Arie Galles: Two journal entries from 'Drawing with Ashes'


Arie Galles: From 14 Stations, Bergen-Belsen
Arie Galles: From 14 Stations, Bergen-Belsen

December 13, 1993

As I listen to Bach on the tape deck I work on the "Bergen –Belsen" drawing. "Konzert Für 4 Cymbali und Orchester a-moll" conducted by Karl Richter, with the Münchener Bach-Orchester. I listen and draw to the set of tapes I bought nearly seventeen years ago. I occupy myself exclusively with the dark woods and white roads outside of the camp. After much research and preparatory studies, this is my first full-scale drawing of the "Fourteen Stations"/"Hey Yud Dalet" suite. The area my charcoal creates allows me to concern myself only with texture and the relative values I am incising upon the paper. The music permeates my head. I enjoy the reverie. 

I draw four dots, four tiny black dots on the north west perimeter of the camp. Suddenly, the reality of what those dots are hits me with the force of a sledgehammer against my heart. These are shadows of guard towers. When this photograph was taken the towers were manned by the SS. I can feel the camp overflowing with its tortured prisoners. 

I break down in tears, and am unable to draw anything at all. I call Sara and we go for a walk. She understands. For five years after the war, she herself lived in Bergen-Belsen after the soldier's quarters were turned into a Displaced Persons Camp. 

December 25, 1993

 Just completed "Station # 5, Bergen-Belsen". This is probably the most competent drawing I have made in my life. Looking at it, I sense an actual depth of space between me and the concentration camp. I can almost breathe the air rising above it. I believe I could stretch out my hand and feel the wind upon my extended fingers. The camp is so very far below. 

It is a strange complex of buildings, straggling a highway and cutting it in half with its barbed wire outline. The white spots are ash pits and mass graves. On the center right of the camp, and just outside the fence a skull grins at me from a clearing. The skull is the clearing. Three clumps of trees make up its eye sockets and nasal cavity, a glimpse of a secondary road shines through the trees. A white toothy macabre smile! 

 Arie Galles: From 14 Stations, Bergen-Belsen (detail)
Arie Galles: From 14 Stations, Bergen-Belsen (detail)

I saw it immediately, as I first set eyes on this old RAF photograph taken on September 13, 1944. The skull is not far from the Men's Camp, right past the latrines. Is Nature screaming to heavens the nature of this place? The original photo bears a notation, perhaps by someone from the RAF Air Reconnaissance. It is a small circle enclosing a T junction just to the right of the clearing. Next to the circle, written in white against the dark background is, "X 471664." I do not include this in the finished work. 

People viewing the drawing may ask why I drew a skull there. I can only respond that I didn't invent it, I drew what I saw in front of my eyes. 

2 / "St. Buchenwald"

Arie Galles: From 14 Stations, Buchenwald
Arie Galles: From 14 Stations, Buchenwald

 February 27, 2000

I don't know why I haven't noticed it before. It was here all the time, sitting on the surface of the half-finished drawing of Buchenwald. Perhaps only now, by getting my whole being into completing the drawing, this shape could be perceived. In some ways it is a great Rorschach pattern upon which I can hone my vision. Like the gigantic scratch drawing in Peru, carved into the living earth, this figure can only be seen from above. Without intent, and with no conscious design for its creation, it signals skyward.

 The photograph was taken during a bombing run on the Weimar armaments works on August 24, 1944 by the USAAC 8th Air Force. My cousin, Avram Tisser, was one of the inmates in the adjacent concentration camp. The human-like outline, slightly to the left of the camp, is clearly visible. It is delineated by the rail road tracks to its left and the periphery of the forest to its right. A road weaving slightly to his right side makes one half of the woods appear like a cloak held across the body.

 The shape is almost Byzantine in form and posture. It is wearing an Ephod, its intricate embroidery are the various structures, sheds and alleys of the factory complex. Its head, a dark peninsula of woods and buildings, is tilted slightly to his left and crowned with the semi-circular halo of SS barracks, the rectangular jewels in this crown.

 The left eye is wide open, glaring out with its tiny iris. The right eye is sutured shut. An ugly scar. Slightly left of the center of the body, where one would expect a heart, is a cluster of exploding bomb plumes. St. Buchenwald!

 I can't help but see him now every time I glance at the drawing. The perversely zealous patron of the camp is having his heart blasted out. Unfortunately, the camp didn't cease to be his dominion after this raid. Much later, as the camp was liberated, no one bothered to look at it from above. Maybe no one from above saw the camp at all. His handiwork, right there on the ground, was all consuming in its vileness.

 In drawing I hover above that slaughterhouse, forced to contemplate the costume he wore for this topographical masquerade.

[NOTE. In the early 1990s, Arie Galles, whose most recent work had involved drawing with light-reflected color, made a radical shift of materials & theme. The result was a series of monumental charcoal drawings based on World War Two aerial photographs of fourteen Nazi death camps in Germany & Poland. What immediately struck me when Galles introduced me to what was then a work in progress was that his medium had switched from one of light & color to one of dust & ashes, something that hadn’t figured into his initial thinking but that made perfect sense for what he was then doing. I was also impressed by the distancing the photographs allowed, all the more forceful for the sense it conveyed of a view from heaven, so to speak, the horror & pathos of the hell below lost or hidden in the greater universe around us. With that in mind, when he asked me to give him poems to draw – also in charcoal -- & to exhibit alongside the death camp images, I turned again to gematria (traditional Hebrew numerology) & an aleatory mode of composition as a way to try to match the distance & force of what he had been doing.

What I didn’t know then was that Galles was keeping an ongoing journal of what turned out to be a decade-long project. Reading it now as a supplement to his “14 Stations” I’m struck by the movements of his mind & spirit there, the narrative of a journey that his work as an artist had allowed him to make. I don’t keep track of my own workings in the same way, & I don’t know how many of us do, but when it happens, there’s a secondary illumination that makes the original that much more telling. I imagine that his journal, Drawing with Ashes, is now edging its way toward becoming a book, as all things we value do. Or so Mallarmé told us. (J.R.)]

 An image & poem from “14 Stations” appears here on Poems & Poetics, while the whole suite can be viewed at