For those who were spared the horrors of the Holocaust, the events that made up the Nazis’ Final Solution persist as a collage of black-and-white images – documentary photographs taken by the Nazis to record their horrific achievements or film footage taken by the Allies as evidence of the tragedy they encountered at liberation. Even Steven Spielberg’s cinematic rendering, "Schindler’s List," preserved the duotone palette of historical Holocaust memory.
A remarkable aspect of "The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz," a new exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art through June 16, is that many of the roughly 200 paintings, drawings, etchings and woodcuts on view are full of color and a vivid urgency that is absent from archival photographs and newsreels.
The portraits by Aizik-Adolphe Feder, an Odessa native, artist and a member of the French underground, depict fellow inmates at the Drancy concentration camp in the lively strokes of charcoal and pastel. A sunflower painted by Peter Ginz, a youth leader and Prague native, radiates a yearning for freedom. Comic satires of life in the Theresienstadt ghetto by Pavel Fantl, a biochemist by training, elicit laughter until one reads that he died during a forced march on his 42nd birthday.
The product of five years of research and travel by its curators, "The Last Expression" is the first comprehensive exhibition to bring together diverse works created by victims of the Nazi regime in camps and ghettos throughout Europe.
The exhibition follows no specific timeline, geographic organization or adherence to specific genres. Instead "The Last Expression" is designed so that visitors follow an experiential path that traces the fateful trajectory shared by all of the artists: Each was incarcerated or murdered at Auschwitz.
The exhibition aims to call into question the "noble and edifying role" normally attributed to art. Certainly the artists often risked their lives to document the atrocities they witnessed saw in their artistic creation a way to forget and a means to survive. One artist-survivor, Halina Olomucki – who produced over 200 clandestine works at Auschwitz-Birkenau – later said, "The need to document became an extraordinary force that carried me to survival."
But what of those artists who were forced to create at the command of their captors? Some of the most fascinating works in "The Last Expression" are a series of lithographs made for a Nazi handbook titled "Falsch-Richtig" (Wrong-Right), which diagrams the most efficient means of guarding prisoner groups in the camps. The handbook illustrates Mickenberg calls the "moral conundrum" of art made in Auschwitz – one prisoner’s artwork being used in the oppression of other prisoners.
One of the miraculous aspects of the exhibition is that so much art has survived. Some works were buried in floorboards, others were smuggled out. Still others were created from memory after liberation – including some drawings used as evidence against Nazi criminals. The Nazis themselves preserved some artworks in files that they abandoned as the Allies advanced.
According to Mickenberg, "The Last Expression" is possible only now because the main repositories of Holocaust art, most prominently Yad Vashem and Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, have sufficiently researched and catalogued their holdings. These institutions are among the major lenders to the exhibition.
On view are portraits of prisoners made as a form of psychological escape and subtle resistance; numerous works of satire and social commentary; sketches and paintings bearing witness to the hardships, tortures and the murderous operations in the ghettos and camps.
"The Last Expression" includes work by known artists such as the German painter Felix Nussbaum, whose canvases and studies stand out for their emotional expression, and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, a Bauhaus-trained artist who instructed children at Theresienstadt to portray all the beauty of the life they remember.
Many visitors might be surprised to learn that Auschwitz, as did several other camps, housed workshops and studios where artists labored for their captors’ benefit. Some of the works on display were created at the command of SS officers to decorate homes and offices or for display in the museum that was created by camp commandant Rudolph Hoss at the suggestion of a Polish prisoner, Franciszek Targosz.
With access to art supplies, some inmates were able to create works of personal expression. Other inmates created "semi-legal" works of art, for example, as illustrated letters that non-Jewish prisoners were allowed to send out twice a month, under severe censorship restrictions.
Art created by victims of the Holocaust has generally been excluded from histories of 20th-century visual culture, despite the fact that it emerged from one of the last century’s defining historical phenomena, explained Mickenberg, the former director of the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, where the exhibition originated.
The work "does not fit into some of the ‘isms’ we talk about in art history, [yet] it exemplifies the use of art as an expressive medium," said Mickenberg, who is now the director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College.
For the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, curator Marilyn Kushner and designer Matthew Yokobosky traveled to Auschwitz, and their installation reflects that experience.
Beams across the ceiling recall barracks originally built as horse stables. In other ways, the galleries resemble the Museum’s reinstallation of its American art collection, also designed by Yokobosky, especially in the use of bright yellow, purple and orange walls that imbue the spaces with a dreamlike quality. One wall is slashed with voids that are reminiscent of the architect Daniel Libeskind’s design for the Jewish Museum Berlin.
"It’s impossible to recreate an environment, but we could create a conducive mood," said Kushner, who is chair of the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs.
One successful element is the recorded music playing at intervals in the galleries – songs written for ghetto cabarets or resistance anthems – which contribute to the exhibition’s triumphant quality.
Another innovative aspect of "The Last Expression" is the use of digitized reproductions that allow visitors to view every page of the delicate notebooks without any risk of damage. Among those on display are a parody of Mickey Mouse at the Gurs concentration camp, and a 22-page sketchbook from Auschwitz. Drawn in pencil and crayon, the anonymous work simply and directly portrays families being separated, inmates at work and prisoners going to the gas chambers. It was found in 1947, hidden in a bottle.
"The Last Expression" offers visitors a chance to see the 1944 Nazi propaganda film shot at Theresienstadt, "The Fuhrer Gives a City to the Jews," in which the ghetto’s inhabitants are seen playing soccer, shopping and working in "their" gardens – an utter fiction.
More disturbing is the inclusion of footage of the Allied liberation of concentration camps, shot by the Hollywood director George Stevens’s at the order of U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower. At first these graphic images seem incongruous when viewed next to the artists’ works, which invite contemplation and appreciation.
But the inclusion of the documentary footage ultimately underscores the strength of the artwork. "One of the important messages of the show is that, in spite of the horrors people were forced to endure, they created art, even with the thereat of death over their heads," Kushner said. "Some people might not understand that unless they view the film."