Friday 10th of June 2020 in Mannheim, Germany. It’s almost 9 pm and I have just finished a new mural, on which I was working since Monday. It’s one that shines in bright colours, but is thought-provoking in honor of the survivors of the Holocaust. It shows two quotes on two giant portraits with photorealistic eyes that tell stories so incredibly disturbing, that many people are likely avoiding the confrontation. However, the mural still gives hope by focusing on human solidarity and support for a project, that started 6 years ago already. With my interpretation of LEST WE FORGET I aim to contribute my abilities to lift the work for this important cause up to a new level, that reaches out to a different and wider audience, that might not have decided to deal with the topic intentionally.
HOW DID I GOT HERE?
THE BACKGROUND STORY.
It started with a simple e-mail I received last May. “Hey Falk, it’s Sören. Long time no see. I know a guy and I have a wall. It’s about portraits and I’m convinced you are the right person for this. Potential time slot would be June-July this year. What do you think? Let’s have a talk soon.” This was more or less it and after being isolated for months it sounded like a welcomed occupation.
The total picture started to become clearer when I had my first Zoom call with Luigi, a German-Italian photographer and filmmaker from Mannheim, who was working on a portrait series for the last 6 years. Although we could have talked for hours, it was quickly obvious which impact his project LEST WE FORGET already had to a very special group of people with one thing in common: they survived the Holocaust.
So far Luigi has portrayed more than 400 people and exhibited their portraits in larger-than-life size in over 15 places like Kyiv, New York City, Washington D.C., Berlin and Vienna. The kick off was in Mannheim in 2015, when Luigi’s portraits were shown all over the “Alte Feuerwache”, a cultural center in his hometown.
Luigi told me about many remarkable experiences he made during this time. One special moment was when he realized that he had finally reached an important point of being acknowledged for his effort, because he was invited to exhibit in front of the UN headquarter in New York City. Another incident left him speechless, first in a negative, but then in a very positive way. While showing his photo series in Vienna in 2019 the portraits had been vandalized twice. Still unknown offenders cut them up and smeared swastikas on them. Something that has been feared all the time had happened. It was not only an act against the project, but against the portrayed people and their fates. It became even clearer how important the existence of the project was. The real magic happened when different people and organizations like the young Caritas teamed up almost immediately after they heard about the attacks to stitch the destroyed portraits together again. Moreover they protected the exhibition in vigils for several nights. People living in Vienna came around and offered warm drinks for the protectors. Within the tragedy a huge wave of solidarity and support evolved and thus stressed the intention of the project in a special way.
Without really thinking this opportunity through, I was in. Mentally challenging weeks of digging deep in the darkest chapter of German history followed. I watched documentaries, including the one Luigi did about his project, I saw interviews with survivors and read articles about the project. I researched about the current state of dealing with this topic. I felt uncomfortable while confronting myself with the 1:1 reports about the incidents every single person has experienced. It’s unbelievable how one can ever cope with it and it’s completely unacceptable that there are right-wing populists still gaining more support worldwide. One should think we’ve learned from history, but present events prove us wrong regularly. The political situation worldwide got me even more convinced, that it’s generally and always needed to prevent this part of history from being forgotten.
At the same time I had to decide for the right wall, which in the end turned out to be a perfect spot considering my own history with the city of Mannheim. Sören, who initially contacted me, is the managing director of the “Alte Feuerwache” and due to Luigi’s exhibition there, connected us. I met Sören 7 years ago, when he organized the painting of the Herakut mural “My Superhero Power Is Forgiveness” in Mannheim, F6. The response of the residents at that time was so positive that the mural eventually marked the birth of the project Stadt.Wand.Kunst, which since then invites national and international artists to paint murals in Mannheim as parts of an OPEN URBAN ART GALERY.
Now I would paint on the backside of F6 and felt like coming back to a place I already have good memories of. (The weird sounding name for the area goes back to the fact, that this part of Mannheim was actually a model for New York City. The whole area is named “die Quadratestadt” like “The City of Squares”, because its streets and avenues are laid out in a grid pattern.)
The mural develops
Since the heart of Luigi’s project are the portraits of the survivors and due to my background as a photorealistic painter, it was reasonable to include portraits directly in the mural. After my research and dealing with the topic from different perspectives, the idea for the mural came somehow automatically and the sketch was quickly done. Luckily everybody involved agreed on it and Luigi was speechless, again, which left me highly motivated.
Before going to Mannheim, I tested the right steps for the actual painting of the mural beforehand in my studio. I more or less went through the whole process on a canvas, because it was the first steps of the mural that made me nervous. Although I’m doing this for more than 25 years now, I feel better, when having an idea of how to conquer the wall. Especially with such an important project you rather know as many potential difficulties as possible before you start painting.
Looking back I calculated way too many spray cans and paint for the mural, but my estimation of 5 days to finish it, turned out to be a quite accurate one.
The beginning was a bit slow due to issues with the machine. I got stuck several times, which made it difficult to add the first layers of color as a foundation and background for the portraits. Many times there is something wrong with the machine, so I don’t really care much about this kind of issue anymore, but when the joystick for the navigation broke, I got concerned. It was crucial to have a working machine on the first day, because I needed to project a black and white sketch of the portraits onto the wall as the easiest way to paint them in the correct proportions. Postponing this step to the next evening was no option, because in that case I wouldn’t have had much to work on during the next day. The organizers from Stand.Wand.Kunst were great and a new machine arrived just at sunset, so I could start to project at least one of the portraits on the first night. The local residents haven’t been happy when I repeated that step the night after for the second portrait, but were luckily understanding. Moreover, I got some last minute support by illustrator and graffiti artist Yannik Czolk alias MISM, who transferred the bottom part of the projection.
photos by Sandra Lehmann
With the whole sketch being copied onto the wall, I could start to work out the portraits. I wanted them to be a mixture of illustrated lines with defined highlights and depth to model a kind of vividness combined with photorealistic facial features like eyes and lips. For two days this was my main focus.
On the last day I finally defined the in grey shades illustrated crowd of the bottom part. As templates for the figures I used different photographs of the events happened during Luigi’s project. Again MISM supported me here. By setting only some highlights and small details the whole mural became one picture connecting the story of LEST WE FORGET.
photo credits: 1, 5, 7, 8 and 11 by Alex Krziwanie; 2 and 3 by Heino Müller; 4, 6 and 10 by Sandra Lehmann
The idea behind
The main elements of the mural are clearly two of Luigi’s portraits. The subject “portrait” itself is also my favorite motif to work with. The mixture of illustrated lines, highlights and depth with translucent background and photorealism have recently prevailed in my solo artworks and are a wonderful extension of Luigi’s work.
I chose Bella and Horst due to various aspects, which take up the complexity of the overall topic. There are both opposites and similarities: woman – man; first and second generation survivors; both are victims of the Holocaust, directly and indirectly; alive and unfortunately already passed away.
HORST Sommerfeld – I have always lived in fear.
This is Horst Sommerfeld. He was born in Zlotów, Poland in 1922. Horst was in hiding from the Nazis together with his siblings and parents in Berlin for two years. Despite the hope of his father, all of them were caught and deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Horst was sent to different satellite camps under the Nazi regime and eventually he was the only member of his family, who survived until the liberation by the US army in 1945.
Horst could never forget this chapter of his life. Until his death last year he was afraid of every unknown person. He could not let go off the feeling of being in danger like many other people who have faced a similar fate.
In 2015 Horst heard about LEST WE FORGET and phoned Luigi to ask him for participation in the project. This was the moment when Luigi realized that his idea of the project was coming true. Since then both held a deep friendship.
BELLA Shirin – We must remember the past, but we shall not live in it.
This is Bella Shirin. She was born in 1946 in Kaunas, Lithuania as the daughter of survivors of concentration camp Dachau and Stutthof. Her family was the first granted to immigrate to Israel from occupied Lithuania. Bella is a victim of the national socialism in second generation. Her mother could never cope with her experiences. As a result of this trauma she finally committed suicide in 1977.
Bella adapted to her new home in Israel very well. She learned the language, started her own family and took care of her children and grandchildren. However, she always felt connected to her birthplace. In 2016 she finally moved back to Kaunas and since then she makes efforts for the cultural scene in Lithuania. As an actress herself she brings her personal story on stage and demands to remember the past, but to not live in it. In 2018 Bella and Luigi met in Berlin, where he portrait her as one out of more then 400 survivors of the Holocaust.
The text level consists of statements by the two protagonists that contrast in content. On the one hand there is Horst, who was frightened throughout his whole life. On the other hand there is Bella, who tries not to let her life be determined by the past. This expresses the different ways of dealing with their fates, which is certainly also directly connected to their respective personal stories. Horst has been traumatized directly, whereas Bella has indirectly experienced trauma from her parents’ experiences.
In addition, it was important for me to highlight Horst as an important personality for the entire history of LEST WE FORGET. With her artistic background and commitment, Bella is a person who deals with the past in her homeland, especially through artistic projects and thus is closely related to my own work as an artist.
The events such as the vigils and the solidarity experienced with the project are shown in the bottom part of the mural. Many people gathering in rough silhouettes and protect the protagonists. There’re people holding hands or handing over a hot cup of tea and carrying a bag with sewing utensils, everything accentuated in particular.
In the midst of the crowd there is Luigi in his iconic pose when having reached his personal goal to had been invited by the United Nations in New York. He is the driver for the project and thus brought all the portrayed people together.
Despite the oppressive topic, the basic color tone is positive and radiant, because that is how I understand the overall project. Besides that the usual way of presenting something happened in the past is in black and white or fading colours. By using those bright tones I emphasize the importance of LEST WE FORGET, the stories of the protagonists and work against those common manners.
However, I do not want to trivialize or exclude the incredible crimes. It was clear to me that I can’t address them directly in the mural. After watching Luigi’s documentary and some interviews with eyewitnesses, an idea developed. In the general consciousness the Holocaust is undoubtedly seen as something incomprehensible. “Terrible acts”, “cruel fates” are general thoughts popping up immediately when thinking about that time. But I think the actual reports only make it clear what exactly happened and turn this abstractness into concrete narratives that only really shake you up and must never be forgotten. Therefore, a board with a QR code will be added to the mural soon. By scanning the code the audience gets the opportunity to listen to these reports and will dive one level deeper into the real story.
photo credits: 1 and 2 by Falk Lehmann; 3 and 4 by Alex Krziwanie
I want to thank all the people being involved in this project, who made it very pleasant for me to come back to Mannheim. A special thanks goes to Luigi for his trust in me to add a different perspective to his unique project. Thank you to Sören, Katha, Nils and Bazi from Stadt.Wand.Kunst for your absolutely professional organization and support. Thanks you all for caring also about the little things like coffee and more food than I could eat each day 🙂 I’m looking very much forward to the documentary by Robin from Gallion Film. It was great to have you there every day. Props go also to Yannik alias MISM for your instant support. Thank you Montana Cans for the materials and especially thank you Alex Krziwanie for capturing the process and result. Last but not least thank you very much to my wife for being the best partner in crime at anytime in every way.
About LEST WE FORGET:
LEST WE FORGET is a multi-media project by the German-Italian photographer and filmmaker Luigi Toscano. Since 2014 Luigi travels the world in order to meet Holocaust survivors who are living in the US, Germany, the Netherlands, Belarus, Ukraine, Israel and Russia. He gives them the opportunity to share their personal stories, which should never be forgotten. The heart of the project are more than 400 portrait photos, which so far have been exhibited more than 15 times all around the world.
Stadt.Wand.Kunst is a project of the “Alte Feuerwache” Mannheim, the Mannheim housing association GBG and Montana Cans in cooperation with the cultural office of the city of Mannheim. Since 2013 famous national and international street artists are invited to Mannheim every summer to create large-format murals on house facades. The aim is to turn Mannheim’s gray walls into a public gallery and to build the first freely accessible museum for mural art in all of Baden-Württemberg: The OPEN URBAN ART GALERY MANNHEIM! Citizens and visitors to the city of Mannheim can follow the process of creating these gigantic works of art live and visit the finished works at any time. LEST WE FORGET is the 35th mural the project has completed.