At first glance, the exhibition "Envisioning Evil" doesn't seem to be malicious. Featuring the work of Argentina-born American artist Mauricio Lasansky, the show begins with a series of portraits — of his 13-year-old son, Leonardo, with big round black eyes and clasped hands; of himself, shown in profile in a high-necked white turtleneck; of a Roman Catholic cardinal, created during a Guggenheim Fellowship in Spain.
These are just portraits. Evil begins in the neighboring gallery, with its maze-like entrance to "The Nazi Drawings," on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Art through next June. In this series of 33 drawings, most made between 1961 and '66, Lasansky makes the horrors of the Holocaust leap off the page, down your throat and into your gut, where they will simultaneously stew and stab you.
"He's so angry, he's pressing so hard, you feel like his pencils are breaking," said Rachel McGarry, associate curator at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.
Lasansky was born in Buenos Aires, in 1914 to Jewish immigrants. He resided there until 1943, when he moved to the United States and became a well known printmaker.
His motivation for raising awareness of the Holocaust hit in 1961, when the District Court of Jerusalem tried and ultimately executed Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi official and one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, who had fled to Argentina and was then captured by Israeli agents.
When the series began, the Holocaust was not known as the Nazis' attempt at genocide of the Jewish people, as it is today. Lasansky also wanted to convey the suffering of Roma, Sinti, Poles, Soviet POWs, LGBTQ people and many others. He chose to do it through drawing, a medium that anyone could use.
His drawings toured the United States from 1967-70, with a stop in Mexico City. In 1972, the series was acquired by Richard and Jeanne Levitt of Des Moines, fulfilling Lasansky's wish that the drawings be kept together.
The 33 larger-than-life drawings are filled with death, often represented by a bare skull taking over a human's head. In one drawing, a Nazi soldier standing inside a gas chamber raises a bloodied hand in the "heil Hitler" salute, and a skeleton that sits on his shoulders points the shower at youth.
"He also plays with erasure, erasing things so people seem to be disappearing, people seem to be vanishing," said McGarry.
Lasansky also takes aim at the Catholic church for its inaction while millions were being murdered in Europe. In one drawing, a bewildered pope, standing in a "Pietà"-like pose — typically used to show the mourning of Christ's body — is holding a dead, naked child in his arms.
"A lot of church leaders failed to speak out," she said. "Why didn't the Pope [Pius XII] speak out? He was in a position of power."
One reason this show has come to Mia now is a dwindling awareness of the Holocaust among the millennial and Gen Z generations. In a survey published early last year, 63%thought the death toll was under 2 million (the actual total is 6 million). More than half couldn't name any of the 40,000 concentration camps.
In another drawing, "No. 30," the artist's own body becomes possessed and mutilated by a skeleton, as if the act of working on this decade-long series was destroying him.
Unlike most exhibitions, the artist statement comes at the end.
Lasansky, who died in 2012, wrote that dignity is a force by which man survives, and once that is stripped away — as it was in Nazi Germany — man becomes a self-destructive animal that wipes out history and poisons the future. Evil can lurk in any of us, he warns, making this series even more haunting and timeless.
The Nazi Drawings
When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Thu.- Sun. through June 26.
Where: Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2400 3rd Av. S.
Admission: Free. Masks strongly encouraged. 888-642-2787 or artsmia.org.