Moral Courage During World War II: Denmark and Bulgaria Paintings and Drawings by Karen Gunderson (March 13-June 21, 2000)

Thursday, June 1, 2000

Karen Gunderson's monumental charcoal works, exploring the theme of safety in friendship within the context of moral courage, are presented at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, One West 4th Street, from March 13 through June 21, 2000. Gunderson utilizes the emotional and symbolic texture of intense darkness and illumination to evoke images of rescue and resistance, as demonstrated by the Danes and Bulgarians during the Holocaust. Filtering eyewitness historical records through her own empathetic imagination, Gunderson creates images of altruism to convey a universal legacy of historical and ethical courage in the cause of human freedom.

Gunderson's installation includes monumental seascapes evoking the rescue of Danish Jews by boat to Sweden, as well as iconic portraits of the kings of Denmark and Bulgaria who led their nations' rescues of their Jewish citizens. Gunderson explains, "I believe that art can inspire and heal. I hope these paintings and drawings will contribute to a legacy that will remind the viewers that friendship and moral courage can and will live on."

While growing up in a Danish community in Racine, Wisconsin, Gunderson learned about the courage of King Christian X against the Nazis during their occupation of Denmark. In 1943, the people of Denmark, led by King Christian X, helped save over 7,000 Danish Jews (most of Danish Jewry) from Nazi roundups by assisting their escape to Sweden by boat. Recently, while doing research for her exhibition of KINGS at Donahue/Sosinski Gallery in New York, Gunderson discovered King Boris III and was inspired by the remarkable story of how Bulgaria saved its 50,000 Jews from the Nazis.

In "Night Passage To Sweden," an 11 foot-long charcoal drawing on linen-backed paper, Gunderson depicts the dark seascape, sensation of voyage, and safe passage of a group of Danish Jews to Sweden by boat under the stars. In another work - an installation of four large-scaled drawings, each depicting the sea from a different navigational direction - Gunderson places the viewer within the small rescue boat. Here, the artist has reconstructed the night-time escape by researching and drawing the sky and constellation of stars as they appeared during the time of the voyage in October 1943. She based the images in "Look Back" (the southward view from the boat) on the rescue of Leo Goldberger, a young boy at the time and author of The Rescue of the Danish Jews. In "Eleven of Many," a narrow, long drawing of eleven different individuals, Gunderson implies that many people, from very different life experiences, were part of the rescue of the Bulgarian Jews. Through photographs and her imagination, she has created drawings of eleven people who look out at the viewer, taking on the world directly and challenging us to follow their legacy.

In his essay for the exhibition catalog, James E. Young, author of Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust (1988), The Texture of Memory, and At Memory's Edge (2000), notes,

    How does an artist commemorate the heroic rescue of Jews by the Danes and Bulgarians during the Holocaust without obscuring the much more pervasive darkness of evil that made this rescue necessary? How do we commemorate such heroism without assigning it a singularity of motive and purpose? To what extent are the individuals portrayed in this gallery of rescuers representative of their compatriots' actions during the Holocaust? And to what extent are they necessarily the exceptions who prove the rule of bystanders' indifference and complicity?
    Karen Gunderson does not answer these questions so much as she brilliantly articulates them in her stunning assemblage of black-on-black and charcoal portraits, meticulously wrought meditations on the goodness of a few whose scant light pierces, but does not dissolve, the darkness of this time. These are not celebratory portraits of larger-than-life heroes and heroines, blinded by their bright goodness, so much as they are human-scaled images of people who did what they could, even as they remained haunted by the knowledge that this may not have been enough.

James E. Young is Professor of English and Judaic Studies and Chair of the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; he curated "The Art of Memory" at the Jewish Museum in New York (1994).

Karen Gunderson's most recent exhibition in New York City was KINGS at the Donahue/Sosinski Gallery for which Donald Kuspit wrote the catalog essay. Besides many exhibitions in New York City, Gunderson's work has been shown in solo exhibitions in Wisconsin, North Carolina, Missouri, Massachusetts, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Maryland, Illinois, Iowa, Ohio, and Minnesota; and in numerous group exhibitions in the U.S. and abroad. Her "Clouds of Witnesses," a permanent installation of cloud paintings, can be seen in the chancel area at Our Savior's Lutheran Church, a Danish Lutheran church in Racine, WI. The recipient of the E.D. Foundation Grant (1994) and the Distinguished Alumni Award, The University of Wisconsin, Whitewater (1984), Gunderson has taught at colleges and universities across the country. Most recently, she was a Visiting Artist for the Hoffberger Graduate Students at the Maryland Art Institute. Gunderson won Second Prize in Painting at the 2001 Florence Biennale.


Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's first institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates men and women for service to North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, the American Jewish Archives, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding. www.huc.edu