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Rico Lebrun

Italian-American
(1900–1964)

Floor of Buchenwald #2
1958

Ink, casein, and collage on board
49.25 x 97.25 x 2 in. (125.095 x 247.015 x 5.08 cm)
Museum Purchase with the Charter Member Endowment Fund
1987.60

Rico Lebrun’s paintings and drawings are powerful narratives infused with a baroque monumentality. The broken-up forms and agitated lines in his work express the fragmented character of modern disasters. The artist enlisted his exceptional draftsmanship mainly in the service of humanism. In 1954 he began his Buchenwald series, paintings and drawings that are among the important twentieth-century works dealing with the Holocaust.

Lebrun refused to gloss over the horror of the Holocaust with an aesthetic veneer, seeing art as a conduit for cathartic release. About art’s transformative aspect, he wrote: “I wanted to remember that our image, even when disfigured by adversity, is grand in meaning; that no brutality will ever cancel that meaning: painting may increase it by changing what is disfigured into what is transfigured.” Nevertheless, the making of this series commemorating the death camps traumatized him.

Floor of Buchenwald’s palette is limited to gray, sepia, and brown, with a loose application of black wash, a dark world meant to expose the moral depravity and evil of humankind. Lebrun’s drawing is fluid and free, pushing the distortion of forms to the limit while retaining their horrific meaning. The overall effect is of a densely layered collage—a tangle of bones, flesh, and fragments of clothing, even a face, make one want to look away. Lebrun’s virtuoso style takes a back seat to the human suffering he depicts, since he aims to elicit a visceral rather than intellectual or aesthetic response.

Lebrun was a charismatic figure who left a powerful legacy of bold, muscular works filled with emotion. His influence on several generations of artists in Los Angeles can be seen in the work of Howard Warshaw, Arnold Mesches, Jan Stussy, Ed Kienholz, and Jim Morphesis, among others.

Susan M. Anderson


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