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The Holocaust on a Whole New Scale

May 14, 1996 | By KENNETH BAKER, Chronicle Art Critic

The Holocaust ended more than half a century ago, but its shock to our moral imagination is undiminished.

It demands remembrance, but what form of expression is

adequate to it? It is close to, if not beyond, the limits of what can or should be depicted. The representation of unspeakable acts in any medium can seem like an insult

to their victims, survivors and deceased alike.

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These are problems the Holocaust has always presented for artists and writers. New York photographer David Levinthal has taken them on in work showing on both sides of the bay.

'MEIN KAMPF' The Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley is presenting a large selection of Levinthal's pictures titled "Mein Kampf," after the diatribe Adolf Hitler dictated in 1924, his year in prison.

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A smaller group of images from Levinthal's Holocaust series is showing at the Modernism gallery in San

Francisco. Although Levinthal makes large-format color Polaroids in very small editions, there is some

overlap between the two shows.

Levinthal is known for confronting contemporary myths and popular obsessions, including the hypnotic power of pictorial mass media, through photographs of figurines in dollhouse-scale settings.

The series on view, made in 1994, was spurred by Levinthal's discovery in an Austrian toy store of miniature figures of Nazi troops and of Hitler, both war-era antiques and recent models that apparently are still being manufactured. These sinister toy soldiers were what Levinthal needed to refract the Holocaust through his own pictorial idiom.

Born in 1949, Levinthal has known the Holocaust only as an apocalyptic reference point of family and cultural history.

If Levinthal's Jewish background fated him to an artistic reckoning with the Holocaust, perhaps his work

has too. He has always probed the effects of image overdose on our vision of past and present realities.

NAZIS AND VICTIMS

The Holocaust on a Whole New Scale - SFGate

8/6/10 12:26 AM

Typical of his working method, Levinthal made in his studio carefully lit arrangements of Nazi figures and victims, which he then photographed in color, in shallow-focus close-up, using a large-format Polaroid camera.

The light in the pictures makes the whole series seem to transpire at night. The windows at the Magnes have been blacked out to reinforce this impression.

Even the tamest of the "Mein Kampf" images are provocative, though not predictably so.

"Hitler on Balcony," for example, shows a Hitler figure standing behind a baluster that is a little out of scale with it.

That a photographer would make a toy Hitler his subject is momentarily appalling. Many people reacted similarly to learning that Art Spiegelman's "Maus" was a Holocaust comic book, until they saw it.

More troubling, though, is the fact that Levinthal's picture feels faintly ridiculous.

Its worm's-eye view does not conform to the revulsion we feel, or know we ought to feel, at the events Hitler orchestrated and personified. In its inflation of the miniature, the picture seems almost to flout the enormity of its reference, as if Levinthal were toying with moral monstrosity.

When Levinthal turns his theater of miniatures to staging "Women Being Shot," "Crematorium" and other grisly visions, his pictures cause a similar alternation in response between sicken ing absorption and cool, almost bemused dissection of the images' representational clunkiness.

Levinthal's pictures are like imaginary movie stills concocted by a precocious child. They seem to place viewers in the position of a child, or of an amazed playmate.

This effect may express Levinthal's own discovery of how quickly time removes the moral weight of even the most horrific events, at least for those who did not live through them.

But Levinthal's work also suggests that our moral imagination of the past -- and thus the present -- may have been infantilized by the bath of images that has become our common culture. He leaves it to us to recall that the Nazis were the first political masters of mass media.

DAVID LEVINTHAL -- David Levinthal: "Mein Kampf." Color photographs. Through July 14. Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell Street, Berkeley. (510) 549-6950.

-- David Levinthal: Photographs from the "Holocaust Series." Through June 6. Modernism, 685 Market Street, San Francisco. (415) 541-0461.

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