Holocaust survivor's artworks reflect belief in the value of life

Dante Elsner in his Kensal Rise studio shortly before his death in 1997

Dante Elsner in his Kensal Rise studio shortly before his death in 1997 - Credit: Courtesy of the artist's family

A small exhibition of work by Holocaust survivor Dante Elsner runs in Camden as part of Jewish Book Week.

Just 23 drawings and paintings from the late artist's family collection go on show at The Camden Image Gallery from May 12-16.

Elsner was born in Krakow in 1920 to a middle-class liberal Jewish family. Dreams of a medical career were shattered when war broke out and the family fled to the Russian side of divided Poland. But in 1942, the Nazis rounded up his parents and brother and took them to the Sobibor and Belzec death camps. Elsner miraculously escaped and lived in the forests, surviving on roots, berries, and snails, occasionally hooking up with Polish partisans.

He developed a sharp awareness of the self sufficiency needed to survive, but also a deep belief in the value of life and the spiritual potential of human beings. Traumatised, but indebted to the 'inner voice' that had saved him, Elsner studied fine art in Krakow from 1944-1948 before leaving for Paris due to Communist restrictions.

One of the artworks in the exhibition Dante Elsner The Work at The Camden Image Gallery

One of the artworks in the exhibition Dante Elsner The Work at The Camden Image Gallery - Credit: Courtesy of the artist's family

There he lived in extreme poverty, eating in soup kitchens and taking odd jobs to buy materials for his art. When he ran out of canvases, he would paint on his shirts - and his visits to see great artworks in museums gave him courage and healing when he felt close to despair.

He was also introduced to the teachings of Armenian mystic GI Gurdjieff. In The Work he found an exploration of human existence and the new spiritual framework he had been seeking to make sense of his inner voice.

Elsner married a fellow Holocaust survivor and moved to Queen's Park in 1958. Using reparations from the German government to fund his artistic spiritual journey, and inspired by the religions of South East Asia, he worked in his Kensal Rise studio using watercolour and ink brush on Japanese mulberry paper.

Dante Elsner

Work by Dante Elsner - Credit: Courtesy of the artist's family

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In works modelled on Japanese and Chinese scrolls, Elsner believed every brushstroke was a pure reflection of the maker's state of mind and his spiritual path.

Dante Elsner The Work is organised by North London online gallery The Noble Sage in association with Jewish Book Week at The Camden Image Gallery, 174, Royal College Street. All artworks are for sale. Visit www.camden-image-gallery.co.uk/