Negative testimony. A photographic incarnation of the memory of Holocaust.

Art based on classical ideals of harmony of form and content is losing its meaning in 20th century. Beauty becomes a more and more ambiguous, suspicious and kitsch- category. Looking back in time it is clear, that the devaluation of beauty in art was not only influenced by the avant-garde, but also by the experience of the two world wars and the Holocaust. The avant-garde came to life as a protest against a culture based upon the cult of beauty, but also of power and war. In this sense Hitler, calling this (non-beautiful) art “degenerated” or simply “Jewish” (like in the title of the exhibition Juedische und entartete Kunst) was right. Art after the Holocaust suffers from an identity crisis. Adorn’s flashy and to boredom repeated statement about the impossibility of writing poetry after Auschwitz seems to be equally wrong in case of fine arts. Nevertheless it cannot be said, that the Holocaust would be an essential theme in current art. To be honest, the Holocaust is a problem of a group of artists focusing on Holocaust.
The art of Holocaust can basically be grasped by referring to two models of art: one that uses traditional forms of representation and the other one, letting loose of tradition and looking for new ways to talk about the extermination. The first model does not suit the Holocaust much. Naive realism soaked through with hard-to-digest metaphysics combined with the Holocaust can easily lead to kitsch. Of course, the category of kitsch is not limited to Holocaust art, it can be found in all spheres of current art. “The Holocaust and the kitsch” is an insufficiently researched and at the same time a very fascinating theme. It mus be added here, that the kitsch in Holocaust art is not limited solely to the industry producing worthless souvenirs for tourists visiting the extermination camps.
The other model, admitting the heritage of the avant-garde, renounces traditional art. The seeking of new artistic forms coheres with the work on the theme, that was unknown to culture up to that point. Artists dealing with the Holocaust are keenly referring to the avant-garde experience with abstraction (Rothko, Kiefer, Opałka, Stern, Kantor, Bałka), while using the silent potential of art that abandons the use of historical narratives. On the other hand, Holocaust art uses an intriguing amount of visual, especially photographic testimony of the extermination (Richter, Boltanski, Michajłow, Libera). The use of photography by the avant-garde is extremely interesting in connection with the formal but also ethical stress that is created in the process.
Certainly one of the most interesting artists connecting in his work abstraction with photography is Władysław Strzemiński (1893 - 1952), a painter and theorist of unism, founder of the Museum Sztuki in Lodź. During the second world war, which Strzemiński survived under very harsh conditions in Lodź, he created drawings based on the experience of unism, which with their theme as well as title reacted on war and the Holocaust. The drawings from the series Deportations, created during the displacement of Poles and especially Jews in Lodź (1940), just as the Faces (1942) and Cheap as mud (1944) become the origin of Strzemiński’s later emotionally moving cycle To my friends, the Jews (1945). It is a cycle of ten collages constructed from drawings (exact copies of drawings from his earlier war series) and photographs documenting the Holocaust. The collection owes its strong message to Strzemiński’s masterful combination of the avant-garde heritage of photo-montage and the unistic stylistics. The tension between the fine abstract drawing suggesting some form and the documentary photographs from the destruction of ghettos and extermination camps as well as portraits of Jews starts a flow of implications, but the work itself does not give in to any simple interpretation. Another obstacle standing in the way of decoding the meaning of the works is the absence of numbering of the individual pieces. The character of Strzemiński’s work as put down by art historian Andrzej Turowski:
The technique of double collage using pictures from printed media as well as own creations, adopted by Strzemiński, urges us to see the cycle To my friends, the Jews as an attempt to express the unity of the experience of a war artist in connection with the tragedy of the Holocaust. This effort furthermore adds to the compositional structure another element: that of memory, turning memory into the metaphorical axis of the narrative. Strzemiński’s visualizations of traces, emptiness, reflection and loss, already known from his wartime artwork, now become components of a new picture, enriched by a photographic incarnation and at the same time given a mnemonic space, within which the extermination is to be grasped in the form of ideas.
Strzemiński deals with the extermination from a special position of a “friend” of the person, who gave in to the pressure of occupation, who was deeply wounded by the Holocaust but who somehow remained above the events happening. The split in Strzemiński’s compositions is stressed by the use of two techniques – the drawings and the photography, while the drawing represents (the Polish) painter outlining a portrait or a landscape and the photography (the German) photographer making documents about the destruction of the ghetto.
The poetic titles of individual collages are a specific phenomenon. They serve as the authors personal commentary of the picture: In the ruins of destroyed eye socket; Paved with head-like stones; Empty reed-pipes of crematories; Crime’s sticky stain; In the footsteps they left behind; I accuse Cain’s crime and Abel’s sin; Veins strained by reed-pipes; Stretched by the strings of legs; Swear upon the memory of the hands (of beings no longer with us); Father’s scull.

The German Gerhard Richter (*1932) is an artist who in his photographic and painted work addresses the theme of Holocaust. Contrary to Strzemiński, Richter is part of a generation for which the war is a foggy memory from childhood, but with lifelong consequences. The young painter, raised and educated in the German democratic republic decides to emigrate to the West, where after a couple of years he becomes one of the most important contemporary artists. Besides creating abstract pictures Richter works since the beginning of the 1960-ies on an extraordinary piece of art entitled Atlas. This artwork consists of hundreds of panels with thousands of newspaper-cuts, family photos, drawings and sketches. Many of them serve as a model for photo-realistic paintings, which besides the abstractions make up Richter’s second large field of creation. The subjective recording of post-war Germany’s history seen through the prism of personal experience of a painter would not be trustworthy, had the Holocaust been missing from it.
The Holocaust appears already in the beginning of Atlas, on panels 16 - 20, right after some trivial family and journalistic photographs. The author presents pictures from extermination camps in vicinity of pornographic images. Richter made some additional adjustments on the photographs from the camps as well as on the pornographic ones. As a result the pictures are blurred and partially de-colored. According to Helmut Friedl, an art critic who kept track of the Atlas, the blurred photographs - by covering the individual marks of prisoners as well as models - helped the author to transmit the pictures onto the canvas. However this did not blunt the photographs documentary edge and the pictures of Holocaust still hadn’t been painted, though most of the other pictures from the earlier stages of Atlas (including the porn) have long been transferred into painting.
Even though the combining of family pictures and images of the Holocaust is known from art, the wedging in of pornography between two sets of paintings still makes art critic’s life hard (Friedel writes unconvincingly about “the relationship between power and society: the tragedy of everydayness and the power present in history”. In Richter’s case we can not speak of an effort to make scandal, since the Atlas has for many years only been a private sketchbook and was not showcased publicly. Richter’s conflict of various motives within one story could be understood, alike in Strzemiński’s case, as an aspiration to express the unity of the artist’s experience in connection with the tragedy of the Holocaust. In the same manner in case of the Atlas the artist adds to the compositional structure another element: that of memory, turning memory into the metaphorical axis of the narrative. We can try and use Andrzej Turowski’s words as an key to the interpretation of the meanings of Richter’s work, in which, just like in Strzemiński’s case, the photographic incarnation at the same time creates a certain mnemonic space, within which the extermination is to be grasped in the form of ideas. It is likely, that for painters like Richter and Strzemiński thinking about the Holocaust does not mean painting about it. On the contrary, photography (a technique accepted as an art form not so long ago) subjected to artistic manipulation allows to enter the theme of Holocaust into art “via a backdoor”.
Richter’s aversion to re-paint the photographic images of the Holocaust can have many reasons. The artist took up the theme once again in the mid 90-ties, during work on order for the main hall of the Reichstag (panels 635 to 646). The effort to create a reminder of the extermination on a monumental scale in an official and representative space did not work again. Finally Richter in his paintings for the Reichstag referred to an abstraction interlocked in color with the flag of united Germany. The impossibility of a direct (photographic) capturing of the Holocaust could be translated, if we focus our attention on another picture of Richter. The photographic artwork entitled Uncle Rudi (1965) is a portrait of a smiling young man dressed in Wehrmacht uniform during the war. Like in other pictures of Richter referring to souvenir photographs made by ordinary Germans (potentially regular Nazis) from before and during the war, Uncle Rudi attempts to recall and rethink the silenced past. A innocent family souvenir – an age yellowed photography of a relative in the desk-drawer – brought into the context of art becomes a symbol of guilt erased from the memory of many Germans, Easterners and Westerners alike. In case of Strzemiński just like Richter we can talk of an outside perspective of the painter looking at the Holocaust, but here it is not the perspective of the empathic “friend” from the artwork Moim przyjaciołom Żydom. Richter in his creation looks at extermination from the position of a potential offender. Similar or same photographs from the ghetto or extermination camp have crucially different meanings for Richter and for Strzemiński.
Documentary photography concerning the Holocaust makes up the bulk of the artwork of the French artist Christian Boltanski (*1944), who was born before the end of second world war. Boltanski’s art is far from painting. In his creations he uses (alike Richter, but more massively) souvenir photographs, often anonymous group portraits and creates from them special pseudo-religious space arrangements, that remind of the air of church altars and shrines. Besides creating altars consecrated to unknown beings with no special attributes, mostly victims of extermination, Boltanski creates space installations directly related to the Holocaust (see Canada – a room full of used clothes hanged thickly one by other on the wall). Boltanski certainly attempts to recall the memory of those deceased and tortured during the Holocaust, on the other hand he points out the fictitious charakter of memory concerning the Holocaust. We do not know, if the photographs are authentic, or forged just like the authors biography, which intentionally confuses art critics and historians studying it.
As a result, the altars reconstructed in spaces of galleries or museums remembering the apparent victims, serve as a certain kind of additional crutches to the “memory of Holocaust” with a value equal to what each viewer is willing to pay. The artist works deliberately with the association of holiness and the church, especially the catholic church and the interior arrangements characteristic for her. At the same time he declares his own absence of faith, reassures himself of the delusive nature of facts presented by himself and furthermore compares the role of the artist to that of the “fake prophet”, who asks for money as a reward for his credits.
The whole of Boltanski’s artwork, according to the author himself, concerns the Holocaust. Many viewers understand the artist’s words as the key to the interpretation of his artwork through the prism of the extermination. But at the very moment when it becomes clear, that within the collection of sentimental photographies it is not possible to differenciate the portraits of the guilty and of the victims, the mystical aura steps back and gives space to reflecting on one’s own expectations on art about Holocaust.
A closer unity with the murdered millions seems just as impossible, as to kneel down at Boltanski’s altars in the gallery. The naive faith in photography, as well as in the honest intentions of the author seems to be a misunderstanding in the case of an artist, who like Boltanski masterfully brings out the need to remember and carry in one’s mind the Holocaust. Without being marked, the „memory frozen in photography” becomes a mass ritual like church-going. Taken out of their historic context, the photographs of victims and offenders become reduced to a replacement of an event, which is not fullz and clearly remembered by anybody – including the artist – no matter how hard one would try.

The mnemonic space – unveiled thanks to the photographic incarnation – within which the extermination is to be understood (reflected from two different positions by Strzemiński and Richter) appears to be fictitious in the case of Boltanski. The esthetic fiction of photographic altars urging us to recall can be read in many ways (including „seriously”). In a similar way the artwork also gives us different experiences, nevertheless we could hardly deny the basic fact, that the bound with the victims as well as perpetrators of the Holocaust had been broken. Any connection with an event belonging to history, like the extermination of Jews, was in the end mediated through culture, and therefore also through art. The above mentioned shifting is clearly illustrated in the project of the Ukrainian photographer Boris Mikhaylov (born in 1938), entitled If I was a German (1994). The curator of the Warsaw exhibition of this series of around 30 photographs writes: „Together with his wife Vita and their friends, artists, (...) Michailov set up before the camera-lens scenes from the World War Two period taking place on the background of Ukrainian farms. The heroes of „living pictures” posed naked or wearing fascist or Russian officer’s uniforms. The pictures are predominantly erotic, some in a quite perverted form, in which the differences between the aggressors and the tortured victims become hazed. In the burlesque scenes the Ukrainian Jewish women are seduced by fascist officers, but at the same time they are tempting them. Eroticism puts a question mark behind the historical relationships, it allows the swapping of roles. The participants change identities, playing once Germans, then Jews and Russians. Chance decides, who is the hangman and who the victim. ”
Michailov, himself of Jewish origin, disturbs us by uniting the motives already present in Richter’s Atlas within a single cycle. The collision of souvenir photographs, pornography and the memory of Holocaust within the If I was a German however takes part on another level. If in Richter’s case we dealt with a – transformed, but still – document, and Boltanski’s fiction pretends to be documentary, then Michailov doesn’t hide the pure fictitious character of his pre-arranged and photographed scenes. Revealing a provoking pornographic form of the Holocaust it does not negate, but rather extends the already summoned mnemonic space, within which the extermination is to be thought over. The tentative roles given to the models by the photographer as well as the clearly erotic content of the pictures disrupt the official memorial-like form of extermination, which – when confronted to Michailov’s “unfermented” Holocaust – appears to be just as artificial. The process of de-mythification of the Holocaust is already evident in Boltanski’s work (though rather in his words than artworks), but it comes through much more vividly in Michailov’s creations. The title Testimony of the negative, given to Boris Michailov’s exhibition at the Warsaw CSW, appears to be a hollow and ironical combination of words: the negative itself doesn’t testify about anything, except maybe about what the artist wants it to. In this sense maybe the title “negative testimony” would suit Michailov’s Holocaust-related artwork better.
Other contemporary artists opening up the theme of Holocaust are the Poles Zbigniew Libera (1959) and Robert Kuśmirowski (1973). Libera has been discussed a lot in connection with his work Concentration camp from LEGO building blocks (1996). This artwork, also presented at the Mirroring Evil exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York, consists of building blocks, that can be – according to the title – used to build an extermination camp. Besides the three building block projects the artist also presented a series of photographs picturing “situations” from life at the camp. The combination of an “innocent” child’s toy with the extermination aroused and captured the attention of both art critics and the public. Libera’s controversial piece of art was also mentioned by Piotr Piotrowski in his book dedicated to current Polish art, entitled Meanings of modernism.
„Let’s imagine a terrible situation, where a child plays with a Lego building block set built in this manner. It must raise horror in any person showing any degree of sensitivity. Thus many viewers protested against such an artwork (...) The artist was even accused – of designing toys promoting violence and misuse of the memory of victims of Nazi terror. Such narrow-mindedness speaks not only of an insufficient understanding or ignoring of the artwork, but of sheer bad intent. It could also be reversed. Libera uses undoubtedly drastic means to unveil the mask from the fact, that it is the mass culture surrounding us, that manipulates evil, transforming it into merchandise. (...) The culture of consuming blunts our ethical sensitivity. We buy plastic models of machine guns for our kids, we watch thrillers, somebody even came up with the idea of building a supermarket right behind the fences of the one time concentration camp Auschwitz. It is not Libera who is cruel, it is our everydays.”
The authors critical approach to mass culture and above all to its visual side can also be seen on his series of photographs from 2004 called Positives. Libera reshapes famous iconic photographs of tragic events from general history, so that – whilst keeping the formal lines of the originals – they would include a different, positive message. One of the pictures is a “positive” version of a well known photograph from a camp, showing well fed “inmates” smiling at us from behind the barbed wire fence. A simple, but iconoclastic intervention takes off the emotional burden of the horrible photographs from the camp and refers to new ways of thinking about the Holocaust. Libera’s photography is an accurate interpretation of the contemporary viewers fear of the traumatic moment of accepting the tragedy of Holocaust, as described by the American author and art critic, the late Susan Sontag, in her essay entitled “In Plato’s cave”.
„Nothing I have seen previously – on photographs or in real life – touched me that brutally, deeply and with such lighting speed. I think I could probably divide my life in two parts: before I saw those photographs (I was twelve then) and after I saw them –
though some years had to pass, before I fully understood, what they were about. What was it good for, that I got to see them? They were only pictures of an event I barely heard of and which I could in no way influence, I couldn’t prevent it. Looking at the pictures something broke within me. I reached a certain limit, but not only a limit of horror: I felt an unavoidable sadness and uneasiness, at the same time something hardened within me, something died off, something is still crying.”
To experience the touch of the evil spirit by looking at photographs, as described by Sontag, appears today almost unimaginable. This is not only caused by the loss of credibility („innocence”) of the photographic document, but also by its unguarded entering of popular culture and the fact that the Holocaust and its capturing also in art is becoming gradually more and more trivial. The position of the contemporary viewer looking at the Holocaust is well interpreted in Robert Kuśmirowski’s work from the catalogue of the exhibition dedicated to the Auschwitz process, organized in 2004 by the Fritz Bauer Institute. On the photography on page 623 the Polish artist is standing with a prison in the background covering up his face, in order to hide from the camera’s lens. After a thorough study of the publication it becomes clear, that the artist’s gesture isn’t accidental – it is a re-enactment of the escape of one of the SS guards of Auschwitz, who is at the first glance an ordinary, decent German. Kuśmirowski, just like Libera, reaches for archive photographs, but not for icons of the twentieth century. The artist does not “condition” emotions contained within the historic picture-communal. He copies the gesture and composition, and ages the photograph with computer software so that is resembles pictures from the era. The viewer, a stranger to this procedure, “confuses” the artist with the SS guard “caught” by the photographer. The artist’s identification with the accused criminal lasts but for a moment, alike the gesture immortalized on the photograph. There is nothing hiding on Kuśmirowski’s copy, except for the gesture itself. We are unable to catch a glimpse of the criminals face, nor can we see the faces of the victims or recognize the artist face and neither do we see the Holocaust.
Adam Mazur