Holocaust Paintings
Leo Segedin   |  1967-1979 |   Print this essay

Ever since I became aware of what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust - as a young Jewish art student in the generally disinterested, if not anti-Semitic, Gentile environment of a university in central Illinois at the end of World War II - I have been disturbed by the problem of how an artist can give form to the horror of the Holocaust without trivializing it. Elie Weisel believes that this cannot be done. Perhaps he is right for nothing I have seen or read comes close to expressing the depths of our feelings towards this horror. The photographs and films which we saw at the end of the war, the new films which have recently been released, recreate some of these feelings. They describe a minuscule part of what happened. They are not enough. Dramatic music and narration add nothing to these images. We continue to watch them in disbelieving silence. The painters, printmakers, photographers and sculptors who have tried, for all their sincerity and depth of feeling, have created images which are too beautiful, too abstract, or which disintegrate into a chaos of expressionistic outrage. They have tended to be too sentimental, too trite, too simplistic, too bathetic. They are too personal or not personal enough.

Images of dead people - scenes of mutilation, torture, pain and suffering - allegories of death, destruction and oppression - are not unique to the Holocaust. Brueghel and Bosch, Michelangelo, Goya, Kolwitz, Callot, Dix and Grosz have created great works representing such subjects. Soldiers have always died horribly; women and children have always been slaughtered; unrepentant Christians have burnt in Hell for almost two thousand years. Some good and sincere friends, both Christian and Jewish, tell me that the Holocaust is not unique and that I should submerge my feelings about it in some universal compassion for all the suffering peoples of the world. My response has been that I have as much sensitivity to human suffering as anyone, but that there is a quantum difference between the Holocaust and other horrors of history.

Allegorical approaches to such subjects are not always as effective as we would want them to be. Symbols require interpretation and interpreters can disagree. The meanings of Picasso's Guernica, although the painting remains a powerful attack on brutality and Fascism and the massacre of innocents, is still being debated. When the symbols in a work have to be explained, even by the artist himself, the impact is lessened because of the need for interpretation. The viewer must read the meaning into the work instead of responding directly. A powerful work of art should not require a 'dictionary'.

While some works on fearful subjects are abstract, they too have their limitations. Whether these works are symbolic, expressive or beautiful arrangements of shapes and colors, they will ultimately be perceived as aesthetic forms. Therefore, they depersonalize the horror of the experience they are intended to convey. How can such forms express pain and suffering? Are beautiful art forms ever appropriate to such subjects? (When Il Duce's son-in-law, Count Ciano, dropped bombs on defenseless Ethiopians in 1936, he described the resulting explosion as the unfolding of a beautiful, rose-colored flower.)

How can an artist convey the sheer incomprehensibility of the numbers? Recently, I saw the Viet Nam Memorial in Washington, D.C. and was deeply moved by this monument to over 58,000 dead American boys. And then I wondered what a monument to 6,000,000 dead Jews would look like and how people would respond to that. Some have called the Viet Nam Memorial a conceptual work of art, but the names of individual people are not concepts at all. The response to the wall was not to the idea of those dead, but rather to all those flesh and blood individuals those names they represent. The statue of the three tired soldiers gazing at the wall is the abstraction.

The single child's shoe on the spotlighted pedestal at Yad Vashem is far more poignant than all those paintings and sculptures of gaunt men, women and children behind barbed wire gazing or reaching imploringly to the sky. Perhaps, if the mind cannot deal with the murder of one and a half million children, the heart can feel the agony of a single child.

(The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. come close to provoking an adequate response, but it is difficult to conceive of it as a work of art or even a monument.)

Between 1967 and 1979, I attempted to confront some of these issues in paintings and drawings. Although words cannot adequately recreate the character and meanings of visual art, I will describe the kinds of experiences which I hope these works communicate more adequately.

In the series of crayon drawings, Babel, done in 1967 and 1968, I tried to create a sense of the desperation we feel when our efforts to communicate are futile, our inability to hear each other or see what each other sees, the isolation we often feel in our institutional and political (as well as personal) life. At its most extreme, how do we feel when our existence is being threatened and no one hears our cries. Who heard the Jews of Europe?

In the series of large acrylic paintings and some drawings called Polifiction, done in 1969, I was concerned with the obliviousness of political institutions to the realities which they have created or to which they are incapable of responding. Politicians, leaders, agents, protectors - immune, distant, impervious, impersonal - all caught up on an eternal carrousel, a merry-go-round in which the same responselessness repeats itself indefinitely. Weren't these the attitudes of the leaders of the Western world during the Holocaust?

In the series of acrylic paintings and drawings called Parts of Man, I have tried to suggest depersonalization - the loss of individuality, uniqueness, personality, character, humanity, creativity, love, passion, even hate. These paintings are not concerned with mutilation or decapitation. The absence of heads, hands and feet - the parts of the body reassembled - imply dehumanization rather than butchery. The images are bloodless, painless, cool and distant amid signs of celebration (balloons, ribbons) in an institutional kind of space. There is no difference indicated between human life and death. Banal attitudes toward life leads to the destruction of life. No one cares. Beauty can conceal, transform, make evil appear aesthetic and positive. Weren't these the attitudes of the Nazis toward their victims at Buchenwald?

In the series, Compartments, organic forms (our life) are contained, enclosed, compressed, limited, deformed, processed within geometric compartments (our institutions, technology, etc.).

The Permutations and Transformations series are concerned with eternal transformations of the animate into the inanimate. Political order (clothed figures) transforms, depersonalizes humanity (nude figures) in oppressive institutions (geometric containers) which are transformed into natural, organic then inorganic forms and ultimately the cycle repeats itself. They imply a transformation life, society and its institutions and the physical world one into the other - a circular process which is eternal, impersonal - caused by man's unconcern, his destruction of life and nature. It suggests inevitability, helplessness, futility, inability to affect one's life, one's future, one's survival. Human values, language, passions become ultimately meaningless. Weren't these the feelings of those at Auschwitz and Treblinka? These last several series were done between 1970 and 1979.

The location for the exhibition of such works raises other issues. The usual places where one sees Art are in museums and galleries, neither of which seem appropriate to me. Museums are usually concerned with the quality and artistic significance of old and new Art. They do not exhibit artworks with the intention of affecting or disturbing people with the significance of their content. Indeed, museums tend to convert objects which have profound social meaning in their original context into objects which to be contemplated for their aesthetic or historical significance. Such works, in a sense, become equated with landscapes, still lifes and portraits and, indeed, furniture, pottery and silverware, all of which may be beautiful or historically relevant, but certainly do not have the same kinds of meanings. An artwork about the Holocaust must result in far more than aesthetic or historical experience. Art museums would diminish appropriate responses.

Galleries are equally inadequate sites foe such works. Although works of quality can be found in galleries, such places tend to transform art objects into commodities for which price, investment potentiality, status and decorative aspects become important. Such contexts also diminish and demean the significance of the Holocaust. It seems to me that artworks about the Holocaust should be placed in sites where the significance of the Holocaust would be made primary. Yad Vashem is such a site. Centers of Jewish culture, where the memory of the Holocaust must always be maintained, are also such sites. Perhaps there are others, but I have not yet found them.

Find this content at: 

© 2017 Leopold Segedin. All rights reserved.