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Robert Russell’s paintings illuminate the dark history of the slave laborers of Dachau


We know this about former Nazi party leader Heinrich Himmler: he was a mass murderer. He played a key role in orchestrating the Holocaust – true evil personified.

Less known: Himmler loved bunnies. And puppies. And lambs. Specifically: cute, porcelain tchotchkes of such creatures.

A new solo exhibition featuring the work of painter Robert Russell at the Anat Ebgi Gallery in East Hollywood sheds light on the dark history of these innocuous objects.

“Porzellan Manufaktur Allach” contains about a dozen of Russell’s massive paintings – rich, detailed still lifes of porcelain figurines produced in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s by Allach Porcelain Manufacturing Co.

Himmler took over the company through the SS in the mid-1930s and used it to, among other things porcelain figurines that expressed his love for Aryanism and Germanic culture – a pure white pigeon, a doe with big eyes. The Nazis gave SS soldiers the items – “Wedding gifts, baby gifts, to move up the ranks,” says Russell, who is Jewish.

When labor shortages eventually developed during the war, Himmler opened an Allach production facility in a subcamp outside Dachau concentration camp in Germany and used the prisoners there as slave labor to keep production going.

“It’s a perfect subject for me to paint because it’s vulnerable, which I like, but there’s also something gruesome about it,” says Russell. ‘Moreover, it has something medicinal about it. I want to make something ugly beautiful. I kind of want to take it back, give it a new meaning. I just want to make big, beautiful paintings of this stuff.”

The 2 meter high works of Robert Russell in his studio. The gigantic canvases show porcelain figurines commissioned by the Nazi party leader Heinrich Himmler.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Hanging out in Russell’s home studio over a week before the exhibition, the 2 meter high paintings are both hauntingly beautiful and grotesque, given their history and their enormous size. At first glance, they mark seemingly benign objects you might find in their grandmother’s lair – creamy white and golden brown images of innocent-looking forest animals, a Roman statuette of saints with gold leaf accents. The hyper-realistic renderings look shiny and luminous, shimmering with light and shadows – as if they’ve been smeared with donut frosting. The largely monochrome objects are depicted against different shades of lavender, from almost black-purple to light lilac.

Together in Russell’s one-room studio, however, they seem almost menacing – a gang of super-sized cuteness looms over visitors. Russell’s studio is small and bare, with no windows – just four white walls that close around a six-foot-long, glass-topped dining table smack in the middle of the room, which he uses like a giant, paint-splattered palette. The canvases surround the room and are so large that there is little visible wall space. The works feel perverse, but also defiantly seductive.

“I kind of wanted to acknowledge the monstrosity of that whole endeavour,” Russell says of the porcelain figurines. “To take them out of the realm of cuteness. These could have been very expensive – I could have made little paintings. And they would only have remained precious. Here they are so assertive. You have to deal with it.”

“Porzellan Manufaktur Allach” is particularly relevant at the moment. Since 2014, anti-Semitism has been “rapidly on the rise in the US”, says Robert J. Williams, executive director of the USC Shoah Foundation. In LA alone, two men were shot several weeks ago in separate incidents exiting synagogues in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The suspect, who had a history of making anti-Semitic remarks, was charged with federal hate crimes.

“The continued prevalence of anti-Semitism is definitely a hallmark of this body of work,” says Russell.

Paintings by Robert Russell

Robert Russell’s huge still lifes look glossy and radiant, shimmering with light and shadows – as if slathered in donut glaze.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Russell, 51, grew up Reformed Jewish in L.A. Relatively disconnected from his heritage for most of his adult life, he recaptured Judaism — “a version of it that makes more sense to me” — about a decade ago, delving into books, attended community events and having Sabbath dinners at home with his wife, the actress Lisa Edelstein. “Not to sound cliché, but it brought meaning,” he says.

The two live at the Edward A. “Tink” Adams House in Silver Lake — Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Landmark No. 922 – which was redesigned in 1966 for the co-founder of ArtCenter College of Design. Edelstein is also a painter, and she and Russell have studios on opposite sides of the property, which feature Japanese-style gardens and hundreds-year-old bonsai trees. Their conversations about Jewish life, culture and spirituality have influenced both of their works, says Russell.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russell turned to painting teacups, giant detailed representations of traditional hand-painted German porcelain. He later exhibited the series at Anat Ebgi in 2021. However, during that uncertain and terrifying pre-vaccine period, he made those works – super-sized household objects, with their oval-shaped openings and wide-rimmed dishes – opened his world, he says, who had become “small” in isolation. At the same time, depicting intimate vessels of warm, fragrant liquid created coziness and comfort.

“Porzellan Manufaktur Allach” grew directly from the teacup series. It’s a continuation of Russell’s interest in painting porcelain objects, he says, but much more sculpturally complex, given the angles and curves of the animals’ bodies as opposed to a rounded bowl. There’s also more room for Russell to assert a sense of self in the pieces. The teacup series showed hand-painted objects with intricate floral designs, so Russell’s works were “paintings about painting,” he says, “because I was painting in another painter’s style.” In contrast, the much less decorative animal figures were more liberating, allowing him “to deal not only with surface, but also with form,” he says. “I’m staying true to the Allach pieces themselves, but there’s a lot of room for gestures and research.”

Although the works refer to the medium of photography, Russell does not call them photorealistic. They are painterly interpretations of photographic images. Russell finds Allach’s porcelain images in online auction house catalogs. Before recreating the canvas photos, he photoshops the images, saturates the colors and enhances the reflections and shadows.

“It gives them volume and depth and turns them into what I consider paint-worthy,” he says. “I think of them as almost psychedelic hyperreal – because that’s when I make them huge.”

Russell also experimented with materials during the pandemic. He now mixes a pasty, cold wash with his linseed oil and paint to create a unique concoction that gives the canvas surface a translucency that he sees as “parallel to the porcelain.”
The result is luminescence bathed in irony. A dachshund puppy with big, floppy ears lies hidden in a dim, angelic haze; The tufts of a lamb’s fur are so pearly white and light, like whipped cream buds, that they look almost sculptural. Below, the genuine porcelain items are stamped with the SS “runic” symbol.

Russell had no intention of making an exhibition with an agenda — education was not his first priority, he admits. As a conceptual painter interested in the Vanitas and Memento Mori painting styles, he was attracted to the aesthetic simplicity of the subject and the complicated, fraught history.

“The content is there, but I wanted to seduce you first,” he says.

Nevertheless, the works reinforce an important historical narrative.

“This ideally becomes part of the cultural milieu that is there,” he says. “If you examine Allach porcelain, hopefully you will discover this.”

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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