Art in the media: History as a developing process

Lodz ghetto photos found in Vienna; Van Dyck reassessed; Tracey Emin in profile


So accustomed are we to seeing World War II represented through black and white photography, that the notion of there being a colour version of events seems almost inconceivable. A recent documentary “The Second World War in colour” revealed colour footage collected by researcher Adrian Wood over the past decade which had the effect of making the events depicted seem startlingly vivid and immediate. By a curious coincidence, Mr Wood's film was broadcast only a few days after another documentary on World War II—Photographer (BBC2, September 4)—had alighted upon an equally informative, but altogether more sinister, archive of colour photography.

In 1987, 400 colour slides were found in an antique shop in Vienna. They turned out to be a photographic record of the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland, taken by Walter Genewein, the Nazi's accountant at the ghetto.

For the first few years of the war, the Lodz ghetto was an enormously productive tool of the Wehrmacht, supplying clothing and other goods to the German war effort. However, despite the benefits to corrupt Nazis, such as Genewein and the Lodz administrator Hans Biebow in sustaining the ghetto's productive capacity, there was never any doubt as to what awaited its citizens. "The ultimate goal must be the total eradication of this plague," wrote Biebow of the Jewish community under his control.

As the historian Martin Gilbert has shown, the treatment of the Jews in Lodz was one of the most grotesque episodes in the annals of the Holocaust, but one would never have guessed it from Genewein's highly selective photographic account. Director Dariusz Jablónskiego's film juxtaposed Genewein's visual record—some of the first colour slides in the history of photography—with the memories recounted by Arnold Mostowicz, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto. "It was a shock to see those pictures taken by a ghetto official," said Mr Mostowicz. "The slides pictured the ghetto in Lodz, but it was not the ghetto from my memory. I feel it is something unreal, totally untrue. I cannot even place myself in that reality, the time and place pictured here." Mr Mostowicz asked, “Where is the truth? In the archives? In old documents? In the cemetery? How to grasp the sense of this colourful vision contained in Genewein's slides?"

History and memory

Rarely does television come near to addressing the kind of issues raised by this documentary, for while it functioned primarily as a direct account of that specific human tragedy, it also invited contemplation of more abstract ideas about landscape and memory, the ethics of photography and the function of colour in representation.

Above all, it forced us to interrogate the processes by which historical events are recorded and transmitted, as rigorous archival research and first-hand oral history served to undermine the seemingly authoritative but wholly discordant visual evidence. Susan Sontag once remarked that there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera, and this was dramatised here by the disparity between Genewein's expressed bureaucratic purpose to register the Nazi's administrative achievements at Lodz, and the savage events unfolding off camera. The absence at the heart of the photographic archive functioned as an emblem of that inhumanity.

Thankfully, Genewein's pictures are not the only surviving visual record of the Lodz Jews, for Roman Vishniac made a photographic profile of the Polish shtetl in 1937-38 using a hidden camera, eventually published as A vanished world. "I felt that the world was about to be cast into the mad shadow of Nazism and that the outcome would be the annihilation of a people who had no spokesman to record their plight," Vishniac wrote. "I knew it was my task to make sure that this vanished world did not totally disappear."

Off the shoulder

These days visual-arts television is largely made in response to blockbuster exhibitions and hence it was no surprise to see Van Dyck getting the Omnibus treatment (BBC1, 13 September).

This was an entertaining and creative profile of the painter, incorporating opinions from today's minor royalty, art dealers, portrait painters, fashion designers, photographers and various members of the chattering classes. Sexy, shimmering, shiny, sensuous, were the adjectives most frequently used to sum up Van Dyck's lush treatment of drapery as it tumbled from creamy shoulders and gaped suggestively in all the right places.

Barely a week goes by without someone announcing the death of painting, but perhaps all it needs is a Van Dyck to reinvigorate it. This programme revealed him as a kind of Max Clifford for the landed classes, for, if your image needed a make-over in the seventeenth century, Van was the man. Clearly the combination of masculine power and fetishistic frisson represented by a suit of armour was not lost on him and evidently retains its sensual charge today, if fashion stylist Isabella Blow is anything to go by: "You want to undo the armour because a tiny bit of strap is asking: ‘Undo me! Undo me!'," she panted, while Sir Oliver Millar, former Keeper of The Queen's Pictures, languished on his couch and muttered soberly: "You look much sexier in a picture by Van Dyck. The whole thing shimmers."

Van Dyck's legacy will be abundantly clear to all those who make the trip to the RA for the exhibition marking the painter's 400th anniversary, but Old Master dealer Philip Mould believes the painter has left a more prosaic mark on our lives. "In a funny sort of way, when you pull the curtain across behind you in a photobooth, you are acknowledging the contribution of Van Dyck to British portraiture," said Mr Mould. Perhaps they should rename them “Swagger-me fotobooths”.

Being Tracey

Finally, Close Up (BBC 2, 15 September) profiled Turner Prize nominee Tracey Emin, who began her career as self-styled Mad Tracey from Margate, but who has subsequently transformed herself into Sensible Sane Tracey from Shoreditch. Fellow artists, dealers, critics, family and friends all seemed to be having trouble deciding whether our Tracey was an important artist or just another bibulous wannabe. Only twin brother Mark was unequivocal. Modern art is "a total load of bollocks,” he pronounced with great deliberation, after revealing something of the resentment he felt at having intimate aspects of his family life broadcast to the world as part of his sister's art.

Tracey Emin is perhaps best known to the general public for the patchwork tent she showed at the Royal Academy Sensation exhibition —“Everyone I ever slept with”—but many will also recall her inebriated exit from a late night television discussion following the Turner Prize a couple of years ago.

That interruption has become something of a seminal moment in her career to date and indeed was absolutely of a piece with her work, which is confessional, neurotic, creatively self-obsessed. Sadly, it is also mind-numbingly banal. Nevertheless, one could not help feeling a certain affection for Emin by the time the forty minutes were up and it will be no surprise if she walks off with the Turner Prize just for being Tracey.

o Storyville: “Photographer", BBC2, 4 September. An Apple film production for BBC2’s Storyville series. Produced by Dariusz Jablónskiego. Storyville editor Nick Fraser. (1.5 million viewers)

o Omnibus: “Van Dyck", BBC1, 13 September. Directed by Louise Hooper. Omnibus series editor Basil Comely. (1.9 million viewers)

o Close Up: “Tracey Emin”, BBC2, 15 September. A ZCZ Films Production for BBC2. Produced by Waldemar Januszczak, Directed by Simon Chu. (1.2 million viewers)