Art review: William Pachner's powerful response to Holocaust still resonates

William Pachner's powerful response to the Holocaust resonates. The centenarian's works can be viewed at two shows in downtown St. Petersburg.
Published May 20 2015


William Pachner turned 100 on April 17. For almost 50 of those years, he had been a fine artist, putting his brushes down by 1999 only after he became blind. Two exhibitions, at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg and the Florida Holocaust Museum, honor this milestone and his remarkable career.

Pachner didn't seem destined to be a serious painter. He was born in Czechoslovakia and studied art there but in young adulthood chose a career as a commercial illustrator. He came to the United States in 1939 and freelanced until about a year later, when Esquire magazine hired him as its art director.

He couldn't return home after Germany invaded his country; he tried to enlist when World War II broke out but was rejected several times because he was blind in one eye, the result of a childhood accident. In 1945, Pachner learned that his entire family, 80 in all, had been killed by the Nazis. He became determined never to work again as a commercial illustrator but to paint what he felt.

Pachner took his time divining his style. Abstract expressionism was in full flower after the war but he struggled to transition from the realism necessary in the world of illustration and editorial cartoons. He studied Old Masters and great contemporaries such as Pablo Picasso for technique, color and composition. His subject matter came from his own deep well of grief and loss.

What makes his mature work profound is Pachner's ability to transform the specific and literal into the universal and abstract. We can see that metamorphosis best by taking in both shows on the same day; they're small, with 16 works at the Holocaust Museum and just six at the Museum of Fine Arts, and the venues are both in downtown St. Petersburg. (I wouldn't recommend walking now that heat and humidity have descended on us; consider parking and taking a trolley.)

The earliest work, at the Holocaust Museum, is a 1944 illustration for Collier's magazine. It shows a train being stuffed with people and sends its message of persecution in a direct way. We see how far Pachner has developed in Native Landscape, 1957, and View of My Birthplace, 1958, both at the Museum of Fine Arts. Each painting is dark and forboding. The first is completely abstract, colors painted over black, muting them. Pachner's landscapes often are composed as aerial views, and this one is a group of blocks that are clearly defined at the top of the canvas and give way to blurred boundaries at the bottom. The eye travels downward rather than up. In Birthplace, the landscape is recognizable as a village with its houses and rooftops painted with prismatic refractions. Even though there is a lot of white and orange, everything seems to be shrouded in a dark cloud, the way scenes have a hazy dimness in a nightmare.

Compare them to View of My Homeland from 1979. Instead of a grim grid, this landscape is a patchwork of vibrant colors surrounded by rivulets of paint. It has a bit of somber tones but the work suggests a reconciliation with his sadness and, like the earth's renewal in the wake of devastation, an imperative of rebirth.

By that time, Pachner had become an established star of our west-central Florida region. He began spending his winters in the area, teaching at several arts institutions, and his work was exhibited frequently and purchased by collectors. Eric Lang Peterson, a respected art consultant and appraiser based in St. Petersburg, purchased his first Pachner painting in 1968 when he was in his 20s.

"I loved his work visually and then learned his heart-wrenching history," Peterson said in a recent telephone interview. "He will use blasts of radiant color, yet in the background there is always the reminder of the Holocaust."

Only one work in either show indicates the joy Pachner allowed himself to feel beginning in the 1960s — beach scenes, curvaceous bodies lounging in the sun, works that are sensual at times and filled with clear color. Landscape, 1974 (at the Museum of Fine Arts), a watercolor on paper, is a gorgeous swirl of blues and yellows floating upward to a vortex.

During those years, though, another tragedy stalked him. He began losing his vision in his good eye and there was no remedy. As his eyesight failed, he could no longer mix colors or see their gradations, so he shifted to the high contrast of black on white. The Holocaust Museum presents us with 11 examples and, while not as fine as his earlier paintings, they are mostly a harrowing descent into darkness. Most of them depict trains. Pachner was entranced by them in his childhood, but after the Holocaust they represented only death to him. So the boxcars composed of violent gashes of black surmount wheels that seem to rotate in furious motion.

He is no longer able to spend time in Florida and is in frail health at his permanent home in Woodstock, N.Y. But Pachner remains a well-remembered presence and influence in Florida. Peterson, 71, eventually purchased 10 of Pachner's paintings. He sold some of them to collectors and said he began encouraging them to donate the works to the Museum of Fine Arts when the time felt right. William and Hazel Hough and Robert and Chris Hilton have done just that, growing the works by the artist in the collection to 13.

And here's an interesting story about the effect a work by Pachner can have. Hazel was a young homemaker and mother when the museum opened in 1965. She visited but wasn't swayed by the Old Masters and representational art. There was only one work in the inaugural show by a living artist and it stopped her in her tracks. "If this museum is going to have work like that in it, I want to be a part of it," she said in an interview several years ago. The Houghs, through the decades, have indeed been a part of it, giving millions in dollars and artwork to the museum. The building's 2008 addition bears Hazel Hough's name. And that long-ago painting was, of course, by William Pachner.

Contact Lennie Bennett at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.