Art Review Archives:
The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz
Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art
What if to do art, you had no materials; only whatever you could beg, borrow, or steal, from a scrap of paper to the merest stub of a pencil? What if the conditions under which you labored were those of cruelty, exhaustion, hunger, despair? And what if to do art were punishable by... death?
Would you still do art? Would anyone?
The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz will be showing at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art through December 8, 2002. Devoting both of its galleries to this exhibition, the museum has organized over 200 works by general theme, including illustration, portraiture, prisoner experiences, satire, and art on command. Amid the physical stresses of starvation, labor and disease, amid emotional stress of arbitrary punishment, of relentless cruelty untempered by mercy, the inmates of the Auschwitz labor and death camps did art: often very beautiful and accomplished art. This exhibition moves, often distresses; its beauty is a painful one. Yet it is well worth seeing.
Context is paramount here. To read literature on survivor's statements is only to understand how limited our understanding can be of the events which took place in the suburbs of the Polish town of Oswiecim between 1941 and 1945; of the experience within the complex of concentration camps dedicated to imprisonment, labor and annihilation of millions. The five crematoria, when working to capacity, consumed 9,300 human corpses daily as the 'Final Solution' sought a mass extermination of 'undesirables' -- Jews; Poles and other Slavic peoples; Gypsies; and others deemed unfit or unwanted. As Yisrael Gutman notes in Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, "It is all but impossible to portray the living conditions faced daily by prisoners of the Auschwitz camps. Every day in the life of a prisoner was filled with unbearable tension and superhuman effort, emotional turmoil and terror, continuing without respite for months on end."
The works in The Last Expression vibrate with an urgency, an immediacy, that photographs of the Auschwitz death camp fail to convey. A photograph is one step removed, the photographer an observer well off enough to be taking a picture, developing his film, preparing his emulsions and making prints. The artists of The Last Expression sketched what they saw, what they were, indeed, in the midst of: a hell of humiliation, hopelessness, capricious cruelty, and physical abuse. Many of the works inspire both pity and horror. The art of Waldemar Nowakowski (Polish, 1917-1984) has the innocence of children's book illustration, but with chilling subject matter. In Unsuccessful Escape of a Czech (watercolor on cardboard: 6-3/8"x4-1/2": 1940-44) the prisoner with the bloodied, bowed head is so new he is still in his civilian clothes, pathetically barefoot. His head wounds splash blood all over his arms, necktie, knees and feet. His misery is met with indifference: by the supercilious guard who holds him by the collar, whose truncheon is stained halfway its length with the man's blood; by the sneering commandant at lower right; by the boyish soldier behind, with leaping guard dog on a leash, far away in amiable thought; and even by the turned backs of the horses in the barn, munching their hay in bucolic peace. Cartoonist Art Spiegelman's Maus (Random House:1986) brought the Holocaust into 'pop' consciousness, using a comic book format to tell the story of Spiegelman's father, also an Auschwitz survivor. Nowakowski's similarly guileless style holds an extra menace: when he sketched, he was there.
Jozef Szajna's (Polish, 1922- ) Our Biographies (pencil on paper: 13-3/8"x11-3/4": ca. 1944-45) depicts inmates ranked for roll call, a painful, twice-daily process that might keep exhausted men and women on their feet for hours. Their striped uniforms are a field of vertical strokes, their heads a repetition of thumbprints, numbly blank: bald-shaven, identical, they are no longer persons, but commodities, as meaningless in quantity as cans on a shelf. It was a calculated stripping of identity, and in response, concentration camp artists produced innumerable, contraband portraits. To have a portrait, a representation of oneself as an individual to cling to, or smuggle to friends and relatives, gave the subject a measure of selfhood that could help them survive in heart and spirit -- and surely gave the artist a measure of identity as well. Accusation, inquiry, reproach and above all, deep humanity look forth from Mieczyslaw Koscielniak's (Polish, 1912-1993) Self-Portrait (oil on canvas: 6"x3-1/2": 1941). In contrast to Szajna's rows of 'human inventory,' Koscielniak's portrait is deeply individual, a single, unique human soul. With stubbornness as well as sensitivity in his face, his eyes refuse to release the viewer or give him ease.
Where the works shock in The Last Expression they were done to document or emote real-life conditions, not to titillate or thrill. Taken in context, they remind us how freely and gratuitously we revel in the cartoon brutality of movie violence and prime-time television. These were people who understood the grave truths behind such behavior. Zofia Rozenstrauch's Death Camp Auschwitz (Boz Smierci Oswiecim) deserves a special mention. Though not part of The Last Expression exhibition proper, it is on the exhibition web site, http://lastexpression.northwestern.edu. One wishes it had been included in whole or part in this important exhibition, for few works condense and concentrate the power of Auschwitz art to move, to suffer, like Death Camp Auschwitz. The artist was a prisoner at the Frauen Konzentration Lager ('Women's Concentration Camp') of Auschwitz-Birkenau from 1943-1945, and recorded her experiences in a nineteen-leaf album shortly after her liberation in 1945. Each full-page illustration is offset by an indigo shadow-box, titled with Roman lettering hand-done in scarlet at upper right, while a narrative caption in Polish is written in informal script within the picture itself. It is a format we recognize well, the explanatory layout of a child's picture book, and the light touch of the artist's watercolors has a classic, whimsical grace. But this is a picture book to make us weep. Rozenstrauch's gentleness of presentation creates an unbearable tension: that the little doll-like figures can express such horror and pain.
'Command art,' unlike other art in the exhibition, was sanctioned, permitted. Manuals such as False-Richtig made use of inmate talent for practical purposes. Other, more personal images were made upon the request of the SS officers or concentration camp personnel. Franciszek Targosz's (Polish, 1899-1979) fine Arabian Horse (pencil on cardboard: 21x29.5cm: 1944), and the richly textured scene of mother and son in Miecyslaw Koscielniak's Highlander Woman with Child (woodcut on paper: 22.5x16.5cm: 1942) typify the romantic tone of much of the personal command art. For the inmates, the advantages of doing command art were obvious. Being assigned to the art or print workshop was literally a spark of life: an indoor assignment meant warmth, lighter labor, a greater chance that one could hang on to life one day longer. But what of those who commissioned such works? By hanging command art Nazi officers were displaying, even favoring works produced by their own prisoners, inmates officially considered not merely inferior but subhuman, genetic undesirables, un-persons. What motivated them, whether art can be enjoyed without the tacit acknowledgement that the artist has in some way expressed a commonality of insight or appeal with the viewer, is one of the many contradictions of command art. The reality was as carelessly brutal as the rest of the camp experience. As Pnina Rosenberg (see below) notes of one artist, "The same officers who so enjoyed his portraits did not hesitate to send him to his death."
Here, two generations distant from Auschwitz and its terrors, we observe and do art based on certain assumptions: inclination, free time, a certain level of ease and security. Art lies on the periphery, a want, a pastime, if even that; certainly not a need. And yet, as The Last Expression amply illustrates, when life was strained to the limit, artists created. Pnina Rosenberg, in her essay "Art of the Holocaust as Spiritual Resistance" (http://lastexpression.northwestern.edu/arts_fr_e_rosen.html) discusses many of the reasons behind which the terror of Auschwitz drove artists to respond, despite the threat of punishment and execution. In truth, the categories blur: making art could be a defiance, a refusal to capitulate, a moment's escape or wish-fulfillment, at times simply an affirmation of one's humanity. The number of bitingly satirical works surprises, though it should not. We do not associate black humor, such as Pavel Fantl's Charles-Addams-like Foreign Correspondents Visit the Ghetto, 23.6.1943 (June 23, 1943) (ca. 1943-44), with 'Auschwitz', but satire has long been a very human defense. And as well, within the horror were created some works of great beauty. Otto Karas-Kaufman's (Czech, 1915-1944) View of the Snowy City, Prague (etching and aquatint with ink and gouache additions: 8-3/4"x10-1/2": 1943), done in the ghetto at Theresienstadt, is a rooftop view of the city the artist would never see again; the winter scene bears a suggestion of cemetery peace. Karas-Kaufman's work shares an indefinable wistfulness, a wish-away of escape, with fourteen-year-old artist Petr Ginz's (Czech, 1928-1944) Untitled (watercolor and pencil on paper:6-1/2" x 8-1/4":ca. 1942), whose futuristic aircraft flies against a luminous moon: up and away forever... free.
The exhibition's power is a balance of then and now: a somber meditation on the role art played then in the survival of Auschwitz's inmates, and a message communicated down through the decades from them to us. Perhaps most valuable to us today, because most visible to us today, are those works in The Last Expression which provide documentation. Drawings such as Yehuda Bacon's (Czech, 1929- ) Carrying the Dead to the Crematorium (ink and pencil on paper: 12-1/2"x17-3/4": 1945), not only served as evidence when the Nazis were brought to trial -- without this art, we would have a diminished awareness of the truths and poignancies of such a situation, such suffering. See here, the art of The Last Expression offers: I, a person just like you, saw this, lived this, and drew it.
The artists knew what they were doing: memories fade; generations pass; a picture hits us wordlessly, on deeper levels. Daily life in the labor and death camps escaped photography -- amidst the labor, the dying, there were no cameras -- but it could not escape the perception and pencil of the artist. The misery of roll call, the array of camp armbands identifying the inmates, views of the barracks, daily life in the crowded, starving ghetto (a walled-off area of the town in which the Jews were interned), the tight living quarters, figures of disabled ghetto residents, the 'muselmann' or walking dead -- of all this art is witness, in its literal meaning: attestation of a fact of event; evidence. The overarching nightmare that was the experience of Auschwitz, the brutal conditions, were real.
What is the deep need to create? In the face of death, to do art? Because art endures. In a place where human lives flickered like candle flames, where starvation, disease, hard labor, and the gas chambers extinguished thousands on thousands of souls daily -- art endured. It left a mark, a proof of one's passing. It was the solace of the living, and a voice that remained to speak when they were dead: of terror, of resistance, of a literal record of events that transpired. The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz presents over 200 works created during World War II by artists in various concentration camps, all of whom were at one time or another inmates of Auschwitz. The exhibition raises more questions than it answers, and perhaps that is only right: they are complex questions that leave the viewer ruminating long after the exhibition has passed. It cannot be said that The Last Expression is an 'enjoyable' exhibition. Many of its works and the suffering they depict are not easy to view. Yet it is powerful, and well worth one's time and attention.
The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz is at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art through December 8, 2002. In 2003 it will travel to Wellesley College in Wellesley, MA and the Brooklyn Museum of Art in Brooklyn, NY. The exhibition's web site, http://lastexpression.northwestern.edu, includes digital reproductions of the artwork as well as a menu of supporting essays, biographies, and information. Much of the text can be browsed in Polish and German as well as in English. The web site includes many additional works not seen in the exhibition. A catalog for the exhibition is priced at $55.00 and will be available from the Block Museum in January, 2003.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present by Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, was published in 1996 by W.W. Norton and Company. Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp, Yisrael Gutman and Michael Berenbaum, Eds., is © 1994, Indiana University Press. Art Spiegelman's Maus was published by Random House in 1986.