Nathan Hilu’s Journal: Word, Image, Memory
Jewish Institute of Religion Museum
Among some orthodox Jews there is a custom called “Kappres”. This involved swinging a live chicken over one’s head to atone for one’s sins, a rooster for a male, and a hen for a female. A prayer is recited: This is my substitute, this is my pardon, this is my atonement, this rooster/hen goes to death and I shall enter a long, happy and peaceful life”.
The bird is then ritually slaughtered and given to the poor. The chicken becomes the scapegoat.
Nathan Hilu epitomizes the hardscrabble Jewish art for art’s sake ethos of Soutine, Chagall, and another lesser-known lower east side contemporary, Gandy Brodie. These artists all made images that to one degree or another reflected their Jewish cultural identity, but Hilu alone has created a non-fictional, lifetime narrative rooted in traditional religious practices and Jewish historical observations that might otherwise have gone by the way.
What other artist sketched portraits of Nazi war criminals while guarding them at Nuremburg, or traded his art for Challah and pastry?
Hilo’s work is so packed with wit, personality, and verve that theres no room for conventionally fashionable art world irony or stylistic preening. Whether or not he was “trained” (or ruined, some might say) by more informed and connected masters of the craft is beside the point here. Hilu’s talent is indeed “native” and his art is all the better for it. We may label him “outsider”, and much to his benefit he truly is.
Nathan Hilu was born in New York City in 1926 and raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He served in the U.S. Army from 1945–1957. In Germany he served as a prison guard at Nuremberg, attached to the 6850th Internal Security Detachment where he guarded high ranking Nazis Party members, German military servicemen, and German government officials on trial for war crimes. Following the end of World War II, he continued his military service in Japan and various bases in the United States before being honorably discharged in 1957.
After his return to civilian life, Hilu settled in New York and achieved renown as an artist reflecting his life and times. The phrase art brut, coined by Jean Dubuffet in 1922, best describes Hilu’s style — naïf, or outsider art that does not adhere to the mainstream. His 2008 series of drawings of the Nuremberg prison and its occupants are currently held at the Holocaust Resource Center Archives at Queensborough Community College, and a showcase of his work, "Nathan Hilu’s Journal: Word, Image, Memory" is currently on display at the museum of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, New York. Hilu continues to draw daily.
I was preparing a show for the Educational Alliance’s when the Art School’s director, Walter O’Neill, noticed my affection for the wild drawings. He suggested that if I wanted to show them, I could get in touch with the artist the same way he did – by visiting the bakeries Nathan frequented and leaving notes for him. This was quite different from trying to show the work of other artists, which usually just involved lots of emails to gallerists.
I left notes to no avail, but convinced one baker to lend me a few of the drawings Nathan had traded for cake. They were stained and sticky, like cola had been spilled on them. Many of the drawings were based on a single photograph of the owner, Rivka, as a younger woman holding a large Challah. Some had a return address label slapped onto their fronts. I used the address to write Nathan a letter. He showed up on the night of the opening with more drawings.
From Nathan Hilu: Not An Outsider Artist by Audrey Hope
“My work is cartooning, that’s what I do,” he said. We looked at his drawings of the Bialystoker Synagogue, Shapiro’s Wine, Doughnut Plant, and a Spanish restaurant, among others. “You see, what I’m trying to show here, because this is the Lower East Side, I’m putting Jewish, Chinese, Latin all together,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye.
Nathan Hilu at his Educational Alliance exhibit.