Visu­al Arts

Art from the Holocaust

Eli­ad Moreh-Rosen­berg, ed.
  • Review
By – February 24, 2017

By now, it is com­mon­place, near­ly reflex­ive, to say that art pro­duced by tar­gets of the Holo­caust tes­ti­fies to the dig­ni­ty of the human spir­it. Indeed, sim­i­lar sen­ti­ments are expressed in some of the essays that pref­ace the excel­lent Art from the Holo­caust: 100 Art­works from the Yad Vashem Col­lec­tion. The art­work itself pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty to refine and clar­i­fy that statement.

These hun­dred paint­ings and draw­ings, expert­ly cho­sen from the vast col­lec­tion of Yad Vashem, rep­re­sent a sam­ple of the out­put pro­duced by res­i­dents of the ghet­tos, work camps, and death camps. Approx­i­mate­ly half of the artists fea­tured did not survive. 

We may be aston­ished to find that the Holo­caust scarce­ly reg­is­ters in these pieces. Cer­tain­ly it dom­i­nates the sub­ject mat­ter, but when con­sid­er­ing the work as art, the view­er could be look­ing at a sur­vey from the peri­od devot­ed to any theme. The artists can be rough­ly divid­ed into naïve and pro­fes­sion­al cat­e­gories. The naïve make the pic­tures that naïve artists make: clum­sy and sin­cere depic­tions of what lies before them. The image is deformed, but what is intend­ed is clear. The pro­fes­sion­al artists, by con­trast, pre­cise­ly reflect the state of the artis­tic dis­course at the time the art was made. We see both work that is nos­tal­gic for the real­ist tra­di­tions of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and work that is influ­enced by dif­fer­ent strains of the mod­ernist project. Some artists turn to sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty akin to Chagall’s, oth­ers to the sul­furous com­e­dy of a Kokosch­ka-like out­look or to Matisse’s lyri­cal min­i­mal­ism, and still oth­ers to the satir­i­cal line draw­ing styles com­mon in cen­tral Europe in the 1930s. Traces of Cezanne, Picas­so, Fechin, Koll­witz, Schiele, and Lada abound — not because the artists mim­ic them, but because these styl­is­tic and the­mat­ic tropes were in the air.

One might expect the artists to slav­ish­ly record the details, to pro­vide tes­ti­mo­ny so that this mon­strous inter­val should nev­er be for­got­ten. And indeed, at the lev­el of nar­ra­tive and con­tent, the artists seek to do that. But they large­ly fail to devel­op the util­i­tar­i­an eyes of war illus­tra­tors or court­room sketch artists. Even in the midst of the black­est night, these artists can­not stop func­tion­ing as artists. Their sub­ject a giv­en, they spend their nar­row time and mate­r­i­al resources refin­ing their styles, work­ing on con­tem­po­rary prob­lems in aes­thet­ics, and pars­ing their envi­ron­ments for excit­ing artis­tic opportunities.

This is per­haps the real tri­umph of the human spir­it: not to go on mak­ing art in the face of the abyss, but to go on mak­ing art that is part and par­cel of the artis­tic dis­course. It declines to be defined by the cru­cible of its cre­ation. It refus­es to be impov­er­ished by its cir­cum­stance or to become alien­at­ed from beau­ty and joy. It tes­ti­fies to the per­sis­tence of an ordi­nary vivac­i­ty, up to and beyond the bit­ter end. It is a cred­it to the Jew­ish peo­ple, and, one hopes, human­i­ty at large.

The book includes sev­er­al for­wards and essays, and clear, help­ful notes on each image and its maker. 

Relat­ed Content:

  • Lisa Barr: How Far Would You Go for Your Artis­tic Passions?
  • Alli­son Amend: The Jew­ish Con­nec­tion to Art
  • Tah­neer Oks­man: Where Should the Sto­ry Begin?” The Worlds of Holo­caust Graph­ic Memoirs
  • Daniel Maid­man is a writer and artist liv­ing in Brook­lyn. His lit­er­ary and art crit­i­cism has been pub­lished in, among oth­ers, The Huff­in­g­ton Post, Crit­i­cal Flame, and MAKE. His art is includ­ed in the per­ma­nent col­lec­tions of the Library of Con­gress, the New Britain Muse­um of Amer­i­can Art, and the Long Beach Muse­um of Art.

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