Art as Representation

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Art as Representation

The artistic legacy of genocide emanates from many quarters: outsiders and insiders warning about genocide or massacres in posters and paintings; images by survivors that include art created by children in the aftermath of genocide; imaginative, surrealistic, and what may be called postmodern art executed under the worst circumstances in order to convey a specific message about genocide via art. Artists, often seen as social outsiders, articulate various reasons for presenting genocidal subjects in art: witnessing; helping to commemorate or create an alternative form of memory to inform another generation of the event and its danger; use of fragmented, deconstructed visual forms instead of historical narratives as a means of telling the story; and warnings about lessons from the past that may bear on the future.

The styles of such critical artistic representation vary according to the chronological time of the genocidal event related to mainstream art movements. They have been expressionistic (George Grosz, Hannah Hoch, and Otto Dix's visual commentaries on the Jewish question from the early 1920s), photomontages (John Heartfield), surrealist (Max Ernst and Salvador Dali), realistic and satirical drawings (art from the concentration camps and ghettos, such as the work of Jozef Szajna and Eli Leskley, and Karl Stojko's images of the destruction of the Romani), and a vast array of media and forms of depiction in the aftermath of genocide, including sculpture, memorials, installation art, and large projects that often attempt a visual narrative. Key questions for such socially and politically directed art (and questions with illusive answers) are how specific it should be to the event, versus generalized human suffering, and what the balance between aesthetics and politics should be. The iconographic works that have best stood the test of time are Francisco Goya's Diasters of War (early nineteenth century) and Pablo Picasso's Guernica (1937).

Depictions of the Armenian genocide contemporaneous with the event appeared largely in political posters and editorial cartoons in newspapers. The Holocaust took place over a longer time span and was connected to the chronic political and economic difficulties of the Weimar Republic. This event, therefore, as well as the fact that Jews are part of a larger religious story and have played an important role in modern art, produced a wider array of artistic responses than any other genocide. Second only in duration were the genocidal events in Bosnia during the 1990s, which led to the production of art ranging from simple painting by children that conveyed the horrific effects of events beyond their control, to sophisticated postmodern installations in galleries. Art about the Rwandan genocide appeared only after the event, particularly in the form of children's art completed with the help of psychologists attempting to treat post-traumatic stress disorders.

Issues in Artistic Representation of Genocide

Artists were keenly aware of the power of photography and film in the depiction of twentieth-century genocides. Many early-twenty-first-century photographic projects now focus on the often barren landscape of genocide. The most important question asked about photographs invariably is, "Who took the photographs?" Often the images were made by perpetrators or liberators, rarely by the victims themselves, and are thus documents. In the aftermath of such crimes photography also plays an important role as photojournalists often dwell on the images of remains and chaos. These scenes, in the hands of artists, often become the basis for other art such as collage, a form that includes well-known photographic images as part of larger canvases.

Artists who focus on genocidal events are concerned about the effect of their work. If the art is so visceral, many feel, it may alienate viewers. Controversies have also occurred over the inflammatory nature of their art, which has sometimes led to censorship. If the art and representation of genocide contain repetitive scenes of dead bodies, a characteristic of documentary-style photographs of genocide, the result might well repel viewers from the subject rather than maintain interest. Such work has the potential to be viewed as low-brow or simply sensationalist. Furthermore, piles of human remains do not convey a sense of genocide, especially its source, except for being the most vivid representation of its aftermath. As genocides have occurred in different places, their artistic representations often contain images that convey a sense of geography, landscape, technology, and culture.

Themes of Absence

Still another subject found primarily in postmodern representations of genocide is the theme of absence, usually related to the aftermath of genocide. Loss can be conveyed by using old photographs of people and historic landmarks, and creating a visual sense of overall disturbance. Abstract artists Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko created a variation on absence in the late 1940s. Newman destroyed all of his art executed before 1945, insisting that a new form of visual representation was needed. The result was his zip paintings, large canvases with fields of color, or black and white, and vertical lines. The allusion of these works was the impossibility of adequately representing the Holocaust, as well as Newman's own retreat into the study of the kabbalah and the story of Creation from the Bible.

The British photographer Simon Norfolk produced an exhibition of the photos he had taken at many sites of genocide, from Namibia to Cambodia; that show wastitled, For Most of It, I have No Words. Norfolk's ideological approach is related to the power of art to produce memory about atrocity, in both a kind and unkind way. He has written: "Forgetting is the final instrument of genocide" (Norfolk, 1998b). Installation artists also often deal with the theme of absence: French artist Christian Boltanski never depicts dead bodies or massacres, but does confront the viewer with mixed-media images of people who may be dead or alive, walls and metaphorical lakes filled with clothing, and haunting environments that suggest some sinister event. Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar produced a multi-room installation about Rwanda titled, Let There Be Light (1994–1998). A significant part of this exhibit stresses the impossibility of representing genocide and absence, all the while provoking viewers by sometimes perplexing devices. Jaar created eight different exhibits called Real Pictures, photos shown in an unexpected way: Groups of rectangular black boxes were arranged in patterns on the floor to form a series of monuments. No actual images were plainly visible, however. The photos were inside the black boxes, while the box lid, which could not be opened, recorded with white lettering a description of the images inside. But the viewer was not allowed to see the photos, as seeing, in the artist's vision, did not necessarily mean understanding.

In Bosnia such postmodernism was employed by some of the potential victims. Witnesses to Existence was a 1993 exhibition in Sarajevo conceived by Mirsad Purivatra, who invited a group of Sarajevo artists to install one-day solo shows in his ruined gallery. The exhibition was the official entry from the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the 45th Venice Biennale. As it turned out, however, the gallery was unable to ship the artists' works to Italy because of the Serbian blockade. Only a videotape of the exhibition found its way to Venice.

Art and Theodicy

Art also often relates to theological issues and a search for the spiritual. This is a difficult subject; one associated more closely with the Holocaust as a genocidal event because of its underlying race-religion question and Christianity's Jewish background. Spiritual themes and images are found in many artistic works about the Holocaust and occasionally in other genocide-related art. The idea of creating art from such extremely negative circumstances, thus affirming the value of human life and the existence of a Creator, is at best questionable, and suggests some of the difficult theological questions posed by the Holocaust: the presence and/or absence of God, the death of God, the use of mysticism as a way of understanding the immensity of the event and its purpose—for good to be understood, evil must perhaps exist. Paintings by Marc Chagall, Anselm Kiefer, Arie Galles, Alice Lok Cahana, Samuel Bak, Lea Grundig, Fritz Hirschberger, Mauricio Lasansky, Rico LeBrun, and others attempt to address some of these difficult questions. Armenian-American artist Robert Barsamiam has used images of the crucifixion in his room installations as a symbol of the fate of the Armenian people, but such a device does not invite theological questioning on the scale that a work about the Holocaust does. Artistic responses to the Bosnian war have not tried to deal with Christian or Muslim theological questions. Simon Norfolk's photographs of Rwanda after the genocide there have the power to raise questions about the failure of the Catholic Church in preventing genocide, or even witnessing the active participating in mass murder by a few priests and nuns.

One of the most successful painters of the Holocaust is a survivor from Vilna, Lithuania, Samuel Bak; he paints with a classical palette but after much experimentation with different forms of representation, Bak's painting settled into a kind of surrealism that revealed the artist's close ties with Renaissance paintings, the Jewish traditions as well as his feelings of estrangement from them. Bak does not describe this process as a long intellectual journey, rather a "responding to something that was pushing out from the inside, something visceral, something that takes a long time for the mind to comprehend." The result was a large body of paintings that focused on the themes of absence, the post-Holocaust landscape of Jewish existence, and the peoples of the technologically advanced modern age who are barely able to function, and made metaphorical use of specific objects such as chess pieces or pears for a discourse about the post-Holocaust world. Bak has described his vision as follows: "These representational paintings of mine depicted devastated landscapes of ancient cities, urban constructions that seemed to be made of a child's building blocks. In painted figures that were half-alive, and half-contrived of bizarre prostheses. I imagined helpless and abused angels. . . . My painting carried no answers, only questions."

Cambodia: Archive or Art?

A postgenocide art has materialized within Cambodia and in émigré Cambodian communities around the world that adds to an understanding of events there. One particularly important set of photographic images is Facing Death: Portraits from the Killing Fields, assembled by the Photo Archive Group at Boston University. The exhibition consists of photographs taken in S-21, a secret Cambodian prison operated by the Pol Pot regime in the capital city of Phnom Penh from mid-1975 through the end of 1978. As the text of the exhibition reads, "Individuals accused of treason, along with their families, were brought to S-21 where they were photographed upon arrival. They were tortured until they confessed to whatever crime their captors charged them with, and then executed" (University of Minnesota Center for Genocide and Holocaust Studies). Of the 14,200 people taken as prisoners, only 7 are known to have survived. After the Vietnamese army captured the prison site in 1979, it was transformed into the Tuol Sleng Museum of Genocide. The photographic archive was catalogued and its contents published in 1994. One hundred negatives were selected for final printing, many of which are reproduced in the 1996 book The Killing Fields. Many of the photos, although documentary, have an artistic dimension. Some of the victims show fear, while others appear to laugh, as if they do not comprehend the horrible fate that awaits them. Viewers are left to ponder, at least for a second, if they would resist a similar fate or attempt to bargain for their lives.

Bunheang Ung, a prolific Cambodian artist and survivor of genocide, has created an important artistic chronicle of the Cambodian genocide. Ung was forced to flee Phnom Penh with his family in 1975. At the time he was twenty-three years old and a university student studying art. Assigned to work units in the rural economy, he witnessed the mass murder of thirty relatives. His black and white drawings, done in the late 1970s, possess a fascinating amount of detail. The energy of the artist's hand in drawing the images suggests his own agitation and need to fill every space on the drawn surface, as if there was too much to relate. His Communal Dining depicts resettlement camps where Cambodian life was realigned along collective lines. The drawings of torture, oppression, and murder share similarities with the images of the German painters Otto Dix and George Grosz, who recreated the horrors of World War I in their work. However, certain uniquely Cambodian symbols distinguish all art produced about this event, such as Ung's Demolition of the Phum Andong Pagoda.

Art about genocide is not in the public view as much as film, literature, and drama on the same subject. Since art needs appropriate gallery or museum space for display, it has certain constraints not encountered by other forms of representation. Therefore, the most frequent exhibitions that have included art about genocide have occurred in large European shows or historical commemorations, in galleries at colleges and universities, and only occasionally at large museums.

SEE ALSO Art as Propaganda


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Stephen C. Feinstein

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Art as Representation

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