The 10 paintings currently on view at Vanderbilt's Space 204 are filled with the idea of potential: the potential of artist Hannah Stahl, who is still young — currently a graduate student at the New York Academy of Art in TriBeCa — and of Stahl's subjects, who all died horrific deaths. These are the faces of female prisoners at Auschwitz shortly before they were executed.
Stahl was the recipient in 2012 of Vanderbilt's Margaret Stonewall Wooldridge Hamblet Award, which is given to only one student in every graduating class. The Hamblet Award provides the means for travel and independent art activity for a year, and Index represents its culmination. Stahl used her award money to pay for a studio in Marathon Village, a residency at Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, and a two-month exploration of Eastern and Central Europe last spring.
"I organized the trip around three locations," Stahl tells the Scene. "I wanted to go to Italy, Amsterdam and Poland. Italy and Amsterdam for Caravaggio and Rembrandt — and Poland for the concentration camps." Her great-grandfather emigrated from Poland, and Stahl was especially eager to return to the city where he was born, raised and married. But many of his siblings, she says, stayed in Poland and were sent to death camps. That was something, along with the paintings of her heroes, that Stahl had to see.
"I felt a lot of emotion, and what struck me was seeing a lot of the things that they'd accumulated of the victims — shoes, briefcases, prosthetic legs, piles and piles of things," she says.
"There was one room that was filled with hair," she notes with wide-eyed disgust. A wall covered in thousands of photographs shows the victims immediately after their hair had been cut off, and that was what stayed with Stahl the most. "I took hundreds of photographs of those faces," she says.
Stahl painted portraits based on the photos immediately upon her return.
"I wanted to honor these women," she says. "There's this idea of portraiture that has been around for thousands of years, that it's something for nobles. I wanted to give that to these women, to return the attention to the individual and away from this unfathomable, mythologized thing."
At the beginning, Stahl explains, she had attempted to make the portraits as real as possible. "I thought the best way to do that was to paint them in skin colors. I got to that point with one of them, and it just didn't seem right." Her artist statement explains this point further: "I couldn't bring these victims 'back to life' in this way, even by filling their unknown appearances with a lifelike warmth."
The most photorealistic portraits line the gallery's right wall, and I think I know which one she's talking about. This woman seems to stand taller than the rest, her prominent cheekbones highlighted in such a way that you can easily imagine the skull underneath her skin. Her eyes are glossy, but her expression shows little emotion. I understand why this painting made Stahl uncomfortable: Despite the accurate skin tones and fine detail, this isn't the most lifelike of her portraits — but it's the one that's the truest to the photographer's vision. You become eerily aware of that vision when you look into these women's faces, twisted with fear or anger or acceptance. They are all looking into the lens of a camera, posing not for Stahl, not for us, but for their executioners.
The least photorealistic of the portraits, the few that Stahl painted most recently with a bold color scheme that subverts and refuses the intention of the original photographs, are the most effective. These paintings — the orange face with the overturned mouth and wrinkled forehead, and the purple face to its immediate right with a vague, childlike smile — these are the ones that notice something new about the women, "something that vibrates," as Stahl says, that was not in the photographs.