THE timing of Galerie St. Etienne's show, "Art Spiegelman: The Road to Maus," is uncanny. Recent events in Germany, including the reemergence of far-right nationalism and anti-immigrant violence, has focused attention back on the question: What did the Holocaust mean, and why hasn't the world learned from it?
Mr. Spiegelman, an avant-garde cartoonist, was recently tapped by editor Tina Brown to be a contributing artist and writer for The New Yorker magazine. His first contribution appeared in the Dec. 7 issue and was titled "A Jew in Rostock." Last April, he received an avalanche of publicity when his two-volume, book-length set of serious comic strips, "Maus I, A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History" and "Maus II, And Here My Troubles Began," won a special Pulitzer Prize.
Spiegelman's books were drawn from many hours of interviews with his father, Vladek, an Auschwitz survivor. Vladek remembered in precise detail the events, both commonplace and horrifying, surrounding his time in the death camps. Spiegelman made the Jewish characters in his strips into mice, and the Nazis became cats. But these characterizations are worlds away from Mickey Mouse or Felix the Cat.
The Galerie St. Etienne has assembled a significant number of Spiegelman's sketches, storyboards, and completed drawings. From them, his struggle with both the logistics and the emotional cost of the project can be traced.
With all the books and movies out on the Holocaust, Spiegelman's father was reluctant to see his son write yet another Holocaust remembrance. In an attempt to put the past behind him, Vladek burned most of his wife Anja's memorabilia after she committed suicide in 1968. But Art Spiegelman's "Maus" books go a step further than many Holocaust memoirs because they portray the difficulties of living with a Holocaust survivor. Spiegelman achieves this by writing himself (as a mouse-son-artist) into the stor ies, breaking into his mouse-father's narrative with descriptions of their present-day conversations.
One telling scene, sketched out in the St. Etienne exhibition, shows Vladek admonishing his grown son for not being able to fix things around the house. Spiegelman interprets this as his father telling him he would never have survived Auschwitz.
Another important component to the "Maus" tale is the artist's courageously honest portrayal of his father with all his shortcomings. Spiegelman worries aloud in the book that he is feeding the racist stereotype of the miserly old Jew by showing how tight his father is with money. It is clear from the cumulative sketches that father and son were looking to define their relationship.
Visitors to the St. Etienne gallery who have only a passing knowledge of Spiegelman's work will still find these drawings captivating. Beyond the powerful emotional content, it is interesting to see how the artist arrived at the finished books. Several framed studies show how Spiegelman's characterization of the mice and cats evolved. He chose a stylized approach; the animals have whiskers but no fur, and they wear clothing and project human qualities. The elaborate background drawings were eventually re duced to simplified line drawings.
The artist's process becomes clearer through intelligently written explanations on the gallery walls. First, Spiegelman distilled important scenes from the transcripts of his father's conversations. The cartoonist then produced a thumbnail sketch, and finally a trial layout.
One of the revealing things about the show are the archival World War II photographs that Spiegelman used as models for the backgrounds in his strips. The artist based one of his scenes on a grisly photograph depicting a group of Auschwitz inmates piling bodies into a heap to be burned. The smoke rises like a poisonous cloud over the camp.
There is no escaping the brutal reality captured in the tiny mouse figures: They are gaunt-faced prisoners in identical uniforms, robbed of food, dignity, and ultimately life. What makes these drawings so startling is that such small characters can convey the range of human feeling. By telling his father's story, Spiegelman has taken a personal tragedy and made it universally relevant. *Continues through Jan. 9.