Cambodian painter Vann Nath and classical pianist Alexis Weissenberg recently died. Their destinies were similarly tied by chance occurrences and by their artistic skills.
Weissenberg, for his part, was considered one of the greatvirtuosos of the last century. He was a child prodigy in Bulgaria when he and his mother were taken prisoner by German soldiers in 1941. Weissenberg had a small accordion and could play excellent renditions of Schubert piano works and lieder. By chance there was a music-loving German guard nearby who was taken with the young boy’s virtuosity–it was obvious even on the accordion–and helped get him and his mother on a train and safety in Turkey. Weissenberg had his U.S. debut in 1947 playing Rachmaninov’s fiendishly difficult Piano Concerto #3. He lived for a time in Israel, and later made Paris his home. He died there on January 8th, 2012 at the age of 82.
Chance also spared Vann Nath’s life, but he had a more extended and horrifying experience. He was born into a poor farming family in Battambang Province in Cambodia in 1946. He learned to be a sign and billboard painter. The brutal Khmer Rouge, during their reign of terror 1975-9, imprisoned him at the end of 1977, where he was shackled and tortured like scores of others in the notorious Tuol Sleng prison. It so happened that one of his jailers found out he could paint and assigned him the job of painting ennobling portraits of Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader. Nath soon found out that eight or nine painters didn’t please Duch–nickname of the commandant at Tuol Sleng prison–and had been summarily executed. Nath once said that “every brush stroke you were hoping that they would like it and let you live”. He was liberated by the Vietnamese army in 1979.
Nath continued to paint the horrific things he had seen, and later became a key eyewitness in the trials of former Khmer Rouge leaders. He became a surviving representative of not only Tuol Sleng prison but of the two million Cambodians murdered by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. His 1998 memoir, A Cambodian Prison Portrait: One Year in the Khmer Rouge’s S-21 Prison, offers a unique and unsparing glimpse into the horrorshe witnessed.
I once was in a Border’s Bookstore and saw photographs taken of Cambodian prisoners holding signs with their numbers on them. Some were shyly smiling, and I had the feeling that they had never been photographed before. They must have known what would become of them. They all were so innocent. Before long I was in the corner, sobbing and trying not to let anybody see me. The horror was overwhelming.
Vann Nath died in September, 2011, at the age of 65. Like Weissenberg, his life was spared by his artistic talents, but for him there was no friendly guard to help him escape. He never recovered by the horrors he had been witness to. His portraits of misery and death in Cambodia, however, serve as a timeless reminder of the cruelty and barbarity of the Khmer Rouge.
UPDATE: This article was reprinted, in English, French, and Khmer in the recent book Vann Nath: Hommage / Tribute (cover image not available.