Some artists trick the public into perceiving images of the Holocaust anew; others want viewers to "feel" it
There was a time when the idea of a statue of Hitler luring tourists to the Warsaw Ghetto wasn’t so far-fetched. But then of course he wouldn’t have been portrayed as a schoolboy at prayer. This diminutive figure, a work by Maurizio Cattelan called Him, has caused a worldwide furor ever since Warsaw’s Centre for Contemporary Art installed him at 14 Próżna Street as part of an exhibition held otherwise in its galleries at Ujazdowski Castle.
Created in 2001, Him has appeared at in various museums, including recently at the Guggenheim, where he was hanging around with the dead Kennedy and other figures from Cattelan’s perverse commedia dell’arte. Poland’s chief rabbi, Michael Schudrich, initially supported showing Him in Warsaw. Art “can motivate us to face issues and concepts we prefer to ignore,” he wrote in the catalogue’s preface. But he changed his mind when he saw the figure at the site where so many Jews had fought and died. “If you want to provoke moral questions, then you also need to be sensitive,” he says. The Simon Wiesenthal Center agreed, describing the Ghetto Hitler as “a senseless provocation.”
The provocation, however, has set off a conversation that has not been easy to have in a city that is just now building its first museum dedicated to its Jewish culture. In that respect, Cattelan has pulled off something the Wiesenthal Center is also trying to do: He’s gotten the whole world talking about the Holocaust.
Unlike some other recent controversial Holocaust-themed art in Europe, like Santiago Sierra’s ersatz gas chamber in a synagogue, the Hitler did not come down after Jewish leaders complained. But it is not always so clear what will offend, or where. In the ’80s, complaints in Münster resulted in the dismantling of Sol LeWitt’s cinder block Black Form (Dedicated to the Missing Jews), which was considered too ominous. It was reconstructed in Hamburg. In Lower Manhattan, a Louise Bourgeois sculpture of disembodied hands was removed from the park outside Museum of Jewish Heritage — A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. In Verona, New Jersey, recently, a controversy erupted over train tracks installed as part of a Holocaust memorial outside a local synagogue.
Bodies of Evidence
From the beginning, creating art that honors the suffering of Holocaust victims while admonishing the world not to forget has been a mission that—necessarily, some might argue–pushes at the boundaries of taste. Some might think it’s perverse to paint the broken bodies of murdered Holocaust victims. But that is what Marc Chagall did in his recently rediscovered 1945 painting Capriccio Lilac, the last of his many Holocaust-era crucifixions of a Jewish Jesus, which shows a storm trooper striding below the cross and images thought to be based on documentary photos of the camps. Such paintings, including the artist’s famous White Crucifixion (1938) in the Art Institute of Chicago, were intended to bring the Holocaust to the attention of the world. Alina Szapocznikow, the Polish sculptor who survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Terezín, usually referred to her experience obliquely—images of body parts, for example—but she embedded photographs from concentration camps in her mixed-media work Souvenir (1971), on view in her retrospective now at MoMA.
In recent decades, as artists ranging from Kitaj to Kiefer, Richter, Boltanski, Spero, Tuymans, Tamy Ben-Tor, Yael Bartana, so many others have addressed the Holocaust, the tone has shifted to an often-arch commentary on how and what people remember, and about what evil even looks like. Following are some works that have been spotted lately around New York–or will be here soon–that take on these issues from different perspectives.
Israeli provocateur’s Nir Hod’s show at Paul Kasmin last year featured ten paintings of the same startled-looking woman, rendered in different tones, like Warhol’s Shadow paintings. Each one was called Mother. A small photo on the gallery wall revealed their source: a famous photo from the Stroop Report, an album commissioned by commander of German forces that suppressed the Warsaw ghetto uprising in the spring of 1943. The trick was calculated to make viewers feel a bit guilty for not recognizing one of the most familiar images of Holocaust victims in history.
Rubble with a Cause
Gustav Metzger, the autodestructive artist who escaped Nuremberg as a boy, tried another strategy to force viewers to re-engage with the familiar scene. In his recent survey at the New Museum, he blocked it off the construction with rubble, transforming the viewing process into a more immersive–and frustrating–experience.
Notes on Camps
In a show called “Prussian Blue” opening later this month at the Americas Society, Yishai Judisman, a Mexico-born artist living in Los Angeles, will exhibit paintings depicting gas chambers from various concentration camps, including Auschwitz, Dachau, and Birkenau.
His pigments are chemically or conceptually derived from the compounds used to gas the Jews, from Prussian Blue (related to the cyanide-iron compound in stains created by Zyklon B in the gas chambers) to flesh tones (a reference to the victims who were murdered in the spaces he depicts).
The soft-spoken monotones, derived from photographs, are intended “to generate the pictorial impression of a silence as solemn and forthright as it is eloquent,” the artist explains in his statement. He’s trying to “trigger what the sheer awareness of the Holocaust feels like.”
Men of Stelen
After Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe was finally inaugurated in Berlin in 2005 following years of tortured debate, it provoked a different kind of complaint: that some visitors weren’t taking it seriously enough. Visitors were using the field of granite monoliths as a place for sunbathing, hide-and-seek, and photo ops, but not necessarily for reasons of remembrance.
Marc Adelman, an American artist, started coming across profile pictures of men posing at the memorial when he was looking at a Dutch gay dating site. He was struck by the idea that gay men, who were also persecuted in the Holocaust, would post photos of themselves at such a place. “I thought about what could be going on here that might not be so conscious,” he comments.
He gathered about 150 of them into a piece he calls Stelen, which was acquired by New York’s Jewish Museum. But when a version of the piece appeared at the museum in a show last summer, it sparked a controversy of a different kind. Several men depicted in the photos complained that their images were used without their permission, so the museum abruptly removed Stelen from view. (Its staff is planning an online panel to examine some ethical, First Amendment, and privacy issues related to the issue.)
Making Memory Speak
This November, the Jewish Museum will host a show featuring some of the most profound and original artistic reflections on the Holocaust–the first (!) retrospective of Art Spiegelman, creator of the chilling, riveting graphic novel Maus, a narrative about his own family in which Jews appear as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. (The traveling show is making its way from Europe via the Vancouver Art Gallery, where it opens February 16.) Spiegelman began the project , as he recounts in “The Art of Spiegelman,” a documentary screening later this month at the New York Jewish Film Festival, because his Holocaust survivor father told him that “people don’t want to hear such stories.” Yet artists keep trying to tell them, one way or another.