Painting at Dora

Fifteen Years Before Cofounding the Oulipo, a French Chemical Engineer Made It Through His Internment at Dora-Mittelbau by Mentally Re-Creating His Favorite Works of Art in Exquisite Detail
The Expressive Superiority of the Vernacular, Blessed Inexperience of One’s Craft, Tragically Interlaced Diagonals, Mary Magdalene’s Dress, Mechanical Leprosy, Hovering Barriers of Potential, Radioactivity of the Imagination, Functions Without Derivatives
by Francois le Lionnais
View of the ruins of the central barracks (Boelcke Kaserne) at Dora, taken after liberation, April 1945. Photograph courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.

Painting at Dora

Francois le Lionnais
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François Le Lionnais, born in Paris in 1901, was a chemical engineer, chess enthusiast, and unrelenting polymath. He mounted a remarkable career in the public service of science and mathematics, working in various capacities for UNESCO, Musées Nationaux de France, and France’s national public broadcasting service, and writing or editing several publications on contemporary mathematical thought. In 1960, with his friend Raymond Queneau, Le Lionnais founded the Oulipo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle), of which he served as president until his death, in 1984.

In 1944, for his participation in the French Resistance throughout the early 1940s, Le Lionnais was arrested, tortured, and deported to Dora-Mittelbau, via Buchenwald, where he spent several months building guidance systems for V2 missiles—often faultily. Shortly before the camp was liberated by the U.S. army, he and three others escaped the Nazi death marches and fled to the neighboring town of Seesen, where they spent the following weeks helping to organize shelter, medical care, and repatriation services for their fellow inmates. Le Lionnais also oversaw the production of a journal called Revivre!—“To live again!”—of which a single issue was printed on a commandeered German printing press.

The following memoir of Le Lionnais’s time at Dora first appeared in the Lyons-based journal Confluences in 1946. This is, as far as I know, its first English translation, and it is presented humbly, with all its author’s original rights reserved.

—Daniel Levin Becker

For Henri Seeliger,

recalling the joy of being reunited


It happened one morning during a routine assembly. We were some thousands of prisoners, idling at the calling point while they went about a general inspection.

My gaze fell reflexively upon the hill that rose beside the infirmary, where autumn was finishing its own occupation. Without warning, the great bare trees dissolved before me and carried me away with them. All at once the Hell of Dora mutated into a Brueghel, for me alone. Encouraged, no doubt, by the mental and physical exhaustion all of us felt, an intense rapture took hold of me: the sense of escaping, as a wisp of smoke could have, from under the watch of my idiot wardens. The euphoria did not last long.

It was long enough, however, to allow me to withstand the volley of slaps and blows (another example of the expressive superiority of the vernacular over academic language: wallops is the correct word) I received when my turn came to be searched.

I knew then that I was being summoned once more by the call of a bygone passion. I had to relearn it, though. It was in my block that my reeducation would take place.

Our blocks were decorated here and there with paintworks by some talented detainees. This was less a matter of entertaining ourselves than of embellishing the small corner of our jail reserved for our block chiefs, our powerful potentates. The paintings were for the most part uninteresting, wavering between the crude local flavor of the Foire aux Croûtes and the antiquated opulence of the Salon des Artistes Français.

There was one, however, that fascinated me. It depicted a stream in southern Germany, or the Tyrol (at least I suppose it did). Emerging from the bottom of the tableau, the river rushed at the viewer, its current at once effervescent and perfectly still. Firmly planted on a raft, a forester steered with a bundle of wood. Thanks to a total and blessed inexperience with his craft, the painter had rendered the raft slightly larger than the stream. The work could have held its own with dignity in the Popular Realist Painters Exposition, where I had spent some time in 1937, or at the recent Self-Taught Painters Exposition. I would have liked to take the small panel of colored wood with me, but the Nazis forced us to evacuate Dora a few days before the Liberation.


In the camp I had made the acquaintance of two or three painters, but I saw little of them due to the difficulties inherent in the occupation of detainee, and in any case I did not seek out their company. We did not have the same manner of understanding and loving painting. I preferred to discuss the subject with my best friend there, a young man to whom I became attached as one can only in such cases, and who would not, alas, leave this awful adventure alive. His name was Jean Gaillard.

Intelligent as he was sensitive, Jean was keen on all things concerning the spirit. Together we passed all the time we could surveying the spheres of human knowledge, making a sort of inventory of all the world’s civilizations had managed to build. I retraced for my friend the history of number theory, which we soon broadened to a more general history of mathematics. Next we explored electricity, optics, and chemistry. We veered toward philosophy and reconstituted its trajectory from the primitive theogonies through existentialism and Marxism. When the day came for painting, Jean asked me to share what I knew and thought about the matter.

I began by presenting to him the outline for my great book on painting (which, for lack of time, will in all likelihood never see publication), which treats the subject from the perspective of a lover of mathematics and thus of fantasy. To illustrate my “double-door” theory and other theses (some of which left him agreeably scandalized), it was necessary to call on the support of numerous precise and tangible examples. Unfortunately, I could not put the works themselves, nor even reproductions thereof, before his eyes. We had to settle for a makeshift alternative: I described the works in the most meticulous detail during those interminable hours at the calling point. Gifted with an excellent memory, Jean managed the stunning feat of becoming so familiar with certain famous paintings he had never seen as to be able to discuss them with a more intimate knowledge than so many people who have looked at them without understanding them, without loving them, and frequently, I think, without even really seeing them.

Thus did we contemplate at length in our minds’ eyes Van Eyck’s Rolin Madonna. I projected, as though with a magic lantern, the severe expression of the donor, the rabbits crushed under the columns, the drunkenness of Noah depicted atop a capital, the little tufts of grass growing between the stones in the courtyard and the six steps leading to the terrace, each detail of the circulating stream and of the urban agitation at its base. The tragically interlaced diagonals of Giotto’s St. Francis of Assisi Receiving the Stigmata disquieted him; the tender, delicious Decapitation of Cosmas and Damian by Fra Angelico charmed him. We took long excursions through The Temptation of St. Anthony by Hieronymus Bosch (which hangs in Lisbon), through da Vinci’s The Virgin of the Rocks, through a certain tondo by Perugino (which is at the Louvre and represents the Virgin between St. Rose, St. Catherine, and two angels) to which nobody pays sufficient attention (but by no means because of the indisputable blandness of its figures—its fault lies elsewhere), through Lucas van Leyden’s Lot and His Daughters and its extraordinary atmosphere of apocalypse, through Dürer’s Melencolia I (whose magic square we re-created by recalling that it contained the date of its creation, 1514), through that little Veronese at the Musée de Grenoble that depicts Christ’s appearance to Mary Magdalene and is, if likely not the most remarkable existing Veronese, certainly the most enchanting I know. (Having not yet been reacquainted with that painting, I wonder whether Mary Magdalene’s dress is really such—and so magical—as I remember it.)

Stone by stone, we built the most marvelous museum in the world. In so doing we managed to extract from each work one detail, occasionally two, infinitely more sonorous, more profound, and more righteous—more real—than the wretched reality that mired our bodies but not our souls. Rubens’s Kermesse gave us the small jealous girl in the foreground on the left and, on the right, that prodigious passage of human tumult into the melancholy concession of nature. We made off with the bunch of grapes from Jordaens’s Allegory of Fertility, the little donkey from Ruisdael’s Buisson, the heavenly tablecloth from The Pilgrims of Emmaus on the Road. We stole, hearts beating wildly, into the chamber at the back of Las Meninas

We re-created each painting, careful not to squander with simple words the insolent joy in the color of the Women of Algiers, the sensual bloom of the Moulin de la Galette, the premeditation in each of the thousand visible strokes in the Hanged Man’s House.

It was easier for me to revive works of a more richly affecting content, like Rousseau the Douanier’s The Snake Charmer or Klee’s Little Jester in a Trance. I believe I made my companion just a bit amorous for that precious little girl who, on the left of the Pilgrimage to Cythera, is turning nearly away from us and, with an alluring decisiveness, engaging the arm of a young gentleman to lead him toward the waiting schooner. I used the rectangles behind Poussin’s self-portrait in the Louvre to defend those in Braque and in Mondrian (quite different, naturally). The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even, by Marcel Duchamp, rather surprised my friend: he hesitated somewhat before my description of it, and accepted such a startling work only on the condition of an eventual viewing. He was more eager to conclude an alliance with Max Ernst’s Horde—to which, granted, the atmosphere of Dora was better suited.

So armed, we should have liked to plunge deeper into the vast novel of lines and colors, but it was impossible for us to advance further. Barely were we able to evoke the taut penmanship of the Pollaiuolo, the artificial illuminations of Georges de La Tour, those colored harmonies where I seemed to find the signal that Veronese saw in ultraviolet, that geometry that made the Verity painters introduce systems of Cartesian coordinates in certain works (figured, for instance, by the birds or by the hands in the aforementioned paintings by Van Eyck and da Vinci).

And yet my itinerancy was not restricted to those familiar, famous canvases. For my own solitary meditation I reserved certain recollections that would have taken too long to account for: for example, the innumerable poor (oh, very poor) paintings adorning the dining rooms and salons of some of my friends and relatives—I would sometimes make curious discoveries during the explorations I undertook when the conversation turned general enough for my attentions to slip away unnoticed. Or certain posters that haunted my memory, such as the advertisement for the Lissac opticians depicting a pretty woman with a smiling face corroded by a sort of mechanical leprosy… (At our first reunion, in the métro, I made a small, complicit wink in her direction.)


Around this time we were brutally separated, my companion and I, for a change in work parties, and I had to complete the next stage on my own. It consisted in a sort of game I have practiced fondly for years: establishing communications between two or more works, or grafting onto one elements taken from the other.

For instance, I would project Fragonard’s luscious bathers in the midst of the Burial at Ornans, and let all the good people therein sort the matter out among themselves. Or I would assemble in the same room Antonello da Messina’s Condottiero and the drinker from The Bon Bock, then vacate the premises on tiptoe, double-lock the door, and observe the reactions through a small secret skylight (like some sadistic doctor monitoring his victims). Or perhaps I would transport a peasant from Louis Le Nain to the middle of the Coronation of Maria de’ Medici and note his impressions. Such confrontations are, generally speaking, extremely instructive. Thus one discovers that, despite undeniable differences in education, La Goulue and The Bellelli Family take communion with the same fervor in the cult of lucre. A Grünewald Christ will examine a Reni Christ with a certain astonishment, as though regarding an entirely different being; conversely, Botticelli’s Virgin (the one in the Berlin Museum) resounds as a mirror in the same painter’s Birth of Venus.

I do not always proceed from contrast and I do not confine myself, clearly, to social experiments, though the exercise is both interesting and revealing of some of the deepest roots of painting. From time to time I pause in more nuanced passages to swap the little pages, both at the right, between El Greco’s St. Ferdinand and Caravaggio’s Alof de Wignacourt, or to misplace a Courbet honeysuckle in a Théodore Rousseau underbrush. Dialogues between still lives are also captivating, though often difficult to execute. It is easy enough to steal a little pipe from Chardin and hide it under the cushion of Vermeer’s Lacemaker; on the other hand, it seems to me nearly impossible to add or subtract anything in certain of Cézanne’s still lives. I think particularly of those apples once unveiled at the Orangerie (at the back of the large oval room, to the left of the door): a certain barrier of potential hangs around that work, preventing one from penetrating it to modify anything. If it were not a joke to speak of the “thing itself,” it would be there that one should go looking for it.

So my days at Dora passed for me, amid interminable inspections in the snow and cold winds of winter. Well versed now in my game, I hardly had any more need for these painters’ canvases to create my universe of forms and colors. Some weeks before the Liberation, I had even recovered enough internal elasticity to indulge in one of my old vices: mental painting.

I am, in fact, the author of a number of paintings that I have had to content myself with imagining, for want of the skills to paint them. (At my birth the fairies endowed me with a considerable manual clumsiness.) My specialty is intoxicating landscapes and frightening visages; on the other hand, I am not very successful at still life, and would prefer not to discuss my attempts at genre painting.

I devote myself most ­readily to this kind of exercise at night. Unfortunately, my paintings generally last only a few minutes, sometimes just seconds. In terms of radioactivity, their periods can be described as falling between those of thorium A (0.14 seconds) and radium C (3 minutes). Everything dissolves rapidly, like the patterns of raindrops on a window, and my authentic masterworks are quick to melt as Camembert. Most often, I make a discouraged effort to lose interest in these liquid creations and think of other things. Other times they catch me up; I labor to reconstruct them and use the disintegrating debris of one painting to hastily make another, which will not last long either.

Transported by my impulses, sometimes I manage to go further and conceive, in my sharpest moments, singular tableaux of a barely human character, whose sense and technique belong to those enchanted domains our mathematical intelligence has only begun to fathom. I dream of frescoes that encompass the poles of infinity, of others whose lines are functions without derivatives; of still others, multivalent, bearing a complexity unimaginable without a Riemann surface; of thousands of other harmless charms…


I have spoken only of painting so as not to weigh down this article with too many disparate recollections.

I will add, however, that these exercises were often tied to musical and literary activities of comparable intensity. Where are you, memories of Bach’s Passacaglia as played during a particularly harrowing disinfection, of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet with its silvery coils intertwined with the repugnant themes of dysentery, of Beethoven’s Quartet XI grumbling in rebellion the day after a series of especially spectacular hangings, and of all those angelic visitations by the poets—Shelley, Rimbaud, or Éluard—who called most insistently at the moment of greatest hunger? 


The views or opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily imply the approval of or endorsement by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

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