illiam Schaff told it best himself in 1999 to War, Literature, and the Arts: “I am 26 years old, and I find myself in the grip of Holocaust memory, the collected memories of the event….Indeed, my work does not try to directly illustrate the horrors of that time, but, instead, attempts to illustrate the horror I feel towards knowing that the Holocaust occurred.” As such, it should be no surprise that Schaff’s work best recalls the work of German artists working after the Great War, a time when figurative art was still in vogue, but major changes were taking place in how it was to be undertaken for the rest of time.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. If you’re reading this website, you most likely own or know a friend that owns a record with William Schaff’s artwork. His most notable commission to date has, of course, been the inside cover of Godspeed You, Black Emperor!’s Lift Your Skinny Fists to the Sky.
Schaff’s figurative work, which is exemplified beautifully by the Godspeed interior owes much, as mentioned before to the German expressionists. Artists such as George Grosz, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix all began to distort the human form from its natural shape, giving their subjects enormous appendages and heads with tiny bodies or vice-versa. In many cases, this was to showcase the ravages that World War I had wrought upon the German population. Much in the same way, Schaff is attempting to grapple with the Holocaust.
Compare, for example, Otto Dix’s “The Skat Players” (1920) to Schaff’s recent work for the cover of Okkervil River’s Black Sheep Boy. The similarities are stunning, as two groups of three gather around a table. Both groups exhibit human characteristics, but both are also decidedly not. Dix’s particular point was the striking amount of amputations on soldiers that returned home to their native Germany from the front. Each man is a grotesque cobbled together collage of a person. In Schaff’s work, each figure is an animal with very human characteristics with a sheep for a boy, a hog for a father figure, and a bird-like mother, commenting on any number of things.
It seems strange, at first, to hear that Schaff is so obsessed with the Holocaust. He admits as much on his website, saying that despite the fact that his father was a military historian that he found “little difference between that [Holocaust footage] and the rest of the "war" footage.” But in his youth Schaff came to know a number of skinheads and found himself “debating whether or not the Holocaust ever really happened with people who firmly believed it did not.” Something clicked after those debates and it changed how he viewed everything and has come to be the driving force behind his art.
Wrapped up in this subject matter, is the stylistic echoes of a Spanish master: Francisco Goya. Goya, known early in life as a court painter primarily, near the end of his life began to paint and draw more graphic images that were rarely seen by the public. The most famous of these is the one dubbed by art historians “Saturn Devouring One of His Children.”
Similar to Goya’s philosophy that came with advanced age and wisdom, it seems that Schaff has little faith in humanity to act in any sort of civilized manner. Instead, life is a shocking and shockingly painful existence, punctuated by moments of senseless violence or, perhaps, merely filled with it to the point that it is no longer even remarkable.
Visit William Schaff’s website here.