Robert Russell’s paintings illuminate the dark history of Dachau

We know this about former Nazi Party leader Heinrich Himmler: He was a mass murderer. He was a key player in orchestrating the Holocaust — true evil, personified.

Lesser known: Himmler loved bunnies. And puppies. And lambs. Specifically: cute, porcelain tchotchkes of such creatures.

A new solo exhibition of works by painter Robert Russell, at the Anat Ebgi Gallery in Carthay, sheds light on the dark history of these innocent objects.

“Porzellan Manufaktur Allach” features about a dozen of Russell’s massive paintings — rich, detailed still lifes of porcelain figurines produced in Germany in the 1930s and 40s through the Allach Porcelain Manufacturing Co.

Himmler, through the SS, took over the company in the mid-1930s and used it to produce, among other things, porcelain figurines that conveyed his love of Arianism and German culture — a pure white dove, a doe with open eyes. The Nazis gifted the SS soldiers with the items — “Wedding gifts, baby gifts, to move up the ranks,” says Russell, who is Jewish.

When, eventually, there were labor shortages during the war, Himmler opened an Allach production facility in a sub-camp outside the Dachau concentration camp in Germany and used the prisoners there as slaves to continue production.

“It’s kind of a perfect subject for me to paint because there’s a vulnerability to it, which I love, but there’s something horrible about it,” Russell says. “Also, there is something medicinal about it. I want to make something ugly beautiful. I want to take it back, give it new meaning. I just want to make big, beautiful paintings out of these things.”

7 meter tall works by Robert Russell in his studio. The giant canvases depict porcelain figurines commissioned by Nazi Party leader Heinrich Himmler.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Hanging in Russell’s studio about a week before the exhibition, the 7-foot-tall paintings are both incredibly beautiful and grotesque given their history and sheer bulk. At first glance they highlight seemingly benign items one might find in their grandmother’s hideout — creamy white and golden brown statues of innocent woodland animals, Roman saint figurine with gold leaf accents. Ultra-realistic renderings are glossy and bright, glistening with light and shadows — like glazed donuts. The largely monochromatic objects are depicted in different shades of lavender, from almost black purple to soft lilac.

Together in Russell’s one-room studio, however, they seem almost menacing—a gang of oversized cuties looming over visitors. Russell’s studio is small and stark, with no windows—just four, white walls that close around a 6-foot-long, glass-covered dining table in the center of the room, which he uses as a giant, paint-smeared palette. The canvases surround the room and are so large that there is little visible wall space. The works feel twisted, yet defiantly seductive.

“I wanted to acknowledge the monstrosity of this whole effort,” Russell says of the porcelain figurines. “To get them out of the cuteness sphere. These could have become valuable — I could have made small paintings. And they would have been precious. Here they are so powerful. You have to face it.”

“Porzellan Manufaktur Allach” is particularly relevant at the moment. As of 2014, anti-Semitism has been on a “steady rise in the US”. says USC Shoah Foundation Executive Director Robert J. Williams. In Los Angeles alone, several weeks ago, two men were shot in separate incidents while leaving synagogues in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood. The suspect, who had a history of making anti-Semitic comments, was charged with federal hate crimes.

“The continued prevalence of anti-Semitism, that’s absolutely characteristic of this body of work,” says Russell.

Paintings by Robert Russell

Robert Russell’s huge still lifes are glossy and shiny, shimmering with light and shadow — as if they’d been whipped with donut icing.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Russell, 51, grew up Reform Jewish in Los Angeles He was relatively cut off from his heritage for most of his adult life, but re-embraced Judaism — “a version of it that makes more sense to me” — about a decade ago, diving into books , attending community events and hosts Shabbat dinners at home with his wife, actress Lisa Edelstein. “Not to sound cliche, but it makes sense,” he says.

The two live at the home of Edward A. “Tink” Adams in Silver Lake — Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 922 — which was redesigned, in 1966, for the co-founder of the ArtCenter College of Design. Edelstein is also a painter, and she and Russell have studios at opposite ends of the property, which features Japanese-style gardens and hundreds of year-old bonsai trees. Their discussions of Jewish life, Culture and spirituality have influenced both bodies of work, says Russell.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Russell turned to painting teacups, giant detailed renderings of traditional, hand-painted, German porcelain. He later exhibited the series at Anat Ebgi in 2021. However, during this uncertain and frightening pre-vaccination period, making these works – oversized domestic objects, with their oval-shaped openings and wide-brimmed saucers — opened up his world, he says, which had become “small” in isolation. At the same time, the depiction of familiar vessels for warm, fragrant liquid provided warmth and comfort.

“Porzellan Manufaktur Allach” was developed directly from the teacup line. It’s a continuation of Russell’s interest in painting porcelain objects, he says, but much more intricately sculptural, taking into account the angles and curves of the animals’ bodies as opposed to a rounded cup. There’s also more room for Russell to assert his sense of self on the tracks. The teacup line depicted objects hand-painted with intricate floral patterns, so Russell’s works were “paintings,” he says, “because I was painting in the style of another painter.” By contrast, the much less decorative animal figures were more liberating, allowing him to “engage not only with surface, but with form,” he says. “I stay true to the Allach pieces themselves, but there’s a lot of room for gestures and exploration.”

Although the works refer to the medium of photography, Russell does not refer to them as photorealistic. They are painterly interpretations of photographic images. Russell finds the Allach porcelain images in online auction house catalogs. Before re-creating the images on canvas, he Photoshops the images, saturating the colors and punching in the reflections and shadows.

“It gives them volume and depth and turns them into what I think is worth painting,” she says. “I think of them as almost psychedelic hyper-real – because then I do them en masse.”

Russell also experimented with materials during the pandemic. Now he mixes a mushy, cold wax with his linseed oil and paint to create a unique composition that gives the canvas surface a translucency he sees as “parallel to porcelain.”

The result is luminescence bathed in irony. A dachshund puppy with big, floppy ears is encased in a hazy, angelic mist. The tufts of fur from a baby lamb are so pearly and pale, like peaks of whipped cream, they have an almost sculptural appearance. Under, genuine porcelain items are stamped with the SS “runes” symbol.

Russell did not set out to create an exhibition with an agenda — education was not his first priority, he admits. As a conceptual painter interested in the Vanitas and Memento Mori painting styles, he was drawn to the aesthetic simplicity of the subject matter and the complex, rich history.

“The content is there, but I wanted to seduce you first,” he says.

However, the works reinforce an important historical narrative.

“This, ideally, will become part of the cultural environment out there,” he says. “When you research Allach porcelain, we hope you will discover it.”

“Robert Russell: Porzellan Manufaktur Allach”

Where: Anat Ebgi, 6150 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles
When: March 9 – April 22, Tue-Sat, 10am-5pm

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