Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery - Recent Art
by Staff Reporter
The Jewish Museum located on Fifth Avenue, the museum strip of New York City, achieved an enormous success of public relations and marketing. Never before has this museum, which was established as early at 1904 by the J.T.S. (The Jacob Shiff Collection), been challenged by the media. Never before has it turned out to be a controversial institution.
Like those that have to ask themselves the eternal question: 'Who is a Jew?' this museum has to face the question of 'What is a Jewish Museum?' Should it regard Jewish public opinion? These issues were illuminated by the fact that from March 13 to June 30, 2002, the Jewish Museum joined the club of the 'Holocaust Ritual' in America or the realm of the new civil religion, the Holocaust, inside the American Jewish community street.
The exhibition, Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery - Recent Art managed to mobilize many protests from Jews and especially from Holocaust survivors. Among them, the great Eli Wiesel. Another Holocaust survivor, Abe Foxman, said that the timing is very bad. The exhibition pushes the 'museum' into the mainstream of the Holocaust industry. The museum received attention because of the Holocaust's six million victims. It is a sacred memory to millions who lost their immediate family. So whenever someone tries to write or paint creations which link to the Holocaust, he might touch a sensitive nerve. It is human.
This exhibition touches, often, the issue of trivialization of the Holocaust. Artists, of course, can hide behind the idea of freedom of the art. For example, Elke Krystufek, 32 years old from Vienna, said that she was attracted by the linkage between Nazism and sex. In this exhibition she presented her masterpiece: Economical Love (Pussy control, 1998), a color photograph. It is also herself in the nude. As we say, give me a break. Who said that the Nazis were sex oriented criminals? Nazis promote a conservative family and were not permissive to gay people.
Many protestors did like Zbigniew Libera's Lego Concentration Camp set (1996). Others protested Tom Sacks' Manischevitz Luger (1996). Other participants in this Mirroring Evil are: Boaz Arad, Matt Collishaw, Christine Borland, Rudolf Herz, Mischa Kuball, Roee Rosen, Alan Schechter, Alan Sechas, Piotr Uklanski, and Maciej Toporowicz. Most of them are not Jewish. Two are Israelis, others are from the USA, Germany, Poland, and Great Britain. All of them were selected because they are under 40 years. They are not 'survivors' or 'second generation' of survivors. They are not well known artists. Their artistic talents are questionable. Most of them received a 'break' and a unique exposure to the public.
Did they intentionally join the 'Holocaust Industry Club?' To link yourself to the Holocaust is a fashion. Debra Solomon (New York Times, March 10, 2002) asked artist Tom Sachs: "Do you think you're exploiting the Holocaust for personal benefit?" He answered, "No... it is wrong to bring attention to the issue?" His art in this exhibition is Prada Deathcamp. He said, "I am using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion."
Sensation makes the artist's career a success, a fast way to push yourself. Holocaust is the right horse to ride in these days. But it is a waste of time to elaborate on these artists who believe in their work and their contribution to our need to understand Nazism. But this exhibition is first of all, the concept of a great curator, the father of this sensational, controversial exhibition, Normal L. Kleeblatt. He certainly received a lot of publicity and fame, but the most important fact is that Kleeblatt and not the 13 young artists is the star of this exhibition.
Is he successful? Does he achieve his goal of Mirroring Evil? I do not think so. His statement is very poor. Furthermore, expert writer-curator, international authority on art, especially European art, Jacob Baal Teshuva, remarked: "What's new? We are aware of evil. We know that evil did exist. What's new? What is the sense of mirroring? What is the goal of repeating the mirror? It is tasteless. What is the message? What's new in illumination of evil? Also it is not clear to me as to the selection of the specific topics and issues? Do we want to show a workshop of sex? Do we want to show inmates in concentration camps drinking Coca Cola? What is the message?" Did Norman L. Kleeblatt miss the point? So they gained publicity and the Jewish museum will be happy. Norman L. Kleeblatt served as curator from 1975 and he is an internationally distinguished curator. He received his A.B. in art history from Rutgers University and pursued his post-graduate studies at The Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, from which he received both a Diploma in Conservation and an M.A. in 1975.
Among the major exhibitions Mr. Kleeblatt has curated for the Jewish Museum are The Paintings of Moritz Oppenheim: Jewish Life in 19th Century Germany (1981-82); The Dreyfus Affair: Art, Truth, and Justice (1987-88); Painting a Place in America: Jewish Artists in New York, 1900-1945 (1991); Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities (1996); An Expressionist in Paris: The Paintings of Chaim Soutine co-organized with Kenneth E. Silver, 1998); and John Singer Sargent: Portraits of the Wertheimer Family (1999-2000). In addition to serving as the volume editor for the catalogues of all the above exhibitions, Mr. Kleeblatt has contributed articles to periodicals including Art in America, Art Journal, Les Cahiers du Judisme, and Journal of Jewish Art and has written chapters for scholarly books. In the latter category, he has contributed to publications including Complex Identities: Jewish Consciousness in Modern Art (Rutgers University Press, 2001); Diaspora and Modern Visual Culture: Representing African and Jewish Diaspora (Routledge, 1999); L'Affaire Dreyfus et l'opinion publique en France et � l'�tranger (Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 1995); Pre-Raphaelite Art in Its European Context (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press and Associated University Presses, 1995); and The Encyclopedia of Jewish-American History and Culture (1992).
Mr. Kleeblatt has lectured widely and participated in numerous symposia, speaking at Columbia University, New York University, Princeton University, Drew University, Georgetown University, the University of Leeds, the Mus�e du Louvre, the Smithsonian Institution, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, The Drawing Center, International Center of Photography, El Museo del Barrio, the National Foundation for Jewish culture, and meetings of the College Art Association and the World Congress of Jewish Studies, among others.
In his exhibition text, he explained: "Shortly after World War II, the German-born Jewish philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote an essay in which he equated art-making after Auschwitz with barbarism. Although Adorno later acknowledged the complexities of this idea, it became a touchstone for cultural production after the Holocaust and remained influential for decades. While information documenting the Nazi era and the extermination of Europe's Jews began to appear almost immediately after the war, the visual, literary, and performing arts were slow to engage the Nazi horror.
"In the last thirty years there has been an outpouring of film, theater, television, fiction, and music that has offered us possibilities for mourning and remembrance. Exemplified by George Segal's iconic sculpture The Holocaust (1982), on permanent view in the Museum's third-floor galleries, these artworks focused on the Nazis' victims and the sites of mass murder.
"More recently, a younger generation of artists has found other ways to confront the evil of the Third Reich. These artists dare to draw us into the terrifying world of the Nazi perpetrators. They use the cool, cerebral language of conceptual art to acknowledge their distance in time from this horrifying epoch. Many of them make art from the material of popular culture, which is a potent source of information for a younger generation. Some of these artists remind us that images of Nazis have become pervasive in our culture, and that - more often than not - they have been glamorized. Other artists wed Nazi imagery to coveted consumer products, warning us about the fragile boundaries between propaganda and promotion, desire and destruction. These artists remind us of how the Nazis perverted positive values of family, country, and beauty.
"In a world that is saturated with images, these artists prompt us to question the fine line between representation and reality. They ask us to remain vigilant to situations in everyday life when the mundane may become dangerous, and the dangerous may become mundane. Their work invites each of us to look at ourselves and reflect on the role the Holocaust plays in our lives today - as memory, as point of reference, even as a subject for the entertainment industry - and to question the adequacy of our own response to evil."
Mirroring Evil presents works by thirteen younger artists who have made a radical departure from this process of memorialization. The art in this exhibition is not meant to focus the viewer on the plight of the Holocaust's victims. Instead, the artists use images of the Nazi era to explore the nature of evil, including evil as we may experience it today.
This art is cautionary rather than memorial. It warns us not to take for granted the symbols of oppression that pervade our outlets of news and entertainment. It conveys a sense of wariness about techniques of persuasion, including those we encounter in the marketplace.
The exhibition begins with a video, showing excerpts from fifty years of films and television programs that have addressed the Holocaust. This video raises questions that are present throughout the exhibition - questions to which there are not simple answers. Joan Rosenbaum, the director of the Jewish Museum, stands behind this controversial exhibition in which 13 artists "...make new and daring use of imagery taken from the Nazi era." Most critics do not agree with this concept. Some defined the exhibition as 'idiotic.' Some donors were alienated by this museum. But the director expresses confidence in the museum's curators.
"Obsessed with a history that they seem impelled to overcome, these artists ask us to examine what these images of Nazism might mean in our lives today," comments Joan Rosenbaum, the Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of The Jewish Museum. 'These artworks draw us into the past, leading us to question how we understand the appalling forces that produced the Holocaust. These works also keep us alert to the present, with its techniques of persuasion that are so easily taken for granted, its symbols of oppression that are too readily ignored."
The artists represented in Mirroring Evil come from eight different countries. They are Boaz Arad (born 1956, Israel); Christine Borland (born 1965, Scotland); Mat Collishaw (born 1966, England); Rudolf Herz (born 1954, Germany); Zbigniew Libera (born 1959, Poland); Roee Rosen (born 1963, Israel); Tom Sachs (born 1966, U.S.); Alan Schechner (born in England 1962, lives in U.S.); Alain S�chas (born 1955, France); Macief Toporowicz (born in Poland 1958, lives in U.S.); and Piotr Uklanski (born in Poland 1968, lives in U.S.). The exhibition includes two specially commissioned interpretive videos. The first, produced by the noted art historian Maurice Berger and shown in the entrance gallery, introduces major themes of the exhibition by exploring how popular films and television programs have used similar, potent images of the Nazi era. The second video, produced by the Museum's Director of Education Carole Zawatsky and shown at the end of the exhibition, provides a range of commentaries and responses to the artworks, taken from interviews with the artists, curators, educators, Jewish community leaders, and Holocaust survivors.
The Jewish museum launched many lectures, panel discussions, and published a catalog book which was published by Rotgress University Press. There will be many events which will present issues about the linkage between art and the Holocaust regarding famous artists who created paintings. Among the speakers who have dealt with these issues were: artists Roee Rosen, Mischa Kuball, Karen Michel, Robert J. Lifton, Ron Rosenbaum, Anton Kaes, Reesa Grinberg, Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard, Ellen Handlerspitz, Tzvetan Todorov, Rabbi Irwin Kula, Norman L. Kleeblatt, and others. And it is very important for us to ask the question of "who owns the images of the Holocaust? Who has the right to tamper with them?" Many would like to ignore Mirroring Evil, a world of imagination or distorted memories. At the same time, the Jewish Museum exhibited the great 92 year old artist who was an inmate, prisoner in Dachau. He lived in the 'other planet.' His name is Zoran Music. He presented his art: "We are not the last." Who is Zoran?
Zoran Music was born in 1909 in Gorizia, now in Italy, but then a town in the foothills of the Alps of Slovenia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire on the shifting frontier of East Central Europe, a geographic area pounded by war and ethnic conflict for most of the last century. Music chose the Holocaust as his subject many years after the fact as a form of protest, or warning, in the wake of the political upheavals of the lat 1960s. The artist's figurative-expressionist style is reminiscent of work from the 1950s by the Italian-American artist Rico Lebrun, whose paintings based on photographs of Holocaust victims were exhibited at The Jewish Museum in 1997. Like Lebrun, Music attempts to redeem the deaths of the victims through the tortured, yet transcendent figures depicted in his works.
Music evolved his figural works from landscapes he was creating in the immediate post-war period. His realistic depictions of the Dalmatian hills became freer and eventually darker and more sober renderings in which skeletons or skulls might be identified. Soon they were called burnt landscapes and by 1970, working from the drawings instead of the landscape, the corpses he had witnessed became the all-consuming subjects of his work.
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