Nov 24, 2011

REVIEW | After Auschwitz, Monica Bohm-Duchen, Northern Centre for Contemporary Art, 1995

After Auschwitz: Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art, Monica Bohm-Duchen
We have all heard one too many Holocaust jokes in bad taste. You laugh, but that little part of your soul that isn't black makes you feel just a little guilty. That's part of the beauty of jokes and laughter right? That they can take the edge off of things. And they are never "too soon," because there is almost always the one person who bursts out laughing. I think art has the same talent that jokes do. Iffy topics and controversial subjects seem to be taken more lightly when are on Jay Leno, in comics or an art gallery.

This book was first published by the Northern Centre for Contemporary Art in London on the occasion of the exhibition under the same title. With five authors contributing and a chapter of artists' statements alone it provides for a well rounded and knowledge filled work. The text is various as well as the art works- including drawings, paintings, sculptures,  abstract pieces as well as realistic ones. Minus the rainy weather, this exhibit is one reason why I would've like to have been in London at the time to experience this. Many of the artists featured were Jewish descendants so the art and exhibit especially meant something to them. The book begins with a foreword-like piece by George Steiner written for Elie Wiesel, the author of Night . While the content of this book bears a weight, there is something to be said about the fact that responses to this tragedy made their way through contemporary art. Usually the Holocaust is learned about early on when we are forced to read The Diary of Anne Frank in seventh grade when all we really remember is the part where she made out with her boyfriend...come on, it was junior high. All tween awkwardness aside, I don't think anyone was mature enough or paid enough attention to fully understand what happened in Germany all those years ago. Taking this somewhat boring historical subject and making it into an art exhibition was the greatest idea anyone could have. Art has a way of doing that with so many things, feminism, politics, gay rights, abortion...if it's controversial, you name it.

"The Combing Shawl," Ellen Rothenberg, text of the Diary of Anne Frank printed on vellum, graphite, aluminum and steel brackets, 350 combs cast in various metals, 1993

Although this book and show are from the 90s the same concept is definitely applicable to today. America's controversy with the Middle East could have filled galleries around the world with people's views, ideas and feelings about the whole thing. And it is more interesting (in my opinion) than listening to people bicker on CNN, although Anderson Cooper is pretty easy on the eyes. Magdalena Abakanowicz, a featured artist, born in Poland of a family who suffered badly at the hands of Nazis, puts the tale of her path to art rather interestingly,
Grown up, I escaped from reality into art. At the beginning I believed that art is the harmless activity of mankind. But I was witness of its use for propaganda purposes by totalitarian systems. I believed in the extraordinary sensitivity of an artist, but I learned that Hitler was a painter and Stalin used to write sonnets. Running away from political pressure into my dreams, I found myself caught by longings, disappointments and fears similar to those that have accompanied human existence from its very beginning. I bewitch my time filling it with forms, crowds of figures and objects. As though building a barrier, a fence, a wall that could protect me. Behind it I feel safe. I can speak to people through the metaphor of my art. We understand each other in the non-verbal language of images, since the point of the images is to show all that which escapes conceptualism.
"Holocaust," George Segal, sculptures, 1983

The artist features and authors ideas in this book are well thought out and include as well as evoke emotion typical of the subject but it still tugs on heartstrings and makes you think twice about the concept of art, especially contemporary. It has the power to nearly bring back the dead, a part of the past so far that we wonder how long it will stay in history books considering how much the world has gone through since. I once had a wise professor write in one my art history syllabus's that we create history, so in a sense, it is fiction. Considering that, art is also creating our history. While tragedies such as the Holocaust or any other event where lives are lost are always cast with a dim light upon them, art has a way of placing them in a spotlight where we aren't afraid to look. Human nature shies us away from bad things or hurt or pain and art has a way of allowing us to have a (false) sense of courage or  guts to really involve ourselves. A book with "Auschwitz" in the title wouldn't normally be one to pick up, but in this case, I'm glad I did.

-Amelia Navarro


  1. Amelia, your description of learning about the Holocaust in junior high and finding it boring is interesting and a little troubling, but contributes well to your overall point. I admit, I'm guilty of dozing off in History a few times; it's hard to place ourselves in the moment when these tragic events were happening when they are so far in the past. The use of a static work of art to engage the viewer in experiencing a terrible event such as the genocide that occurred in places like Auschwitz is no new phenomenon, as artists have used their work to engage us in the sublime for centuries. But that doesn't mean it never stops the work from being interesting and altogether thought-provoking.
    - Rachel Clark

  2. I have to say, you said "learned about" when you were referring about being taught about the holocaust. You should rephrase that to "taught", i think it would be more appropriate. Also, It is upsetting to me that you seem to throw the holocaust aside as you speak about it like it is nothing almost. At least when you were referring to you middle school years, but it is still upsetting and I can't understand why at that age you would not be capable of fully understanding such a serious manner. Its upsetting because it just reinforces the idea that as americans we think nothing can go wrong with our lives and that our civilization will never come to what had befallen germany and those european countries. I am also displeased you referred to this point in history as boring. Im sorry if this is quite a bit over the top but it certainly does disturb me.

    Your blog apart from that is interesting, though more information would have been nice. I feel like you left out a lot and possibly rushed through this a bit.

    - Erin Davis

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  4. Although your post does seem to lack in some key information regarding the works and the artist, I must stand with you and say what many people are thinking but are afraid to say. Any event horrific or not, seems to to only resonate with the current and following generations. I'm sorry that happen to those people, but in the same way I'm sorry for the people that died to the hands of the black plague centuries ago. Come on, do you really feel something for these people, or are you just worried about how people will judge your response. To be real takes more effort than to show false compassion. Please don't smile at me between your teeth, it's rude.

    ~David Davis