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In painting a survivor of the Holocaust, a feeling of overwhelming and indescribable privilege

“Seven Portraits: Surviving the Holocaust,” an exhibition of paintings commissioned by Charles, Prince of Wales was previously shown in Buckingham Palace and soon may be visited at The Palace of Holyroodhouse, the official residence of the British monarch in Scotland, until June 6, 2022.

In the catalogue, portraits of Holocaust survivors now living in the United Kingdom include Rachel Levy painted by English artist Stuart Pearson Wright. Levy was born in 1930 in the village of Bhutz, near Dolny Apsa, then part of Czechoslovakia. She survived imprisonment in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps. Recently, Wright spoke with Benjamin Ivry from his studio in Suffolk about the experience of depicting Levy.

Stuart Pearson Wright's portrait of Rachel Levy

A Portrait of Rachel Levy: Stuart Pearson Wright’s is one of seven portraits in “Seven Portraits: Surviving the Holocaust,” an exhibition of paintings commissioned by Charles, Prince of Wales. By © Stuart Pearson Wright. Photograph: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2022; photographer: Matthew Hollow

Benjamin Ivry: Your image of Rachel Levy expresses such a dauntless, indomitable character, she really should be a figurehead on the prow of a ship. Did the fact that the pandemic forced you to work from photographs make this a more concentrated metaphorical image of strength than if you had spent more time in a room with her, getting a more cozy domestic image?

Stuart Pearson Wright: It’s interesting. I hadn’t really intended a heroic pose or thought about it beforehand or decided to paint Rachel as a heroic figure, but that’s kind of how she looks. My intuitions took over in creating the composition and thinking how I placed her in the canvas.

Do you see any parallels between the strength of the Levy portrait and the portrait in profile of your father from last year, in which you’ve identified some self-portraiture?.

I don’t know about self-portraiture at any conscious level. The sculptural elements came from the kind of lighting, and the truth of lighting in the portrait of Rachel and my father was similar, with a strong light from above. That came from discovering Caravaggio years ago, creating strong shadows and deep contrasts which add a level of drama and the heroic quality we are talking about. I felt very strongly with Rachel’s portrait that I didn’t do very much.

That sounds like fake modesty, but she was in the room and I feel she did 90 percent of the work by existing in the room where I met her. I have been painting for over 3- years and I don’t undervalue the skills and techniques I’ve picked up, but it was as if I didn’t apply much intellectual force in painting her; her face did the work, the way she held her body. The stories that are manifest in her features did the work for me. I almost felt like a vessel. But artists reveal what’s already there. That’s what happened with painting Rachel. She did all the hard work. I just came along and painted her. That was the easy bit. I hope that doesn’t sound disingenuous. I just did my thing. I painted what was there.

Apparently none of the seven artists commissioned for this project is Jewish, and one, Peter Kuhfeld, is the son of a former German prisoner of war in the UK. Does Jewish heritage matter at all for this kind of assignment?

I can see both sides of the argument. I can see where it would be important for Jewish Holocaust survivors to be painted by Jewish artists, but is it more a question of focusing on the wider human experience? I feel as though the Holocaust and the many difficulties Jewish people and other ethnic minorities have faced are close to my heart. With this portrait I felt that my conscious agency was on a back burner and I was responding intuitively to Rachel and her presence. Also, while I made the painting I listened several times to her testimony as posted on the website of the Imperial War Museum. It is a deeply moving, troubling, and harrowing story, even without her going into too many details.

In addition, I listened to several audiobooks by Primo Levi, which were extraordinary. So while I was working on the portrait, I was immersed in Rachel’s particular story and the wider history of the Holocaust. I’d been to Auschwitz as a 19-year-old traveling through Europe, mostly seeing museums and paintings, and seeing Auschwitz was without doubt one of the most profound experiences in my life. So the Holocaust was something I was already engaged with and I really immersed myself in it.

Yours is the only portrait that shows the sitter wearing an official decoration, the British Empire Medal for Services to Holocaust education and awareness. Was this Rachel Levy’s choice or did you decide to include it in the image?

She brought it to the sitting and she had it there and she asked me if I thought she should wear it. By the very fact that she had brought it to the sitting, I felt, definitely, why not? So while I agreed to it, I felt it was very much Rachel’s decision.

In your own personal note in the catalogue, you express the hope of one day being able to sample Rachel’s potato latkes. Has that happened yet?

Well, I have been to tea with her and my kids came as well. We didn’t try her potato latkes. She lives in sheltered housing in Golders Green and due to COVID-19 restrictions, the rules were that food had to be providing by a catering service.

Photo portraits of Holocaust survivors, like those by Martin Schoeller, mostly look like any other old people, so what is the strictly artistic value in seeing images of people who had these experiences?

I felt that having the opportunity to paint Rachel was an incredible privilege. Being given the chance to help tell her story feels like an extraordinary big deal because in a sense, it feels like I’m being offered a role in a grand historical process. I feel like a tiny, tiny cog in the huge, massively important task of telling the story of the Holocaust to future generations.

Given the historical magnitude of the Holocaust, is gigantism a temptation for artists? The Austrian Jewish painter Diana Kurz created a series of canvases as large as nine by six feet in memoriam to her family. Is your portrait an example that monumentality can be achieved in more restrained dimensions?

I don’t think [larger dimensions] would have added anything to my painting. Rachel is quite a small woman, 5’1” or 2”. She’s not going to beat many people in an arm wrestle; she’s in her 90s. But despite her small stature, she has this incredible presence that is difficult to pinpoint. I put it down to a kind of dignity that she possesses. That’s the characteristic of Rachel that I was really overwhelmed by. It goes round and round in my mind. I still think about her a lot. When I try to think of what she’s seen and experienced, and she still has that level of being OK with the world, or perhaps forgiveness. Like the other survivors I met at the Palace, the humanity that they held on to in spite of their ordeals was overwhelming to me.

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