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What Does Society Hold Sacred? Answer Paints a Startling Picture

April 17, 2001|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To some, the name alone--"Marilyn at Auschwitz"--pretty much says it all. After the name come the outraged gasps, the accusations of insensitivity, of anti-Semitism, of artistic freedom used to rub salt in half-healed wounds.

To others, "Marilyn at Auschwitz," the words curling in blue neon light across a painting that plops the gleaming icon of sex into the barracks at an infamous concentration camp, is a cultural critique. It sums up a culture of celebrity worship that dominates, trivializes and obscures even the most heinous human acts.

At any rate, a popular downtown restaurant/bar/art space called 410 Boyd has been the scene of furious debate, and sometimes just fury, as politicians and garment district workers, film students and journalists, Superior Court judges and graphic artists argue about the Holocaust, artistic license and Robert Reynolds' painting over their hamburgers and ahi tuna salads. "Marilyn at Auschwitz" is one of a number of the local artist's works hanging at 410 Boyd until April 30.

Most people have already seen the two famous images that are juxtaposed in the painting: Jewish concentration camp prisoners and Marilyn Monroe on a grate. Now just picture them together.

Reynolds re-creates the gaunt stares of the men in the original photo, but instead of the lone standing man, a luscious, fleshy Marilyn swings her floaty "Seven Year Itch" dress around her thighs, dominating the foreground. The restaurant has stopped turning on the painting's neon light at lunchtime, finding that complaints dropped off sharply when the canvas is unlighted.

After lunch, however, the light goes on. And the comments resume:

"You are spitting on my grandfather!"

"I will not be coming back here until that painting is down."

But, says 410 Boyd's Ulrich Schnetter, "it is not for me, a restaurant owner, to judge what is art and what is not art." His role, he says, is to support local artists by letting them express themselves on his walls. He is not personally offended by "Marilyn at Auschwitz." "What it says to me is, we're idolizing the superficial and losing sight of what really matters," Schnetter says. "But I can understand the pain of people who had their grandparents or parents go through that."

A group of businessmen leaving the restaurant the other day slows down to look at the painting, which is about 5 feet by 4 feet, on the way out.

"What's the big deal? We've seen it all before," says one. "It's Marilyn."

"Wait, aren't those concentration camp refugees all around her?" asks another. "I don't think I've seen that before!"

"What was the artist thinking?"

"What was the artist drinking?"

"Those guys are probably dreaming about her, that's how I see it," adds another.

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This is not the first time the painting has caused a controversy. When it hung on the walls of the Julie Rico Studio in Santa Monica last year, patrons complained in droves, and several alerted the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

The Wiesenthal Center fields a regular flow of fearful and sometimes furious calls from Holocaust survivors around the world, reporting real or perceived threats, desecrations and outright menaces, says Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center. Among them, officials have received calls about the Hitler Bar in Pusan, South Korea, as well as a discotheque near the Auschwitz death camp (which Polish officials agreed to close last week) and also about Reynolds' Marilyn painting.

"We're not art critics, and it's not our job to serve as art critics," Cooper says. After talking to Julie Rico about the painting, Wiesenthal officials decided that no anti-Semitism or malice was intended. "As we understand it," says Cooper, "the artist is depicting the values of American pop culture, and when it comes to the point of issues like genocide, they're overwhelmed by America's fixation with celebrity and pop culture."

Which does not mean Cooper likes the painting. It does serve, however, to illustrate a tension that will increasingly challenge the Jewish community, he says. "This matters because we're in a transitional time in history, where the collective memory of these events is rapidly receding, so people are ready to deal with this more in an abstract way."

This disconnect is forcefully present in "Marilyn at Auschwitz," where even Auschwitz is not really Auschwitz, but Buchenwald. The 1945 photo of slave laborers in the Buchenwald concentration camp

in Germany was taken on the day of their liberation by the American Army. One of the prisoners, Elie Wiesel, would later become an icon in his own right, winning a Nobel Prize for literature and popularizing the word "Holocaust."

Holocaust images divorced from their real meaning are popping up in far-flung locales, particularly Asia, Cooper says. "There's a restaurant in Taiwan that uses historic visuals from the camps as its wallpaper. Then there is the Hitler Bar in Pusan, South Korea. That's not a society that has a profound understanding of Nazism."

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