Arnon Grunberg



From Nussbaum to Mandelbaum – J. Hoberman in NYRB:

‘A wannabe criminal who could when he chose draw like an angel, Stéphane Mandelbaum (1961–1986) was the child of two artists, bequeathed at birth the heritage of two genocides. Relatives of his Polish Jewish grandfather were murdered during World War II; relatives of his mother, of Armenian descent, were massacred during the ethnic cleansing of Anatolia. A French-speaking Belgian, Mandelbaum connected with another world-historic atrocity when he married a woman whose parents grew up in the then-Belgian Congo.
Although raised without religion, Mandelbaum decided in his teens to identify as a Jew, at least culturally, learning Yiddish, one suspects both to claim pariah status and perhaps to live out the phrase “shver tsu zayn a yid” (hard to be a Jew).’


‘Like Basquiat, Mandelbaum was an outsider, grandiose yet self-effacing. His delicately rendered portraits are crudely annotated, mainly in French and Yiddish. The ambivalent artist despoils his work even as he heralds it. An admiring, near-formal portrait of his father Arié Mandelbaum has the bold Yiddish inscription “kish mir in tuchus!” (kiss my ass!). At the portrait’s left corner is a small collage in which a photograph of a woman’s naked torso clipped from a smutty magazine has the face of a grinning Nazi officer.
Mandelbaum’s juxtaposition of atrocity and porn was anticipated decades before he was born by two Holocaust survivors: the American artist Boris Lurie, whose still-shocking canvases placed mounds of corpses alongside bodacious pinups, and the Israeli writer who, taking as his pen name his concentration camp number, Ka-Tzetnik 135633, wrote House of Dolls, a lurid account of sexual slavery at Auschwitz. (For many years the book was required reading for twelve-year-old Israelis, providing their introduction to the Holocaust with a ghastly element of titillation.)’


‘Most significant, perhaps, was the example of Felix Nussbaum, whose lost paintings were discovered during Mandelbaum’s adolescence. The subtly surreal work of this German Jewish artist, who took refuge in and was deported from Brussels, is not easily forgotten. Death Triumphant (1944) is a sort of cultural Last Judgment in which a band of grinning, shrouded skeletons play music amid the wreckage of European civilization, and Self-Portrait with a Jewish Identity Card (1943) renders the artist’s mental state with a hallucinated clarity. But created as it was after Auschwitz, Mandelbaum’s oeuvre is purposefully more barbaric.’


‘He [Mandelbaum] essentially created his own subculture. He may or may not have been queer, but many of his subjects were (not least Röhm). Not that they received the Tom of Finland treatment. Lean and handsome in life, Pasolini is drawn as a puffy-faced paranoid and a cheesy martyr. In one picture he appears next to a pasted devotional card: Blood oozes from Jesus’s chest as a winged cherub hovers above. Over Christ’s loincloth the artist has pasted a penis.’


‘Like Goldman, Mandelbaum sought out criminal associates, and like Goldman he met a violent end.’


‘Unable to exhibit, let alone sell, his work, Mandelbaum began trafficking in stolen art. In the spring of 1986 he traveled with his wife, Claudia Bisiono-Nagliema, to her home village in Zaire, having hatched a Rimbaudian plan to smuggle African artifacts back to Belgium. Whether or not he succeeded, he did pull several heists on his return. The pilfering of some Netsuke statuettes was followed by a more ambitious attempt to steal an elderly woman’s Modigliani. The burglary went south—apparently the painting was forgery—and Mandelbaum wound up dead in a ditch, murdered and mutilated by his associates.
Mandelbaum’s art may not have attracted much attention during his lifetime, but his violent end made local headlines. In the thirteen years that followed, he was the subject of three movies. In 2014 the French Jewish writer Gilles Sebhan wrote a nonfiction novel called Mandelbaum ou le rêve d’Auschwitz; in 2019 Mandelbaum was exhibited in an out-of-the-way gallery at the Centre Pompidou. Although the show did not contain his most outrageous work, gallerygoers were cautioned to brace themselves for vulgarity and violence. The hometown audience was better prepared. Thirty-two years after Mandelbaum was refused burial in Brussels’s Jewish cemetery, officially because his mother wasn’t Jewish, his chosen identity was belatedly acknowledged with a retrospective at the Musée Juif de Belgique.’

Read the article here.

A wannabe criminal who should refuge in Yiddish.

Pasolini as a cheesy martyr, I can live with that.

Above all, who doesn’t want to create his own subculture?

discuss on facebook