[a full text essay from the exhibition catalog]

WITNESS AND LEGACY

 

The Golgotha of modern mankind is Auschwitz. The cross, the Roman gallows, was replaced by the gas chamber.

                                                                                -Ignasz Maybaum

 

All is not vanity, all is horror.

                                                                                -Rico LeBrun

 

Why this determination to show "everything" in pictures? A word, a glance, silence itself communicates more and better... the Holocaust is not a subject like all others. It imposes certain limits.1

                                                                                 -Elie Wiesel

 

he Holocaust is a subject that on the surface seems to defy artistic representation. The dehumanization, humiliation and mass murder of European Jewry by the Nazis was an event of unparalleled proportions. Other groups such as Romani and Sinti peoples (Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, political prisoners and opponents to the Nazi regime became part of the world of the concentration and death camps. However, in the diabolical world of Nazi race theory, only the Jews and most of the Gypsies were chosen for genocide.2

Art had a lot to do with the Nazi regime and has a logical relationship with the Holocaust, despite the aesthetic and ethical problems that are raised for artists in the aftermath of such horror. Hitler himself aspired to become an artist but failed admission to art school. Mein Kampf, Hitler's 1923 plan for himself and the world, denounced modernism, abstract and Dadaist art as an affront to civilization. Hitler's artistic tastes can be judged by his favorite work of art, a realistic, military World War I painting by Elk Eber, The Last Hand Grenade.

Six hundred works of art representing such heroic themes were hung for the Grosse Deutsche Kunstausstellung (Great German Art Exhibition), which opened in Munich on July 18,1937. A day later, the first of many "degenerate" (Entartete Kunst) art shows was opened just across the from the Great German Art Exhibition. These shows, which may have drawn the largest crowds in museum history, juxtaposed "degenerate" art, "influenced by the Jews," to the Aryan ideal as expressed in painting and sculpture. Many important avant­garde works from the Weimar period were destroyed as part of the war on culture. In 1942, Hitler even had three of his own paintings seized from private collections and destroyed.3

These actions in Munich signaled the start of the Nazi attack on culture, an attack that ultimately could be considered a war against imagination. The attack on imagination was a prelude to what mutated into genocide on a massive scale. The scale of Jewish death was so great that the aftermath of World War II left the Jews and others searching for a word to describe it. The preferred Hebrew word was Shoah, meaning calamity, but having a special reference to earlier attempts to destroy the Jews during the biblical period. The word Holocaust came into use during the late 1950s. It too is laden with religious implications, as its Greek origins suggest a "burnt offering." More and more, Shoah is the preferred descriptive word among Jews, as Holocaust has been used in reference to non­Jewish victims as well as to other horrible events in the post­1945 period.4

Attempts by artists to grapple with the catastrophe that would become the Shoah began in the earliest days of the Nazi regime. It was a movement that became visible during Hitler's rise and concentration of power. Marc Chagall's White Crucifixion, a response to Kristallnacht- "The Night of Broken Glass," remains the icon among many paintings that described Jewish suffering before 1939. Chagall used the theme of a crucified "Jewish" Jesus set against vignettes of Jewish persecution that unfolded in the Nazi era. Artists like Yankel Adler and Ben Shahn produced strong responses to Jewish and other persecution during World War II. Both Jewish and non­Jewish artists who were interned in concentration camps and perished produced artistic legacies of their victimization. A strong postwar response appeared from the pallet of many important artists. Among postwar abstractionists, Rico LeBrun, a non­Jew, insisted that "the Holocaust was a subject that no serious artist could neglect...."5 The American painter Leonard Baskin, LeBrun's colleague and friend, described his approach to the subject as confronting "the mindcurdling reality of the least human of human endeavors, and in paintings and drawings of dissolution, dismemberment and incineration he is saying, all is not vanity, all is horror".    MORE >>>

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NOTES

 

1. Elie Wiesel, UArt and the Holocaust: Trivializing Memory," New York Times, Sunday, 11 June 1989, sec. 2.   GO BACK

2. The literature on the destruction of the Gypsies is complicated by negative stereotypes both before and after World War II, lack of literary tradition among the Romani and Sinti peoples, absence of significant numbers of both memoirs and scholarly books and few representative artists. The only Gypsy artist who has been exhibited recently is Karl Stojko, who survived Auschwitz and lives in Austria.   GO BACK

3. Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), 11.   GO BACK

4. James T. Young, Writing and Rewriting the Holocaust (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988), 96­97.   GO BACK

5. Leonard Baskin, Iconotogia (London: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1988), 22.   GO BACK


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