Can drawings produced in concentration camps be works of art or are they Holocaust documents?

A new exhibition looks at works produced by artists while detained by the Nazis



The capacity of art to get to grips with naked and irrational suffering has been questioned and reaffirmed throughout history. “Legacies of silence”, an exhibition at London’s Imperial War Museum subtitled “The visual arts and Holocaust memory,” looks at graphic works produced by artists in internment, in ghettos, transit and concentration camps set up by the Nazis, and addresses some of the profound issues raised by this work.

The camps produced all manner of illustrations, mementoes, and caricatures; hundreds of works were also made by children in the “model” camp at Theresienstadt. But the curator of “Legacies”, Glenn Sujo, has restricted himself to work produced by professionally trained artists.

“Artists,” he explains, “are trained to look. Their perceptual choices are of the utmost significance, even if the question of stylistic choice in a universe that allowed for no choice to speak of remains a vexed one.” Sujo is an artist himself, and a curator specialising in the continuity of drawing traditions. In the section of the exhibition entitled “Precursors” he looks at the work of artists responding to the atrocities of World War I and the Russian pogroms, such as Käthe Kollwitz, Otto Dix and Marc Chagall.

Then, in “In Transit,” he looks at art produced in the internment camps organised by the Vichy government in France. He is keen to establish lines of artistic influence; for instance, artists like Felix Nussbaum (who died at Auschwitz) drew on precedents set by the German Expressionists, as well as earlier Northern Europeans such as Dürer, Brueghel, Goya and Van Gogh. Later sections include “Theresienstadt,” “Ghetto,” “Auschwitz” and “Survivors.”

“In selecting the drawings,” Sujo explains, “I searched for intimations of [an] imaginative hold on life, beyond the mere record of fact.” And indeed, in the accompanying catalogue, he displays great acumen in his discussions of these drawings as drawing. But the really vexed question is: within which framework should we regard these works? Indeed, should they be displayed in museums devoted to the Holocaust or in art museums? On the one hand, these drawings obviously exist as documents, attesting to a truth which constantly needs reasserting.

“My drawing,” wrote the Communist Karol Konieczny, “ought not to be subjected to scrutiny and aesthetic art criticism... I wish [it] to be considered a living and shocking document of a world of horror and torment.”

Other artists, however, make fervent and persuasive claims for their drawings as art. Zoran Music, who recounted that he started drawing one man “so far gone that he was dead by the time I finished my sketch,” also said: “My works are absolutely not documents... for an artist it is impossible not to work, it is like breathing.”

In the end, perhaps, the two aspects—art and testimony—are indivisible. These artists were acting—it hardly needs to be said—at the furthest remove from an aesthetic vacuum. In such a context, drawing took on various kinds of wider significance: an attempt at permanence in the face of the contingency of camp life; or an assertion of individuality in the face of the camps’ relentless drive toward anonymity. Drawing was also a perilous act of resistance: it cost several artists in this exhibition their lives.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, work coming from inside the camps was marked by hesitancy, tentativeness, a lack of artifice, and prosaic subject matter. Work done afterwards was characterised by rhetoric, and a tendency to make universalising statements.

Sujo argues that these works have been marginalised from orthodox histories of 20th-century art. Part of the problem is that they raise awkward methodological problems: attribution is often hard to establish, and many of the works remain in extremely fragile states. On top of that, these works exist at the limits of representation; their subjects often defy comprehension. Few artists were able to depict the actual exterminations, because their access to the sites of mass murder were restricted. When they were confronted with the evidence—especially in the final months of the war—Jewish artists in particular avoided direct depictions of the dead, out of respect. But non-Jews such as Music, Aldo Carpi and Leon Delarbre did portray the atrocities committed by the Nazis, and their work survives as a powerful testament to the dead.

This exhibition intelligently addresses the problem of the perceptual gap raised by the Holocaust. Surely art and imagination fail here? Is art not revealed as mere ornamentation beside such extreme suffering? A moral conflict exists, as Sujo acknowledges, between the reverent silence of grief and the urgent need to bear witness. But perhaps both responses are necessary. Poetry—despite what Theodor Adorno once wrote—was not entirely defeated by Auschwitz, and nor was art. These works should at some point be seen in museums devoted to art.

“Legacies of silence: the visual arts and Holocaust memory” (until 27 August), Imperial War Museum, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ Tel: +44 (0)20 7416 5320, www.iwm.org.uk

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Drawing the boundaries'