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April 30, 2007 | by  | in Visual Arts |
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‘Merry Christmas Louis’

William Hedley
Toi Poneke Gallery, Wellington Arts Centre
61 Abel Smith Street, to May 12

An anti-Semite on one wall and a Jewish Auschwitz survivour on the other? Last week an eccentric and temperamental artist named William Hedley lined the walls of the Wellington Arts Centre’s Toi Poneke Gallery with two sets of works influenced by conflicting stories from the Holocaust.

The first is dedicated to Primo Levi, an Italian Jewish chemist who spent a year in Nazi Germany’s most notorious concentra- tion camp, Auschwitz. The other work features Louis Darquier de Pellepoix, a French anti-Semite who acted as commissioner for Jewish Affairs in the collaborationist French Vichy government.

A familiar face at Toi Poneke Gallery openings, Hedley is artist in-residence at the Arts Centre with a studio upstairs where it’s not possible to view all 158 of his current works. It’s curious to see how they looked in a gallery setting. He has lined one side of the wall with the Levi works comprising 79 pieces and the other side with the remainder, the Darquier works.

What resulted was a colourful banner wallpaper effect that eventually takes over the senses the longer you spend in the space. There were so many pieces that to view them all, you had to walk out into the lobby and walk up two flights of stairs to the second floor where the rest were tucked around a dark corner.

Hedley’s inspiration for these works came from Levi’s novel, If This is a Man, which he read ten years ago. Levi joined the Italian Resistance Movement to fight the Italian Social Republic (the German puppet state in Northern Italy) where he was arrested by the fascist militia. Eventually he was part of a shipment of 650 Jews to the Auschwitz concentration camp. With an average life expectancy of three months, Levi was one of only twenty from his shipment who left the camp alive.

On the other hand Darquier had a long and active career in fascist politics from the 1930’s, and in 1937 was quoted as saying at a public meeting: “We must, with all urgency, resolve the Jewish problem, whether by expulsion, or massacre.” At Nazi Germany’s behest, he was appointed to head Vichy’s Commissariat General aux Questions Juives (Office for Jewish Affairs) in May 1942, succeeding Xavier Vallat, who the SS in France found too moderate. Darquier’s appointment to this post immediately preceded the first mass deportations of Jews from France to concentration camps. Hedley read a biography called Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland and decided to create a second set of works with Darquier in mind.

I wanted to talk to the media-shy Hedley about the deeper philosophies behind his works, but was warned that he is a bit precious. He said he’d like me to review the exhibition only if it was bad and gave me an incorrect phone number to contact him later on. Not that I really minded, because his honesty, lack of pretence and individuality really impressed me. Bored of overly cautious artists, I really appreciate those who have a bit of depth and create tension naturally coming out in their work. Hedley is a creative expressionist and an interesting character who lets his art speak for itself, and his current two sets of works have a subtle provocative appeal that capture the emotions of his subjects.

These paintings are technically impressive. Despite there being lots of them, they don’t start dawdling at all, as each one is visually as powerful as the one next to it. Hedley used the fragments of a destroyed painting as the templates for the forms and shapes on the pieces that comprise each work. Reflecting the lack of soul and empathy of Darquier, half the works merely have the shapes coloured in, which despite being beautiful, have a kind of flatness to them.

Alternatively, the Levi works have an opposite feel to them, with thick beads of oil paint having been used where, with an arbitrary action, each piece is simultaneously destroyed and created. The backgrounds of both sets of works have a rendered effect with the shapes laid on top as the main subject matter, which I presume represents the actual emotions, motivations, and souls of Levi and Darquier.

Incidentally, in 1978, a French journalist interviewed Darquier, who was in exile in Franco’s Spain. Among other things, Darquier declared that in Auschwitz gas was not used to kill humans, but only lice, and that allegations of killings by this method were lies by the Jews.

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