Dôme (the Auvergne region). The powerful painting "La Pesée" (The Weighing) which is displayed in the National Resistance Museum at Champigny-sur-Marne, bears witness to this period of imprisonment. On 11 November 1943, Taslitzky was subject to an administrative detention order, and transferred to the internment camp at Saint-Sulpice-la-Pointe in the Tarn region. While detained there, he painted sweeping frescoes on revolutionary themes on the partition panels of the camp huts. When the Archbishop of Toulouse offered to provide the paint, he was persuaded by some of his fellow prisoners to decorate the chapel, which he did under the supervision of the resistance. The best work is the fresco decorating the camp chapel, in which Christ is depicted by Taslitzky as the symbol of man fighting back for the freedom of France, ridiculed for his ideas and sharing the suffering of the people.

"I have to draw this"

He sketched and painted watercolours of his testimony on the paper. He shows that which is unspeakable, the triumph of death. Roger Arnoult, one of the leaders of the camp resistance, helped him to hide around 100 of his finished drawings. After the liberation of the camp, Christian Pineau, who was one of the first to be repatriated, handed them over to Aragon. He brought them together in an album and published them in 1946 under the title "111 Drawings made in Buchenwald."

When he returned home in 1945, Boris Taslitzky painted an enormous fresco from memory, guided by the secret drawings, which depicted the Small Camp of Buchenwald. Then in 1950, he completed the work entitled "The Death of Danielle Casanova", who was arrested for being a member of the resistance and died during her imprisonment.

Clearly, Boris Taslitzky was both a man of and a painter of the 20th century, the century so full of hope and potential utopias, as well as all the disillusionment and horrendous events. From the 1930s onwards, he took an active part in the fight against the facist threat which was poisoning French society. Taslitzky fought bravely against it. "111 Drawings Made in Buchenwald" represents a cry of humanity, bearing unique witness to the conditions in which the deportees were detained. With drawing skills of incredible delicacy and accuracy, Taslitzky immortalised these prisoners and gave them back their dignity as human beings.

Boris Taslitzky’s active role in politics, this "realist painter of social subjects", cannot be separated from his work as a painter. His opposition to war took him to Algeria on the eve of the conflict and the struggle for independence. Chile and Zaire also attracted his attention as an artist, "to paint reality as it is happening", expressing it through his own eventful history.
These few lines attempt to sum up, then, the life of a man who experienced an incredible journey and whose painting formed the linchpin of his political activity. The sharp sweep of this artist’s pencil has left an immeasurable testimony for the history of the 20th century.

Marie-José Sirach

Translators Notes:
(1)Fabien was the pseudonym of the Communist resistance hero, Pierre Georges. The square in Paris where the CP headquarters is located was named after him - Place du Colonel Fabien.

(2)Georges Politzer (1903-1942) was a Hungarian-born Marxist theoretician and philosopher. An active Communist Party member in the French resistance, he was executed by firing squad in 1942.

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