Art Criticism

After Auschwitz
Responses to the Holocaust

Christian Boltanski Altar to the Chajes High School (Autel Chases), 1987
Christian Boltanski
Altar to the Chajes High School (Autel Chases), 1987

Theodor Adorno, the philosopher and musicologist, famously stated that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” For how can we do other than face such an abyss with silence when words and images are all in danger of ending as morbid, bathetic clichés? How can art stand against the facts of history? As the Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner, Elie Wiesel’s irresolvable paradox puts it, “how is one to speak of it? How is one not to speak of it?” And yet is not the very act of making art – particularly by those who did so in the camps, in secret and without materials thus further endangering their lives – a liberating action of free will and resistance? For to make art – then or today – is to hold to a future, to believe that the permanent state of the human condition is not the dark void but a desire to reach towards the light.

By making art, by ‘speaking of it’, as opposed to being silenced either by horror or indifference, the Holocaust does not become a dusty footnote in the annals of history, ossified in images that have become blunted by over use, a unique point fixed in time. It is through the challenge of finding a meaningful response that our ethical and political sensibilities are constantly renegotiated and re-evaluated, not only in the light of Europe’s darkest decade but in the context of current political events to which we, in the West, would all too easily turn a pragmatic blind eye. It is to acknowledge that the Holocaust was not just a ‘one-off’, an aberration of history, but an act on the spectrum of human activity.

Monica Bohm-Duchen, the curator of After Auschwitz: Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art, considered several hundred works from artists of different geographical, cultural and religious backgrounds for this exhibition, some of whom were not even born until after the war. Her intention was to avoid what she calls “a kind of Holocaust kitsch”: an over reliance on striped uniforms, barbed wire, and skeletal figures that can have an alienating effect on the viewer and can, all too easily, become an easy short-hand to be filed and forgotten on the library shelves of history.

Magdalena Abakanowicz Seated Figures, 1990-94
Magdalena Abakanowicz, Seated Figures, 1990-94

The work in this exhibition is wide ranging. Yet all the artists share a desire, an obsession even, to make sense of that which it is almost impossible to understand. Some, like Magdalena Abakanowicz, born in Poland to an aristocratic Catholic family, witnessed Nazi atrocities firsthand. Her subsequent life under the Communists led her to speak of the vulnerability and dehumanisation of the victims of all totalitarian oppression. Her seated, larger-than-life figures – faceless, limbless, and anonymous – sit, their backs curved towards us, in silent protest, dignified by their suffering. As with Shirley Samberg’s work, the body becomes an image not only of terrible physical endurance, but of mental torment. Samberg’s abstracted human forms, bandaged in sacking, are filled with a sense of menace and Brechtian despair. As in Mother Courage we are presented with casualties of war who are both universal and forever with us.

Fabio Mauri Wailing Wall
Fabio Mauri, Wailing Wall

Both Christian Boltanski and Fabio Mauri are installation artists of international renown. For Boltanski – French, of Catholic/Jewish parentage – memory has long been his subject. His rusty tins boxes, trailing wires, electric lights and photographs – enlarged, blurred images of four student graduates from the Viennese-Jewish high school in 1931 – create a poignant shrine to these lost children. Fabio Mauri works in a similar vein using everyday objects that resonate with loss and which are all the more poignant for the implied absence of their previous owners. His Wailing Wall, constructed of suitcases, alludes not only to the piles of luggage collected with Teutonic precision at Auschwitz but also to the wall in Jerusalem. The rolled canvas bags are references to the practice of placing prayer scrolls between its stones, whilst the coil of ivy suggests a tentative symbol of hope and renewal.

Daisy Brand, born in Czechoslovakia in 1929, survived no fewer than seven camps, including Auschwitz. Working as a potter in the USA she makes small scale ceramics that juxtapose skill and subject matter. Recurrent, yet highly restrained motifs of railway tracks, gateways and corridors, embellished with symbolic scrolls refer both to the inmates’ striped uniforms and the Old Testament Scrolls of Law.

John Goto Rembrandt in Terezin
John Goto, Rembrandt in Terezin

Melvin Charney provocatively explores the Nazi death camps as examples of modern architecture. Better if they think they are going to a farm … is a suggested reconstruction of the notorious gateway at Auschwitz-Birkenau, which he proposed to build for the 1981 Kassel Documenta, only for it to be rejected. Another work draws ironic parallels between the architecture of Auschwitz and the Temple of Jerusalem. The lack of human presence builds, in these Piranesi-like structures, towards the sense of nightmare.

John Goto, born in Manchester in 1949, is an artist who takes images from Eastern Europe to explore forgotten interstices of history and their relevance to the present. His photo montage Rembrandt in Terezin illustrates the problematic relationship between barbarism and culture, referring to the Nazi practice of forcing the artist inmates of Terezin to paint copies of old masters. Deborah Davidson, born after the war in the USA, is a book artist. Her pages of handmade paper, each linked to the next by a thread and hung from the ceiling in five ‘vertical’ chapters, explore both her shattered family past and create a memorial to the Jews of Turin, including her mother and great-grandmother who both perished. The fragmented text serves to remind us of the orgies of Nazi book burning and gives expression to these lost voices and the power of the word.

Shimon Attie, Almstradtstrasse 43 (1930), 1991
Shimon Attie, Almstradtstrasse 43 (1930), 1991

Shimon Attie, born in the USA in 1957, now lives in Berlin. His photographs, archive material of pre-war German Jewish street life slide-projected onto the very buildings in present day Berlin where they were originally taken, return the ghosts of the murdered to reclaim their lost homes. Two other photographers who deal with the subject in very different ways are Henning Langenheim, a German, born in 1950, and fellow compatriot, Susanna Pieratzki, who was born in 1965. Langenheim set out to ‘document’ with total ‘objectivity’ as many sites of Nazi atrocities as possible. It is the apparent ordinariness of these places that is shocking. Rendered anodyne by the passing of time and the need to be sanitised for tourist consumption, his cool black and white image of a grounds man mowing the grass in shirt sleeves with a fly-mow beside the rails tracks at Dachau, is chilling. Susanna Pieratzki’s response is more personal. The daughter of two Holocaust survivors, her black and white series entitled Parents is searing in both its restraint and intimacy. Using symbolic props such as two small shoes (her own) placed on her father’s head photographed in profile, and a picture of him in ordinary striped pyjamas (the association with camp uniform is unavoidable) set beside eight empty wire hangers representing his eight lost siblings, we are reminded of how the effects of the Holocaust reverberate through the generations.

Lean Live, born in Russian in 1952 and now living between Italy and Israel, also evokes childhood images as synonyms for loss. Toys – a horse and a ball – simple artefacts from a different age carefully crafted out of paper pulp, allude to the loss of innocence. Her reference to Ariadne and the Minator employs the labyrinth as a metaphor for the unconscious, locating it as the site of repressed and painful memories. The universality of these objects reminds us that displacement and tragedy are no respecters of history. Nancy Spero, an American born in 1926, responds to the Holocaust by foregrounding the victimisation of women. Printed on sacking is the savage poem by Brecht Ballad of Marie Sanders, the Jews’ Whore, a reference to a woman tortured for her relationship with a Jew. The link between violence and pornography is implied by the bound and naked woman printed beside the poem, which echoes a photograph found in the pocket of an SS officer.

Kitty Klaidman, Hidden Memories: Attic in Sastin, 1991 and The Crawl Space, 1991
Kitty Klaidman, Hidden Memories: Attic in Sastin, 1991 and The Crawl Space, 1991

Although much of this work is made up of conceptual installations that rely on metaphor rather than on direct representation, there are several painters in the exhibition. A non-Jew, Zoran Music, was incarcerated in Dacha for his resistance activities and managed to save two thousand drawings from that period. Recently he has returned to his obsession with “the tremendous and tragic beauty” of the piles of dead. His expressionistic works are filled with an unresolved tension between beauty and horror. Meanwhile Natan Nuchi, born in Israel and the son of a Holocaust survivor, isolates single figures of camp victims, setting their white skeletal bodies against a darkened backdrop so they seem to emerge from the surface like X-rays. Mick Rooney, born in Britain in 1944, is a non-Jewish artist whose awareness of the Holocaust dates back to his exposure as a boy to the shocking newsreels of the camps and his readings of Primo Levi. Spatially claustrophobic, his work invites the viewer to fill out unstated narratives. Sally Heywood, one of the youngest artists included, born in Britain in 1964, now lives and works in Berlin. The Burning has its roots in a visionary experience when she saw a glow emanating from a building she later learnt had been one of the largest synagogues in the city. For Kitty Klaidman, a child-survivor, it was necessary for several decades to pass before she felt able to return to the storeroom in Slovakia where she’d been kept hidden by a local peasant. Her painting shows the attic space above the storeroom where the flood of light acts both as a symbol of hope and a reminder of imprisonment. Although not part of the Festival Hall exhibition, Kita’s painting, which was included in the touring show, is also pre-occupied with what it means to be Jewish in a post-Holocaust world. His Passion makes the link, as other artists have done, between the persecution of the Jews and the crucifixion.

One of the most poignant pieces in the show is by Ellen Rothenberg, born in the USA in 1949. The Combing Shawl refers to one of the few personal objects of Anne Frank’s to survive – a cape placed by women over their clothes, to protect them whilst combing their hair. The lush cascading locks are made of strips of vellum onto which have been printed the unexpurgated text of her diaries. Around these tresses lie piles of cast metal combs. The collision of images is unbearably arresting. Not only are we reminded of a girl’s youthful ‘crowning glory’, but also of how women in the camps were forced to have their heads shaved, their shorn hair afterwards being sent to Germany to make wigs. There is an uncomfortable reminder of the link between sadism and sex, as well as a reference to archetypes such as Rapunzal, and the golden-haired Margarete and the ashen hair of Shulamith in Paul Celan’s Death Fugue, who were an inspiration to the German artist Kiefer. Anne Frank’s words defiantly transcend and defeat history as they tumble in a heap onto the floor demanding to be read.

Ellen Rothenberg, Anne Frank Project: A Probability: Combing Shawl, 1994
Ellen Rothenberg, Anne Frank Project: A Probability: Combing Shawl, 1994

So we are forced back to the question of how to speak of the Holocaust. There is no absolute answer. Perhaps, to borrow the words of the poet Wilfred Owen, when referring to that other war that was supposed to end all wars, “the poetry is” quite simply “in the pity.” What is important is that the apparently unsayable continues to find expression. For such exhibitions are testimonies of remembrance. It can only be hoped that the touring show is accorded more respect than that at the South Bank. That Fabio Mauri’s Wailing Wall should have been placed only feet away from the FM jazz band performing to disinterested lunch-time office workers and commuters snatching a quick drink is an unfortunate juxtaposition. Yet, perhaps, there’s a chilling irony, pointed out by an anonymous contributor in the comments book that: “no doubt they drank and danced as the Jews were being herded to Auschwitz.”

After Auschwitz Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art at the Festival Hall London from Feb to April 1995

Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 1995

Image: 1 © Christian Boltanski. Gift of Peter and Shawn Leibowitz, New York, to American Friends of the Israel Museum In memory of Charles and Rosalind Leibowitz and Leila Sharenow
Image 2: © Magdalena Abakanowicz
Image 3: © Fabio Mauri. Courtesy of Associazione per l’Arte Fabio Mauri, Rome
Image 4: © John Goto. Courtesy of Derby Museum and Art Gallery
Image 5: © Shimon Attie. Courtesy of MOMA
Image 6: © Kitty Klaidman
Image 7: © Ellen Rothenberg

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