Holocaust Art (1933-1945)
Examples of Holocast Art
he Warsaw Ghetto Memorial (1948)
The term "Holocaust art" describes the different types of art associated with the German campaign of genocide perpetrated against the Jews of Europe - a campaign known as the "holocaust", or "Shoah" - in which some six million Jews were murdered by Nazi security forces and their collaborators, during the period 1933-45. Holocaust art may be divided into three basic categories. (1) Propaganda imagery used by the German authorities to promote their ideology and prepare the public to accept and support their genocidal activities. (2) Images (mostly drawings) that record the individual experiences of victims of - or witnesses to - the holocaust. (3) Post-war art created at a later date in remembrance of the Holocaust as a general event, rather than to remember an individual experience. Typically this type of art consists either of official memorials (mostly sculpture), associated with specific places (concentration camps, city ghettos or places of deportation) or events (like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising); or works by individual artists, such as "The Holocaust" (1983, Legion of Honor Park, San Francisco) a white-painted bronze sculpture by George Segal.
During the period 1933-1945, but most intensely between 1941 and 1944, Nazi forces rounded up, deported and gassed (or worked to death) some 4 million Jews. Of these, roughly 1.7 million were murdered in three "death camps" - Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, while 2.3 million were killed in other camps in Poland and Germany, notably Auschwitz. In addition, a further 2 million Jews were shot by Einsatzgruppen (mobile groups of German security police) on Soviet soil. This brings the Holocaust death total to about 6 million Jewish men, women and children - or approximately two-thirds of all Jews, who had resided in Europe before the war. Between 100,000 and 500,000 Nazis and their collaborators participated directly in the planning and execution of the Holocaust.
Under Joseph Goebbels, German propaganda
imagery, appeared in poster art, films
and cartoons, as well as more conventional sculpture and paintings. Magazines
like Der Sturmer also carried a range of anti-semitic drawings,
showing the (supposed) physical deformities of Jews. Photography
and film were also important examples of Nazi art,
notably the powerful propagandist films of Leni
Riefenstahl (1902-2003). Particularly infamous was the 1940 documentary-style
film "The Eternal Jew" (Der ewige Jude) directed by Fritz
Hippler. Even children were not exempt. Illustrations
were produced for Elementary school books to show German schoolchildren
that they were the Aryan master race, while the Jews were inferior subhumans.
In short, all types of artistic media were used to promote Nazi ideology,
and to prepare the German nation to reject and pauperize the Jews - an
essential first step in the holocaust to come. See also: Degenerate
Art (Entartete Kunst) and totalitarianist Socialist
As the Nazi campaign of genocide evolved, many scenes from the ghettos and the concentration camps were recorded by victims and witnesses - mainly in the form of illicit sketchings, or very rarely photographs. But these 'artists' were not interested in aesthetics or in creating a work of art, their principal aim was to record what happened. Mostly so that the perpetrators might be brought to justice. Examples of this type of holocaust art include: "Along the Barbed Wire" (1943-44, pencil drawing) by Boris Taslitzky, created at Buchenwald concentration camp; "Treblianca" (1943, pencil, ink and wash drawing) by Lea Grundig; "Lorry Fatigue Party" (1944, pen and ink drawing) by Odd Nansen, made at Sachsenhausen concentration camp; "Lodging in the Attic" (1943-44, expressionist ink and wash drawing) by Bedrich Fritta, made at Theresienstadt concentration camp; "The Cafe" (1944, pen and ink and wash drawing) by Leo Haas, made at Terezin-Theresienstadt concentration camp; "Dachau" (1945, bistre) by Zoran Music at Dachau concentration camp; the "Kurt Franz Album" of documentary photography compiled by a guard at Treblinka; "Buchenwald" (1945, photo) by Life photo-journalist Margaret Bourke-White (1904-71) at Buchenwald.
After the war, as a monument and tribute to the suffering of holocaust victims, a number of memorials - mostly stone sculptures - were erected at former concentration camps across Europe, including: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Flossenburg, Majdanek, Mauthausen, Natzweiler, Neuengamme, Plaszow, Ravensbruck, Sachsenhausen, Sobibor, Treblinka and others. Two examples include: The Treblinka Memorial (195864) designed by Franciszek Duszenko and Adam Haupt; and The Majdanek Memorial (1969) by Wiktor Tolkin (1922-2013) - also noted for his memorials at the camps of Pawiak and Stutthof. Similar artistic monuments were created in numerous towns and cities to commemorate specific events, such as deportations, mass-executions and the like. Two examples include: The Warsaw Ghetto Memorial (1948) designed by Polish sculptor Natan Rappaport; and The Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial (2000) in Vienna, also called the "Nameless Library", by British artist Rachel Whiteread.
A second category of post-war holocaust art consists of artists reactions to the genocide. This includes all types of creative expression, such as: assemblage, drawing, collage, graphics, installation art, painting, metalwork, sculpture, lithography and stained glass art, to name but a few. Examples include: "The Charnel House" (1945, oil and charcoal on canvas) by Pablo Picasso; "Sobibor 1987: Mass Grave" (black and white photograph from the Memorials series) by Henning Langenheim; "Black Form" (1989, abstract sculpture) by Sol LeWitt; "Western or Wailing Wall" (1993, assemblage of leather suitcases) by Fabio Mauri; "Rembrandt in Terezin" (1983-88, oil paint on photograph) by John Goto.
In addition, it is worth noting that the moral impact and significance of the Shoah had a major effect on the evolution of post-war painting and sculpture. In particular, artists took refuge in abstract art since representational imagery was seen as valueless in the wake of Treblinka and Auschwitz. Thus the influential idiom of abstract expressionism was born in New York in the late 1940s.
Modern artists face a number of questions when confronting the Shoah, most of which remain unresolved. For example:
Q. Is holocaust art superfluous?
Q. Does an artist need to make the content
of the holocaust artwork extra brutal in order to drive the facts home
to the spectator?
Q. Does holocaust art include or exclude
Q. Who has jurisdiction or control over
Art and the Holocaust are concepts that seem to be mutually exclusive; they belong to two entirely different spheres which appear to be separated by an unbridgeable gap. Art has aesthetic rules and strives for beauty and personal expression. It thus seems powerless before the horror and cruelty of the Holocaust in which six million people were slaughtered in ways that can only arouse feelings of disgust and revulsion. Theoreticians have questioned whether it is worthwhile attempting to bridge this chasm: do not the documentary photographs that were taken at the time fulfil the need for visual testimony? Will the artist be able to compete with these black-and-white images which exert such a powerful impact on the spectator? Should the artist attempt to evoke the sense of deep shock that a spectator feels before a pile of skeletal corpses from Buchenwald and Dachau?
Thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Theodor W. Adorno came to the conclusion that it is neither possible nor warranted for them to do so. Sartre stated that feelings of beauty and horror are mutually exclusive. For if an artist should succeed in turning mutilated corpses into something beautiful, he would betray the anger or grief of man. Adorno stressed that in art, the clear dividing line between executioner and victim can be inadvertently fudged. Moreover, some spectators might even derive pleasure from the sadism portrayed in holocaust imagery.
Despite these admitted dangers, artists were not deterred. Such theories simply did not take into account the creative urge that overrides all limitations, physical, moral or aesthetic. Art, for example, was even created inside the concentration camps despite official prohibition and the absence of materials. Although the artists were aware that such activity endangered their lives, the creative urge was stronger than the fear of death. The main purpose of this art was to provide documentary evidence that would bear witness before the world to the inhuman acts of the Nazis and the inhuman situation in which the inmates lived and died. The artists wished to tear down the impenetrable curtain with which the Nazis cloaked both the camps and the processes of extermination of which, in fact, virtually no photographs have survived. For this reason, no matter how they had been accustomed to painting earlier, now they usually adopted a realistic style that would document conditions as a camera would have done. Karol Konieczny's assertion that he wanted the young "to know how it was, so that they understand, and will not allow such conditions to ever be repeated in the future", is one that would be stated by many artists, both inside and outside the camps, and constitutes one of the main goals of non-inmate art that deals with the Holocaust. By stirring the conscience of the world and keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive, artists wished to make sure that such a monstrous event would never happen again.
Aside from the inmates, other groups of artists scarred by the Holocaust also created art to document their experiences. Refugees who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and during the war tried through their art to open the eyes of the inhabitants of the host countries to the dreadful conditions current in Germany and Occupied Europe and to incite them to action to save those still caught in the Nazi web. Their sense of impotence to rescue others, and the lack of understanding they encountered in the spectators, frustrated and embittered them, reinforced their feelings of guilt that by managing to escape, they had abandoned their brothers. However, unlike the inmates, they felt free to use their own styles and their own iconographies to express their message, often preferring a strong expressionism to a matter-of-fact realism in order to shock the spectators out of their complacency.
The guilt feelings of the camp survivors were similar in many ways to those of the refugees. But although they too tried to document what they had experienced, their motivation was different from that of either the camp artists or the refugees. After their release, they re-created their experiences in order to achieve catharsis: many of them obsessively reworked the same themes again and again, treating them with increasing expressionism as they progressed. Shortly after their liberation, they simply described the difficult conditions of life in the camps and ghettos. Gradually, however, they also began to express the rage and deep pain they had been repressing, which they could safely release only after their liberation: had they expressed these feelings in their camp works, the psychological spill-over of their anger or despair into their lives could have been self-destructive. Their post-war art thus became a means of freeing and purifying themselves from feelings and sights that haunted their dreams and were too difficult to bear.
Subsequently some of these artists felt that they had succeeded in freeing themselves from their bitter experiences and turned to more carefree subjects and to abstract art; but many sooner or later returned to dealing with the Holocaust because they were unable to escape the profound influence of their trauma. Some of them, such as Samuel Bak, admitted that the memory of the Holocaust had even permeated their abstract works, and that it was preferable to admit the influence than to fight it.
Other witnesses - partisans or camp liberators - also felt a strong urge to document the horrors they had seen and to arouse public anger against the perpetrators of the Holocaust. This desire was sometimes so powerful that the camp liberators felt impelled, at the very time that the scenes were being photographed and documented in newsreels, to draw the mounds of bodies and the skeletally thin, scarcely living survivors.
During the period 1944-5 artists who had no contact with the camps also became indirect witnesses of the Holocaust through the agency of newspapers, magazines and cinema newsreels which disseminated images of the horrors discovered when the camps were liberated. The Shoah had penetrated so deeply into the communications media that even a fashion journal such as Vogue contained an article with Lee Miller's photographs documenting the atrocities of Buchenwald. The impact of these photographs and films was so strong that many artists felt the need to react to them in their art. Instead of copying the photographs in a realistic manner, some of the artists adapted them to their own iconography and style, creating reactions to, and interpretations of, the Holocaust that were very different from those generated by the actual witnesses.
Such photographs and, indeed, the very concept of the Holocaust had repercussions far beyond the time-span of their original impact. Artists not personally involved in the Holocaust continued to respond to these images during the 1950s, although they often camouflaged their reactions so that their meaning would not be obvious. In the 1960s, a new surge of more open responses to the problems and images of the Holocaust was triggered by the Adolf Eichmann trial; and they continue to be created to this day. Moreover, during the present period, a second and third generation of artists have begun to react to the Holocaust, some of whom are children or grandchildren of survivors.
The recognition that the Holocaust is an event that cannot be ignored is common to artists of all these groups and generations. For many of them, the Holocaust has transcended its original meaning and has become a symbol of the tragedy of the modern world. Through their treatment of the subject, they warn of the dangers that reside in hatred, mass murder and the unbridled and immoral use of technology. It must be emphasised that the different ways in which these artists reacted to the Holocaust was also affected by their personalities, their nationalities, their social and religious affiliations, and their approaches to art, including their individual style and iconography.
In addressing the subject of the Holocaust, non-inmate artists encountered different problems from those that confronted the camp artists. Although the latter group planned their drawings, at least unconsciously, according to the aesthetic concepts they had learned before entering the camps, they saw their creations primarily as documents rather than as art. On the other hand, non-inmate artists envisaged their works primarily as art rather than as documents, and dedicated a great deal of conscious thought to aesthetic considerations. In order to communicate their messages, they had to ensure that the spectators would look at their works and not turn away in rejection, as Sartre had warned they might do. These artists had to devise tactics that would capture the attention of the spectator, force him or her to examine the work of art and thus confront the subject of the Holocaust.
Whereas some artists chose primarily stylistic means to draw the spectator into their works, others communicated their messages by other methods: they used known artistic models, such as the "Third of May 1808", by Goya, or commonly accepted images or symbols. In the course of time, these strategies came to be modified according to the different types of reaction the artists wished to elicit from the spectator. A discussion of the manner in which the depiction of a few familiar Holocaust subjects developed helps to clarify the ways in which artists solved the problems of communication with the spectator without completely breaking the aesthetic rules.
One of the most striking, but aesthetically difficult, visual images to emerge from the Holocaust was that of the skeletally thin corpses discovered scattered or in piles when the camps were liberated. These corpses were portrayed by inmates, liberators and survivors, as well as by artists who had seen them only in photographs and newsreels. This image became one of the central themes - even almost a symbol - of the Holocaust.
Witnesses tended to depict the dead in a straightforward manner as individuals rather than as mounds of corpses. For instance, during his last months of imprisonment in Dachau in 1945, Zoran Music did a series of drawings of dead bodies. Immediately after his liberation, he repeated several of them, making them more and more expressive. These drawings are thus both witness reports and attempts by the artist to achieve catharsis from the traumatic sights that hypnotised him. Music usually depicted four to six nude skeletal corpses, lying on the ground or in open coffins, with brutal realism: their genitals are exposed and their bodies tossed one on the other so that the feet of one collide with the head of the other. Most shocking of all - they sometimes seem to be still alive: they establish eye contact with the spectator, raise an arm in self-defence, or turn towards each other in conversation or aggression. Music explained: "In the last couple of months at Dachau, people were dying in droves. Every morning you noticed that this one and that one had died. I became fascinated by these heaps of bodies because they had a kind of tragic beauty. Some of them weren't quite dead, their limbs still moved and their eyes followed you round, begging for help. Then, during the night, a little snow' would fall. The heap wouldn't move again."
Both the description and the depictions
are purposely difficult to absorb, and were it not for the expressiveness
of some of Music's charcoal
drawings, their delicate lines and lack of colour and three-dimensionality,
most spectators would follow Sartre's dictum and avert their eyes. In
the same year, Pablo Picasso, inspired by photographs and possibly by
a 1944 film on the liberation of Maidanek, attempted an entirely different
solution to the problem of depicting the corpses in "The Charnel
House". Instead of showing anonymous Holocaust victims as they appeared
in the photographs, Picasso chose to concentrate specifically on the destruction
of the family unit. The father appears face down with his head on the
right and his legs on the left; his protruding ribs are stressed; and
his hands are tied behind his back and pulled up behind him almost in
the centre of the picture. The mother lies on him, her head to the left
with her hand raised to her chin; her breasts and stomach are bloated;
and her legs are on the right. The baby lies on the father, and is situated
under the mother's head; he raises his palms to catch or protect himself
from the blood that spills from her breast instead of milk. The connection
to the Holocaust is suggested through the father's figure: his arms are
tied in the manner found in photographs of torture and execution; his
body and face are emaciated; and at the right there is a hint of flames.
To complicate the decipherment of the painting's meaning, Picasso does not add common identifying signs of the concentration camp, such as the barbed-wire fence. On the contrary, he places the bodies in a narrow room, under a table which holds simple household utensils of the sort he had painted in Paris during and immediately after the Occupation, thus creating in his own mind a connection between the Shoah and his own experiences under the Nazis. However, since he uses the table as part of his strategy to involve us intellectually in the picture, Picasso leaves us free to understand its connection to the corpses as we wish. We ask ourselves why these figures are lying under the table: were they killed in a house which is going up in flames? Or does the distinction between the clean drawing of the table and the utensils and the fragmented treatment of the painted figures mean that they belong to different worlds? And what do the two worlds connote in this context? Everyone can arrive at a different explanation. The important thing is that the spectator, who may be revolted by the photographs and by Music's drawings to the point of refusing to look at them or even to think about them, will delve into the painting in an attempt to solve its puzzles, and will thus begin to cope with the Holocaust and the problems it raises.
Yet this type of treatment also raises questions: is there not a danger here that the artist is doing just what Sartre warned against, betraying the anger or grief of man for beauty? Does not the aesthetic distance Picasso created with such skill by means of semi-abstraction and the use of only black, white and grey, overly protect the spectator from the full impact of the Holocaust? Can the lessons of the Holocaust be taught in such a distanced manner, or does one need to make the confrontation more brutal to drive the facts home to the spectator? The answers to these questions depend to a great extent on the period when the picture was painted.
At the time the work was created, many people - Picasso included - had already been amply shocked by the events they had witnessed either first-hand or through photographs and newsreels. What was needed was some way of transcending the emotional trauma, of confronting the Holocaust more coolly in order to grasp the meaning of what had happened and to learn from it. Picasso's response, as Zervos relates, had been purely emotional, but in order to turn these emotions into an expressive work of art, he needed to establish a distance from the images. This was also the only means by which he could address a war-weary, overly emotionally charged public, already tiring of realistic depictions of the horrors of the war.
This last point is worth stressing: given that it is impossible to react indefinitely, even to a catastrophe, at full emotional pitch, there were additional reasons why the public began to recoil from artistic representations of the Holocaust shortly after the war. Not only did the Holocaust pose too many embarrassing questions that made people profoundly uncomfortable, but it was widely felt that the realistic or expressionistic depiction of Holocaust victims was akin to harping on old wounds. It was time, surely, to bury such memories, get on with life, and reconstruct a better world. Picasso, in a sense, anticipated this reaction: the subtlety and unemotional tone of his painting were specifically constructed to suck the spectator into the subject without his being aware of it, and thus to reach beyond his barriers and his immediate impulse to turn away. Yet later generations for whom the Holocaust was not a live and traumatic memory could - and did - miss the point of this painting. Its neutral title and aesthetic distance enabled certain art historians to dissociate "The Charnel House" from the Holocaust, and to explain that it dealt instead with war in general, or with the Spanish Civil War in particular, concepts they could more easily assimilate.
The fact that artists in the 1950s as a rule preferred not to label their works with Holocaust titles or to admit that they were even dealing with this subject, does not mean, however, that they ceased to be influenced by it. For instance, Leonard Baskin's "Dead Man" series can be said to have begun with a 1949 woodcut of a skeletally thin corpse, inspired in part by the many Holocaust photographs he had collected, but entitled "Dead Worker". Unable to use these photographs in a direct manner, Baskin sought different types of images through which he could confront his Holocaust-induced trauma, without even having to acknowledge to himself that he was doing so. He found these images in late Gothic sculpture and in the corpses of Pompeii, learning to cover the skeletal frames with soft rounded flesh and to give their faces a smiling serenity in the face of death. Only in his bronze "Dead Man" does he suggest the agony of dying: these figures appear ravaged by time, their skin rough and seemingly charred, and their arms and feet are missing. Without being aware of the context in which they were done, of Baskin's interests and personal history, the association of these works with the Holocaust can be ignored, and they can be regarded simply as generalised images of death - a notion the artist himself prefers.
In the following decades, it became clear to many artists that works such as Picasso's "The Charnel House" were not fulfilling their purpose either of forcing a confrontation with the Holocaust or of teaching its lessons, and that statues such as Baskin's Dead Men, although still responding to the Holocaust on a personal, perhaps unconscious, level, were not even attempting to pursue such aims. More importantly, by the end of the 1960s, it was obvious that the world had learnt nothing from the Holocaust: wars, massacres and even genocide proceeded as though the Nazi terror had not existed. Some artists began to envisage a more striking use of Holocaust imagery which would be calculated to shock rather than entice the spectator into contemplation.
Zoran Music, for example, after recovering from his Dachau experience, had turned to depictions of child-like peasant scenes and landscapes, and later to abstraction. Gradually, however, his works became more sombre, and even his abstract compositions contained suggestions of skulls. In the 1970s he based his series "We Are Not the Last" on his Dachau drawings, explaining both his return to them and his title. Since his present goal was no longer to document atrocity, but - from the depths of despair - to warn mankind of the future and persuade it to change its ways, Music's paintings of the 1970s do not merely repeat his Dachau drawings, but develop them in new, strongly expressive and colouristic ways.
In many of these paintings, he brings us into immediate contact with the corpses through close-ups that focus on their heads and torsos, which are usually cut off directly below the exposed genitals. These corpses, already slightly decomposed, are painted in beige with the details often picked out in a sienna reminiscent of dried blood. To reinforce the message that the Holocaust victims were not the last to die in war and genocide, Music sets the corpses against deep blue or red backgrounds, elevating them into symbols beyond the original event while still clearly evoking it. Rather than lying on the ground, as in the drawings, his corpses rise up before us, trying to communicate both with one another and with the spectator. Sometimes they kneel in prayer, calling on God to save themselves and mankind. Elsewhere the artist builds up masses of corpses, piled endlessly one on the other, so that the ground seems literally covered with them. This endless sea of figures is no longer merely an image of the Holocaust, but of Everyman as victim and of the future that awaits mankind if it does not mend its ways. For other modern artists who have depicted the Shoah in painting, see: 20th Century Painters.
As it became increasingly evident during the next decade that the lessons of the Holocaust had still not been learned, with denials in certain quarters that it had ever occurred, Robert Morris, in a series of untitled works which he painted between 1985 and 1987, decided to put all the horror back into the subject. It is important to note that the first of these works were purposely and provocatively made for the celebrated Documenta 8 exhibition - one of the Best Contemporary Art Festivals in Germany, the defined theme of which was the 'historical and social dimension of art', with the focus on its social responsibilities. Morris wrote that he wished to counter the pernicious amnesia that was becoming evident. In several of his Holocaust works, therefore, he returned to the documentary photographs of corpses found in the camps - images that he himself, as a youth, could not bear to look at - and enlarged them to almost life-size figures. He set them in frames, some of them arched to recall the shape of the crematorium ovens. To stress the sadistic brutality of the act of mass murder, Morris decorated these frames with cat-o'-nine-tail whips, machine parts, fists, penises and weapons. To heighten the already strong level of horror, he coloured the bodies with strong reds, oranges, yellows and browns to evoke flames, covered them with encaustic applied by heating the wax with a blowtorch, and burned the borders and even parts of the photographic images themselves. In this way he managed both to depict and re-enact the burning of the bodies, and to create some of the harshest images of Hell ever portrayed. In the face of a work such as this it is impossible to preserve the mood of comfortable distancing generated by Picasso. Morris arouses in the spectator an emotional experience similar to that provoked by the original contact with the corpses: he kicks us sharply in the gut with an unbearable force.
Yet at the same time Morris emphasises the aesthetic factor. His work involves an interplay of materials, colours and shapes that hypnotises the spectator even while the subject matter repels him or her. Here again questions are raised: will the spectator flee and refuse to return, as Sartre suggested? Will he return repeatedly and discover each time new facts that contribute to his understanding of the Shoah, as the artist intended? Or will he return only to derive pleasure from the sadism involved, as Adorno warned? And was the action of the artist himself in burning the photographic images not inherently sadistic? These questions are by no means easy to answer. On the one hand, the reaction of every spectator to these works is different, doubtless covering the entire gamut of sensations suggested above. On the other hand, we must judge the artist here not only by these specific works but by their context: Morris created them following a series dealing with nuclear war, and he regarded both series as warnings against a future apocalypse. Moreover, he continued to produce less violent works involving the Holocaust after finishing this series.
A comparison of the above works reveals the differences that result from the varying goals of the artists, their personalities and the dates of the work. Zoran Music worked at first as a witness during the Holocaust, attempting to record data. Picasso tried to engage the spectator on an intellectual level, taking for granted both his knowledge of the Holocaust and his need to go beyond the emotional level to understand its diverse aspects. In the 1950s, artists such as Baskin generalised the images and hid their meanings, so that an emotional gap was created between the original impetus for the work and its final expression. In the 1970s and 1980s, artists such as Music and Morris felt that this aesthetic distancing had undermined the ability of the works to function meaningfully: almost half a century later, the public had either forgotten the Holocaust or had become accustomed and therefore indifferent to its atrocities. In the belief that such an attitude could cause another Holocaust, they returned to a more expressionistic treatment of the subject, restoring emotional content to the depiction to shock the spectator into awareness.
The problems discussed so far have been primarily aesthetic, having to do with the use of style to elicit the spectator's emotional engagement or his intellectually distanced reaction. However, the artists' need to communicate with the spectator also brought about an entirely different development, based on iconography. In order to communicate one must speak an understandable language: in art, to be visually effective and not rely only on explanatory titles, one must use familiar images with accepted meanings. There were several directions in which this Holocaust iconography developed.
The easiest way to create clearcut Holocaust images was to extract them from the camp experience. Thus instead of depicting all the details of camp life and death, as an inmate would do in attempting to produce documents, artists who had not been in the camps preferred to use a standard depiction that would be readily recognisable. The representations needed to fulfil certain criteria to be easily read and have a potent effect. First, they had to encapsulate the experience into a single image which would resound meaningfully for the spectator because it was based either visually or conceptually on what he or she knew about the Holocaust. Second, these images had to be used in such a way as to arouse strong emotions but not excessive repulsion.
The image of the concentration camp became encapsulated, for example, in a depiction of an inmate behind barbed wire, with or without other relevant details, such as striped uniforms, shaven heads, barracks, watchtowers, etc. This extremely readable symbolism developed in the mid-1930s and is still current today, preserving its meaning even in the most minimalistic treatments. One of the earliest visual renderings of the idea was Peter Nikl's drawing for Simpl of 14 November 1934, which depicts the head of a man behind barbed wire, with inmates labouring under guard behind him. This drawing was done at the time of the earliest publications on the camps that the Germans had begun to construct in 1933. However, rather than choosing images that derived from such early documents, or from the testimony of political prisoners who had been freed from the camps in the 1930s, Nikl and other artists throughout the world opted for an image that would be readily understandable to those with minimal knowledge of the subject. Before people were aware of what was happening in the camps, it was conceptually clear that the latter were surrounded by a fence of barbed wire; and artists realised that the use of such wire to separate the inmates from the spectator would command instant recognition. This is also the reason why this image has remained so prevalent: more specific knowledge is needed to recognise, for instance, the gates of Auschwitz or the bunk-beds, but the image of the inmate behind barbed wire strikes an immediate chord in the spectator, and is not readily replaceable as a clearcut symbol of the concentration camp itself.
The mindset of the artist in creating this image can be seen in "In the Concentration Camp" a drawing by George Grosz from 1941. Grosz, formerly associated with the Die Neue Sachlichkeit group, had been told in detail what was occurring in the camps by Hans Borchardt, who had been interned in Dachau and had come to the United States in 1937, four years before Grosz made his drawing. In his drawing Grosz portrays a bored and lonely inmate walking in the camp: within the barbed-wire fence he trudges round and round until his footsteps form a circle in the mud. His hands are held, or perhaps tied, behind his back: he has a number on his uniform, his hair is short and signs of malnutrition and pain appear on his face. The barbed-wire fence that surrounds him is the only clear sign that he is in a camp. For more about Grosz and his style of painting, see: German Expressionism (c.1905-35).
The image of an inmate standing behind a barbed-wire fence was so common at the end of the war that it even influenced the photographers who visited the camps after the liberation: most of them preferred to photograph the inmates behind barbed wire, thus moving the image from art into reality, and reinforcing it as a documentary image in the public mind. This was so accepted that from 1945 on, even a single strand of barbed wire in front of a figure, a head or a hand, was enough to represent the camp, and was indeed used in this manner in posters and books. Its continuing potency can be seen in the drawing Fernand Leger made in 1955 to mark the tenth anniversary of the liberation of the camps. The hand of a Holocaust survivor is raised here towards a shining sun - a symbol of salvation. His identity is suggested by his striped sleeve, but would not be obvious without the strands of barbed wire that appear in front of and behind his hand. On the wrist of the second hand in the foreground, there is a line that can be understood either as barbed wire or as the edge of a sleeve. Depending on how this line is interpreted, the hand can be seen either as belonging to a second prisoner or to a camp liberator. In this minimalist rendering, Leger suggests to the spectator a clear image of the Holocaust and the liberation.
So accepted was this image that barbed wire, even without a prisoner, was used to symbolise the Shoah. For instance, Seymour Lipton composed his statue of "The Martyr" of 1948 from strands of metal, the spiked shapes of which recall barbed wire, creating a powerful image of Holocaust suffering which also has overtones of Christ's crown of thorns. In the early 1960s, Igael Tumarkin used barbed wire in his abstract sculpture to evoke the Holocaust, and from the end of the 1970s, this symbol seemed so unmistakable to him that he began to use it in other works of contemporary art in order to lend a Holocaust connotation to contemporary events.
Other widespread symbols of the Holocaust also demanded very little knowledge from the spectators: railway cattle-cars and railway lines were employed to symbolise the deportations; gaunt, skeletally thin but living figures were identified immediately as survivors; and children, sometimes accompanied by their mothers, were used to express the innocence of the Holocaust's victims. However, the two Holocaust symbols that became as omnipresent and as immediately identifiable as barbed wire were the heaps of skeletally thin corpses that were all too familiar from the documentary photographs, and the chimney, which symbolised the most idiosyncratic form of Holocaust murder - death in the gas chamber and the burning of the corpses in the crematorium. The artistic representation of these themes raises intense aesthetic problems.
The subject of gassing and cremation was only rarely depicted by inmates during their stay in the camps. Most of them neither saw nor knew exactly what was happening, and those who did see the gas chambers in operation were usually soon sent to die there in their turn. Moreover, there were no prior artistic prototypes to help artists outside the camps to cope with this unimaginable subject, as there were for other forms of Holocaust death, such as shooting and hanging. Since artists found it extremely hard to find an effective method of handling a theme that would not immediately repel the spectator, they seldom portrayed it.
An example of a relatively low-key depiction of this subject will reveal some of the problems. Lea Grundig's figure drawing "Treblianca" of 1943-4 was included in her series In the Valley of Slaughter, in which she tried to awaken the inhabitants of Palestine and the British mandate authority to the situation in the camps of Europe. Grundig, a refugee from Germany, learned of what was occurring in the camps through communist sources who were extremely well informed. She depicted a cell crowded to overflowing with naked women, children and old people. In their terror they hold on to each other, their faces expressing their fear, or fall dying to the ground. On the one hand, they arouse our sympathy: Grundig specifically chose women, one of whom is pregnant, children and the aged in order to stress their innocence and helplessness. On the other hand, their condition arouses revulsion and anger: revulsion because of their unaesthetic situation, and anger against those who have brought them to this state. Grundig indeed intended to rouse the spectators in this way in order to achieve her goal: by forcing them to confront the ugly facts of the Holocaust, she hoped to inspire them to save the Jews from this horrible fate.
Most spectators find it painful to look at Grundig's depiction of the gas chamber for any length of time. It is thus not surprising that this kind of representation became uncommon by the 1950s, and that artists sought other ways to deal with the subject. The most accepted method was to use the 'non-threatening' symbol associated with this mode of death to convey the idea of both gassing and burning: the crematorium chimney. These ominous chimneys, often belching flames or yellow smoke, can be found in many camp drawings; and they struck the liberators with such force that they immediately adopted them as a symbol of the camps. Several of the camps themselves preserved the chimneys as part of their memorialisation of the Holocaust, and it soon became a standard element in other Holocaust memorials. In fact, so acceptable was it and so deeply did it penetrate - especially into the Jewish consciousness - that any smokestack, whether in life or in art, could immediately call forth Holocaust associations.
The chimney became a particularly important Holocaust symbol in the art of survivors, whether or not they had experienced the spectacle at first-hand. Thus, for instance, Naftali Bezem, Samuel Bak and Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who had never actually seen the chimneys in operation, found it relatively easy to integrate this explicit Holocaust symbol into their own personal iconographies. Hundertwasser's "Blood Garden: Houses with Yellow Smoke" of 1962 presents a completely symbolic depiction of the camps: multi-storeyed barracks are set in the midst of one of his favourite Holocaust motifs, the fenced-in blood garden, suggesting that there is no escape from the deadly camps. To stress the type of killing practised here, he adds chimneys belching insidious yellow smoke: one is set on the roof of the barracks and the other at the corner of the camp gate, in the foreground. The yellow smoke has a chilling effect: as it passes through the red blood-filled windows of the house in the foreground, it turns them black, as though the life within them had been burnt in the crematorium. In this way Hundertwasser presents an image of Holocaust death which neither repels nor angers the spectator, and which keeps him looking at the work of art trying to decipher its meaning.
In the mid-1980s artists began to feel that the kind of aesthetic distance engendered by such images was so great that the works were no longer capable of arousing emotional reactions, specifically because all suggestion of atrocity had disappeared. These postmodernist artists decided to put the figure back into the work, and with it the horror. We have already seen how Robert Morris combined Holocaust corpses with the arched shape of the crematorium ovens and the notion of burning, to produce excruciating but riveting images. R.B. Kitaj elected to continue to use the chimney's protective distance, but to merge it both with the victim and with other associations. In his painting "Passion 1940-1945: Girl/Plume" of 1985, he constructed a chimney that also recalls the shape of a coffin. Into it, as in a box, he placed a fragile, pale girl who automatically arouses the spectators' pity, especially as they follow the winding yellow flame-like line of smoke that coils over her body and obliterates her face as a suggestion that she is being gassed or cremated. In this image, Kitaj strikes the balance between confrontation and artistic norms, allowing the spectators to continue looking at the work, but engaging them emotionally rather than only intellectually.
We have reviewed some of the methods chosen by artists to cope with the problem of portraying the Shoah, either directly or by means of symbols. Many artists, however, felt a need not only to document or to describe the events but also to understand them and to learn from them moral lessons for the present and the future. This was suggested in the analysis of some of the above-mentioned works, especially those of Robert Morris and Zoran Music, but the point must now be investigated in greater depth.
The need to make events comprehensible began even before the Nazis rose to power, when artists recognised the potential dangers of their political platform, and tried to warn the public against its likely consequences. For example, to make the public understand the true nature of the Nazis, John Heartfield (Helmut Herzfeld) portrayed them as animals, monsters and symbols of death. After Hitler assumed office in 1933, several artists began to worry about the fate of Jews under the Nazis: Marc Chagall depicted a Jew thrown out of Eastern and Western Europe in his Solitude (1933), while Jacques Lipchitz prayed through his sculpture David and Goliath that the Jewish David would conquer the Nazi Goliath, the latter being identified by the swastika engraved on his chest. These works did not attempt to depict a given situation but to warn the public, to make it understand the meaning of what was happening, and to incite it to action. This goal of communication necessitated the use of a symbolic language of images that were familiar to everyone.
Such was the thinking that motivated the creation of one of the earliest and most popular interpretative Holocaust symbols, the use of the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ to symbolise the sufferings of the Jews and their murder by the Nazis. This imagery was employed in the 1930s by Chagall and by German Christian anti-Fascist artists such as Otto Pankok. In their works, the Jewishness of Jesus is suggested in several ways: Pankok portrays him with Semitic facial features which are markedly different from those of the Aryans who torture him; in other works the INRI sign on the cross whereby Jesus of Nazareth is proclaimed king of the Jews is written out in full in German or in Hebrew letters; and Chagall visually identifies Christ with modern Jews by clothing him in a prayer-shawl or phylacteries, and by surrounding him with scenes of pogroms and Nazi desecration. This emphasis on the Jewishness of Jesus aroused sharp reactions among the Nazis who preferred to think of him as being of pure Aryan descent. The goal of these German artists, however, was not simply to upset the Nazis, but to warn Christians that in killing Jews - either actively or by not opposing their murder - they were crucifying Christ anew, as he was a member of the same race and people as present-day Jews. By using a symbol taken from the symbolic vocabulary of Christian art, the artists hoped to arouse the Christian public against the Nazis' deeds.
When it became obvious that this goal would not be achieved, a subtle change occurred in the use of Christological imagery. Artists now used the Crucifixion as a means of blaming Christians for the Holocaust. Thus, for example, Joseph Foshko depicted the crucifixion of an old Jew wrapped in a prayer-shawl and wrote under him words that invert those of Jesus on the cross: "Forgive them NOT, Father, for they KNOW what they do." This blame was also directed by several artists, both Jews and Christians, against the Church which stood by or actively aided the Nazis in their war against the Jews. Thus the symbol which was intended to warn a Christian audience to prevent the catastrophe was later used to blame both the Church and Christians for the Holocaust.
Other images of Biblical art conveyed different ways of understanding the meaning of the Holocaust. Two of these - the Suffering of Job and the Sacrifice of Isaac - proved particularly popular as they were deemed appropriate archetypes for the victims. The more immediately relevant was that of Job, the blameless righteous man who, suddenly and senselessly, was deprived of his possessions, his children and his health, and thus seemed a veritable prototype of the innocent Holocaust victims who had no control over the evils that befell them. The aptness of this symbol was appreciated both by artists who were trapped by the Nazis and by those who were safely beyond their reach. One of the most striking of these images is Ivan Mestrovic's statue of Job (1945) in which Job is as emaciated as an inmate, and from the depths of his physical and psychic torments calls on God to explain why he has been punished. The biblical dialogue between Job and God following this demand was another fundamental reason for using this image, as it enabled the artist to explore the various reactions that Job - and, by extension, the Holocaust victim - might have to his sufferings. Artists such as Mestrovic showed Job blaming God and calling Him to judgment. Others showed Job listening in silence to God's answer to this charge, or underlined either his loss of belief and subsequent despair or his unshaken continuing faith which would lead to his health, family and wealth being restored to him.
These treatments of Job are traditional and evolve from the biblical text itself. On the other hand, the use that artists made of the Sacrifice of Isaac is completely anti-traditional. Since the victims of the Holocaust were not rescued by a miracle, as happened to Isaac, there was a need to fit the signifying symbol to the signified events. One of the most successful solutions to this problem is found in Mordecai Ardon's "Sarah" of 1947, in which Isaac's pale, bloodless body lies dead on the altar. Beside him, Sarah raises her head to cry out against God, while a tiny Abraham sits mourning helplessly at the bottom left, the ladder which signifies his connection with God lying uselessly on the ground, as God had not saved Isaac. In such works, artists utilised the Sacrifice of Isaac not in the traditional way to express unquestioning faith in God, but rather to vent their anger against a God who had failed to save His people and allowed the Holocaust to happen. This use of the images of Job and the Sacrifice of Isaac alternately to affirm faith in God and to blame Him for the Holocaust are in many ways opposite sides of the same coin. They reflect in fact, the contradictory reactions of the biblical Job, who at first blames God and finally submits and reaffirms his faith. Both posit a personal relationship between man and God and the possibility of a dialogue between them. Thus both approaches have traditional roots in Judaism, and also parallels in Jewish theological writings and literature about the Holocaust. (See also: Jewish Art Museum Jerusalem.)
A related way of expressing continued faith in adversity was through a return to Jewish traditions and an open avowal of Jewish identity. The more the Nazis hounded the Jews, the more artists who had abandoned their religion in their youth returned to their Jewish roots. Thus, in the 1920s, Ludwig Meidner, in Germany, stressed his Jewish character both in writing and by portraying Jews at worship wrapped in prayer-shawls. During the 1930s he became gradually more and more orthodox, signing his works in Hebrew and with the Jewish date. He continued to do so after he found refuge in England, and stopped only after he returned to Germany in 1952.
One of the strongest expressions of Jewish faith in adversity to be created in a Holocaust context is Lipchitz's bronze sculpture "Prayer" of 1943. Although the entire centre of the body of the old bearded Jew has been blown open and his legs are eaten away by flame-like plants, he continues to perform the traditional ritual of expiation. Swinging the cockerel above his head, he chants the age-old prayer recited before the Day of Atonement, consecrating the expiatory sacrifice before killing it. Lipchitz explained that the bearded Jew symbolised the Jews of Europe, and that the statue expressed his own prayer that they might be saved by means of this sacrificial offering. Although the Jew's blasted body suggests that the sacrifice is futile, he contains within himself an element of hope, an innocent unborn lamb curled up in a foetal position in his 'womb'. The Jew making the sacrifice may die, but, hopefully, he will live long enough to give birth to the lamb who will survive him. For other artists who have depicted the Shoah in forms of sculpture and assemblage, see: 20th century sculptors.
Other artists found different methods to express their Jewish identity. The American artist Ben Shahn, noted for his Social Realism, who in the 1930s had stressed a left-wing and universalist humanitarian approach, returned to Jewish subjects and began to use Hebrew inscriptions as part of his reaction to the Holocaust. William Gropper, who had done a variety of illustration for communist newspapers and had previously mocked religious and capitalist Jews, suddenly began in the 1940s to paint Jews in prayer and continued to do this at least once a year all his life. He explained that this was his form of observing the Jahrzeit (the traditional Jewish annual memorial for the dead) for Jews who had died in the Holocaust. After a long stay in Eastern Europe in 1948-50, during which he saw to what extent the Jewish communities had been devastated by the war, Gropper began to resurrect the Eastern European shtetl in his works, combining it with memories of his own boyhood on New York's Lower East Side.
Political events in the years following the war also helped many artists to find a way of retaining their faith after the horror of the Shoah had almost extinguished it. Both Christians and Jews saw the creation of the State of Israel not only as the positive aftermath of a tragic ordeal, but as the fulfilment of prophecies that only after a great destruction would the Jewish people return to Zion. Chagall and Lipchitz hinted at this connection by subtly changing their Holocaust motifs in response to this event. For instance, in "Liberation" of 1937-48, Chagall described the joy that accompanied the liberation of the camps and linked it with the creation of the State through the name he originally gave the painting, Hatikva (The Hope), the title of the Israeli national anthem. In like manner, Lipchitz used the imagery of his 1943 sculpture "Prayer" as the basis for his "Miracle and Sacrifice" series of 1947-8 which expressed his prayers for the creation of the State of Israel. Through such works, artists expressed the idea that they had found some redemptive reason for the Holocaust.
All these works - those dealing with Old and New Testament themes as well as those affirming Jewish faith or celebrating the creation of the State of Israel - reflect artistic attempts to explore the questions of why the Holocaust happened and who was responsible for it. The need to answer the why and wherefore of the Holocaust - both in order to understand it on an abstract level and to draw conclusions from it in order to prevent it from recurring in the future - was a major cause of artistic activity on the interpretative level. In the works we have explored so far, responsibility for the Holocaust was fixed on two levels: some artists blamed the Christian world and the Church; others blamed God. The great majority of artists, however, blamed the Nazis themselves for their murderous actions.
To convey this message, artists had to find ways to depict the Nazis in a manner that would unmask their evil. This proved difficult: artists who attempted straightforward, normal portrayals of the Nazis failed, as it was impossible to grasp how these ordinary-looking people could perpetrate such atrocities. To uncover their true character, artists followed the lead of John Heartfield's early anti-Fascist works and depicted the Nazis as predatory animals, symbols of death and human and inhuman monsters. Marcel Janco, for example, in his series of drawings on the Holocaust from the war years, depicted the Nazi as a human monster who indulges in cruel mockery or exhibits terrifying rage as he tortures and kills the Jews, becoming increasingly inhuman and animal-like in the process.
Towards the end of the war, however, artists and other thinkers began to ask a basic question: are cruelty and monstrosity characteristic only of the Nazis, or are they rooted in human nature? Those who took the former view continued to portray the Nazi in monstrous terms, but those who embraced the latter theory began to characterise all men as monstrous - victim and perpetrator alike.
One of the earliest expressions of this second view is "Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion" (1944) by Francis Bacon, creator of some of the most hideous images in Contemporary British Painting (c.1960-2000). Bacon created a gradual transition between the right-hand figure who symbolises the Nazi and is based on photographs of Hermann Goering, mouth wide open, making a speech, and the image of the victim on the left who bends over as he kneels with his hands tied behind his back. It is hard to identify the central figure: he is based in part on Bacon's "Figure Getting Out of a Car" (1939-40), which the artist claimed was inspired by a photograph of Hitler, but the use of a blindfold may suggest that he is a victim about to be shot. Whereas the right-hand figure is the most frightening, all three are monstrous and animal-like, since in the cruel world that Bacon represents, the murderer is no more to blame than his victim. In this frightening example of modern art - a mixture of expressionism and surrealism - Bacon seems to foresee Carl Jung's post-war dictum: "The wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts. Lured by the irresistible fascination of evil, we have all made this collective psychic murder possible."
This transfer of evil from the Nazis to mankind in general engendered two conflicting attitudes. One was a sense of despair at being confronted with a godless world in which the Holocaust was only one climactic example of the evil that is everywhere rampant. The other was a compulsion to appropriate Holocaust images in dealing with other contemporary problems in life and politics. Thus Picasso took the depiction of nude women and children being shot by Nazi soldiers and moved it from a Holocaust context to his "Massacre in Korea" (1951), in which the women are shot by robot-like soldiers derived from Goya's "Third of May 1808". This scene relates to no known incident in the Korean War, but is used in a politically calculated way to influence the spectator. By adapting this Holocaust image, which was still very familiar only six years after the end of the Second World War, to a new situation, Picasso established an emotional identity designed to elicit immediate and instinctive reactions: sympathy for the North Korean victims, and hatred for their American and South Korean enemies. This kind of political usage has become widespread in recent years in a number of different contexts, and raises certain problems.
Everyone agrees on the importance of learning the moral lessons of the Shoah and applying them to contemporary events in order to ensure that such a crime will not be repeated. However, the application of Holocaust imagery to entirely and inherently different situations in order to evoke an unthinking response does not really further this moral aim; it may, on the contrary, hinder it as it distorts the original meaning and lessons of the Holocaust. Moreover, the free use of these images diffuses them to the point of forgetting that the Holocaust was a singular event that occurred at a specific time to a specific people. This forgetfulness is part of a process in which the Holocaust becomes so distanced from the centre of interest as to make it possible even to deny that it ever took place.
It was a reaction against this dismissal and denial of the Holocaust that prompted Robert Morris in his series Disappearing Places of 1988. In these reliefs, he lowers the curtain of forgetfulness over the minor concentration camps in Poland until only half of their names remain exposed. In order to stress the meaning of the names, Morris sculpted on the curtains symbols which could be associated with the Holocaust, such as gunshot holes or the impressions left by the hands of the victims. Whereas this half-covering of the name suggests that the camps are in danger of being forgotten, the fact that half the name remains leads the spectator to try to decipher it and to connect it with the visual image on the curtain. Thus these images of oblivion and denial actually call the Holocaust back to mind.
In conclusion, despite the irresistible tension that seemingly exists between visual art and the Holocaust, its influence on art has been extremely pronounced. The artists had different goals: to document, to memorialise, to express a personal reaction, to understand and to draw moral lessons. Understandably therefore, their works differed not only in terms of style and of content, but also in terms of the conclusions they drew from the Holocaust.
After more than fifty years of dealing with the subject, artistic responses to the Holocaust are increasing rather than diminishing. New artists, including the children of the survivors and of the perpetrators, as well as post-war German artists - like Anselm Kiefer (b.1945) - have begun to express themselves on this subject and to see it in new ways. Moreover, exhibitions continue to be held so as to bring these reactions uncompromisingly to the public eye. The Holocaust has become an archetype of hate and destruction, one that will probably continue to be treated in art as long as these dangers exist.
of Art Timeline
For more about the meaning of art terms, see: Homepage.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF ART EDUCATION