WITNESS AND LEGACY   continued

 

n the 1960s the subject of the Holocaust was not avoided, but appeared infrequently in art, except in the realm of building public memorials, principally at the sites of destruction in Europe. Artists responded very much like survivors themselves who decided against talking about the event. During the 1970s and 1980s, a new generation of artists emerged who, with a sensitivity toward the subject, attempted to grapple with the difficulties of art after such a monstrous period of destruction. There can be many conundrums and taboos. One is when, as Elie Wiesel has said, "merchants of images and the brokers of language would set themselves up to speak for the victims." 7  Another was described by Frank Rich when he noted that the numerous Holocaust memorials in Europe and the United States share one common trait: impermanence.8  Raul Hilberg has gone even further and has described much of the memorial architecture as "kitsch" or "done without taste, without awareness." 9

Despite such conditions, especially the issue of artists simply trying to "reproduce" a memory of an event they did not experience and competition with the archival photographic record, the quest for a visual language and a means to convey memory continues. Like early Christian artists who tried to imagine the Crucifixion of Jesus, contemporary artists are trying to artistically convey the horror and memory of the Holocaust.

The quest, in a certain sense, is for a new language with new symbols and new metaphors. Primo Levi understood this well, when writing about his experiences he said: "Daily language is for the description of daily experience, but here is another world, here one would need a language 'of the other world.'"10

It is also a form of memory that treads on sacred soil: "In the Jewish tradition, death is a private, intimate matter, and we are forbidden to transform it into a spectacle. If that is true for an individual, it is six million times more true for one of the largest communities of the dead in history.."11

The Holocaust, as Witness and Legacy tries to demonstrate, need not necessarily produce a type of artistic response connected with horror. Horror is a familiar subject in art. Medieval and Renaissance artists portrayed the grim face of the Black Death and a landscape of horror caused by war. Grunewald's Isenheim Altarpiece, a masterpiece of the Northern Renaissance, has been referred to by many artists as "a Holocaust work of art," in the way it depicts the horror of the Crucifixion of Jesus. Goya depicted massacres of civilians and atrocities of war. World War I provided an impetus for artists to become involved in burning political questions. George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Emst, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso, to name a few, made incomparable political statements and reflected on the violence of the century in many of their works. Picasso's Guernica, with its specific reference to the civil war in Spain, later became a metaphor for the entire century's violence.

The contemporary world's exceptional focus on politics and rights for minorities, with the lurking fear of brutalization close to the surface, has produced a substantial number of exhibitions that deal with subjects such as feminism, AIDS, homosexuality, black consciousness and the new specter of genocide as seen in Bosnia. Installation art has served as a particularly responsive bridge between the artistic community and political issues. These shows, however, may not solve the question of permanence.

Permanence is part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which opened in Washington, D.C., in April 1993. Here the architect, James T. Freed, created a major interior space dedicated to telling the story of the Holocaust, a space where art plays a role. Outside the building is Joel Shapiro's abstract bronze sculpture Loss and Regeneration, suggesting a house turned upside down. Ellsworth Kelly's white on white Memorial installation creates a silent space between scenes of horror for the museum visitor. Sol LeWitt's Consequence is a large work applied directly to the museum walls with a theme of variations on black and colored squares. Richard Serra's Gravity, a 10­inch­thick, 10­footsquare standing slab of Cor­ten steel, is an interior sculpture in the Hall of Witnesses.

These works have all received mixed reviews. They are all abstract and according to Paul Richard, art critic for the Washington Post, were "unnecessary, distorted and misguided,"12 as they could suggest violence anywhere. Ken Johnson, writing in Art in America, described the museum's approach to art as "so much less daring," especially given the cutting­edge work by artists like Robert Morris, Christian Boltanski, Jonathan Borofsky, Anselm Kiefer, Sue Coe and others.13 The debate will continue.

Witness and Legacy examines a spectrum of Holocaust­related art produced by some American artists during the last twenty years.14 The mediums include painting, sculpture, photography, graphic design, needlepoint and multimedia installation art. The wide variety of work that has been produced is exceptional in scope, but untested in thematic presentation.

In addition to division by medium, Witness and Legacy deals with what might be called "different generations" of the Holocaust-artists from different backgrounds who bring to the subject their unique perspectives because of their relationship to the event.

One­third of the artists represented are Holocaust survivors themselves who have worked as professional artists. Children of survivors, sometimes called "the second generation," make up the second group. The third group are artists not directly connected with the Holocaust who have developed a sensitivity toward the subject because of their humanitarianism and empathy and attempt to understand the event and convey it to others through art.

Survivors all share a special vision of having been victims during the Holocaust. The other artists cannot claim the same vision. Survivors possess memories that other artists can comprehend only in indirect ways. In some respect, the only "authentic" Holocaust art may be the art of survivors. Artists such as Judith Goldstein, Samuel Bak, Kitty Klaidman and Netty Vanderpol experienced the terror of the ghettos and the death camps. Their art is somewhere between visual memoir and metaphoric memory.

Sometimes art is created as a coping mechanism. Questions of aesthetics may exist, creating a tension between memory and witnessing versus a purely artistic approach to the subject. Edith Altman, Gabrielle Rossmer and Gerda Meyer­Bernstein fall into a category between survivors and second­generation artists. Coming to the United States as children just before the war, they escaped extended ghettoization and later horrors, but carry with them some of the burdens of survivors and certainly part of the trauma of their parents' victimization and near destruction.

For many members of the second generation, art and literature are mediums for expressing their special relationship to the Holocaust and to their parents. The second generation does not have a direct memory of ghettos and death camps. But they may carry the memory and burdens of their parents' trauma, conveyed directly or indirectly. After the camps were liberated, many survivors made new lives for themselves in Israel, Western Europe or the United States. Some bore no outward traces of their dehumanization. Others suffered a great deal in a way that was conveyed directly or indirectly to their children. Some things could not disappear: numbers tattooed on parents' forearms, screams in the night, the absence of grandparents, uncles, aunts and other family members and dark shadows in a family past that would not be talked about.

For the second generation, art provided an appropriate entry for questions of memory, absence, presence and identity. The visual representations of the second generation mark the continued impact of the terrible period of the Holocaust on a generation that did not directly experience it. These are children who cannot conceive of their existence without the vast imprint of the Holocaust upon it. In this exhibition, Joyce Lyon, Pier Marton, Gabrielle Rossmer, Art Spiegelman, Debbie Teicholz and Mindy Weisel are representative of this group. Their mediums of expression represent the breadth of the art: painting, photography, video, installation art and the comic strip.

Artists who were not directly involved with the Holocaust have also attempted to enter the subject. This is probably the most difficult road. The stimulus may be some knowledge about the Holocaust itself or analogies made between the Holocaust and contemporary events that demand an emotional or political response in art. Artists may be Jews or non­Jews. Rico LeBrun, a non­Jew known for his Crucifixion scenes, suggested that artists had to deal with the Holocaust. This "outsider" generation (sometimes called "empathizers") has important ethical boundaries to consider when approaching the subject. The art of this group cannot be "memory," for they did not experience the event itself. It may be an interpretation (derived from a sense of vulnerability as a Jew or artist), a historical narrative, reflections on place, absence and presence, a Proustian stimulus to a book, photograph or film, confrontation with a survivor or neo­Nazi or simply a confrontation with the impenetrability of the subject. The greater question at hand, however, may not be the Holocaust, but an attempt to penetrate the nature of man and seek light through the darkness of the late twentieth century.

In Witness and Legacy, eight artists are represented who have no direct connection with the event. Mauricio Lasansky, a native of Argentina and now professor emeritus at the University of Iowa, produced The Nazi Drawings during the mid­1960s. The thirty large works in this series made a strong impact when shown at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1967 and later at the Whitney Museum in New York. The series Kaddish represents an ongoing digression into the dignity, self­destructiveness and suffering of mankind. The title is derived from the Jewish prayer for the dead, the text of which is an affirmation of God.

Larry Rivers has done occasional paintings as responses to reading Primo Levi and seeing Nazi photographs of Jews awaiting selection at Auschwitz­Birkenau. Several paintings were done as commissions. The Holocaust is not a major part of Rivers' oeuvre. The Holocaust well fits Rivers' larger themes that have dealt with political questions of other groups and how memory is made and revised.

Jerome Witkin is an American­born Jewish artist whose realistic paintings have increasingly dealt with the Holocaust. Among his recent large and often frightening works are Hitler as an Usher, The Butcher's Helper, and the painting featured in this show, The Beating Station, Berlin, 1933. Witkin uses historical information to produce narrative works that focus, with their metaphoric realism, on the brutality of Nazism. This violence was not invisible, as the beatings and the rape of a Jewish woman on the streets of Berlin suggest. Witkin implicitly brings the viewer to contemplate religious issues connected with the Holocaust, as the title, bearing within it the word "station," can refer to a deportation point and the stations of the cross in the Passion of Jesus.

Arnold Trachtman is a Boston­born artist who grew up during World War II and has strong memories of American anti­Semitism. Utilizing a disjointed technique that may be compared with montage in filmmaking, Trachtman depicts historical events, such as Neville Chamberlain's "Peace in Our Time" speech after the October 1938 Munich Agreement, and its consequences- the production of mounds of bodies and material debris from the victims. Trachtman has also produced pop­art­like paintings about the complicity of German industry in building the death camps and the use of slave labor as the basis for their profits.

Pearl Hirshfield is a Chicago­born installation artist whose life has been heavily involved in political and social issues and whose art reflects a necessity of involvement. Her installations have dealt with far­ranging subjects such as McCarthyism, feminist issues, abortion rights, police brutality, the Ku Klux Klan and cultural differences. She often opts for theatrical presentations in installations, utilizing disparate elements such as mirrors, sound systems, water fountains and texts of diaries recorded on audio tape. Her installation in this show, Shadows of Auschwitz, is an environment of memory with negative and positive spaces that recreate part of the road to death at Auschwitz. In this provocative work, viewers become victims as actual Auschwitz camp numbers reflect on their own images.

Jeffrey Wolin, a professor at Indiana University, has developed a unique photographic approach to the Holocaust. Wolin recently completed a Guggenheim Fellowship that involved photographing and videotaping accounts of Holocaust survivors. His photographs show survivors as they look today, for the most part in the safe and apparently "normal" physical environments of their homes or workplaces. However, the menacing past experiences, traumas and suffering, plus the persistence of memory, is imposed on the photograph by a textual narration of the subject's history. The stories are intimate and recall the absolute horror of the subjects' humiliation, near destruction and survival.

Marlene Miller and Shirley Samberg provide two varying approaches to Holocaust­related sculpture. Miller, a professor at Bucks County Community College outside of Philadelphia, creates sculpture from papier­mache and other materials that is reminiscent of medieval tableaux. Miller worked in puppet theaters, and the fascination about such creativity provided her with an inroad to sculpture about the Holocaust. In addition, while seeing Claude Lanzmann's documentary film Shoah, she was struck by testimony that indicated that the SS guards forced inmates to call the dead bodies figuren or "puppets." One of her large sculptures (not in this show) depicts three crucified figures, two men and a woman, with Arbeit Macht Frei (Work Makes You Free) written in place of the traditional INRI of Crucifixion scenes. Schlafwagen: Who Will Say Kaddish For Them? is a meditation on the absence of honor for the dead during the Holocaust and a sardonic interpretation of a sleeping car from the German schlafwagen. This sculptural piece is also loaded with the debris produced by the death camps: shoes, photographs, religious objects and aspects of bodies themselves. Miller's creations are suggestive of the "plastic" works of the Polish artist and theater producer Jozef Szajna, who, as an Auschwitz survivor himself, sees civilization constantly trying to forget the meaning of Arbeit Macht Frei, the cruel joke that greeted inmates as they arrived at the death camps.

Shirley Samberg's works can be read with a Holocaust context, but their metaphorical connections are more tenuous. Using glue, paint, sand, stucco and dirt on wet burlap, Samberg's Wrappings represent groupings of survivors from any type of disaster. Devoid of both faces and normal limbs, they appear as specters. Yet at the same time, they convey a sense of tragedy that is all too familiar to the contemporary world. The human form with absence of face and hands also conforms to limitations imposed on traditional Jewish and Islamic art from the commandment against false idols.

Robert Barancik and Susan Erony take two radically different approaches to the Holocaust theme. Barancik is a Philadelphia graphic artist who is deeply American in his Jewish identity and was removed from the Holocaust. In 1990 Barancik attended an artists' retreat in Vermont that sensitized him to a more open discussion of the subject. Since then, he has produced two small books of folded messages entitled Kvitl Shoah. Each work contains six original cards that are made as collages and hand­painted in colorful gouache. The inner spaces of each card contain meditations about the Holocaust. These works derive a great amount of their content from biblical imagery, both Jewish and Christian. But the main focus is Jewish absence and the deep intergenerational effect on all Jews as potential victims: "Jewish bones leach unseen into the hard old world soil. Crematoria smoke vanishes into the blue lungs of empty sky...." reads one of the messages.

Erony, living in Boston, is involved in a large project about the Holocaust based on her sense of responsibility as a Jewish artist to retell the story visually. Her specific focus is the technological aspects of modern barbarism, dehumanization and statements against genocide and its recent variant, "ethnic cleansing." Additional works in the series deal with destroyed Jewish communities-Lodz, Prague and others. Some of the materials are photographic, while others are in some respects relics of the Jews themselves. Erony's visit to Lodz, Poland, in 1989 came after a fire at the only synagogue there. Burned prayer books were being thrown away. She took them and integrated the charred remains into several works as memorials to the victims. Erony is sensitive to certain limits of politically oriented art. The work must always be art and avoid trivialization.

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NOTES

7. Wiesel, "Art and the Holocaust."   GO BACK

8. Frank Rich, "The Holocaust Boom," New York Times, 7 April 1994, A15. GO BACK

9. Raul Hilberg, "Conscience from Burlington," Hadassah Magazine, August/September 1991, 23.  GO BACK

10. Primo Levi as quoted in Michael Kimmelman, "Horror Unforgotten: The Politics of Memory," New York Times, Friday, 11 March 1994, B1.    GO BACK

11. Wiesel, "Art and the Holocaust."    GO BACK

12. Paul Richard, "Obscene Pleasure: Art Among the Corpses," Washington Post, Sunday, 18 April 1993, G6.    GO BACK

13. Ken Johnson, "Art and Memory," Art in America, November 1993, 98.   GO BACK

14. For purposes of the exhibition, "American" was defined as artists currently living and working in the United States.   GO BACK

 
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