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Indepth Arts News:

"The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz"
2003-01-07 until 2003-02-14
Davis Museum and Cultural Center
Wellesley, MA, USA

The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz, is a comprehensive exhibition of more than 200 works of art created by victims of the Holocaust while incarcerated in camps, ghettos and hiding places of World War II. The exhibition displays the relatively unknown art of victims whose work was created under the most trying of circumstances. The exhibition is comprised of art made by prisoners at Auschwitz between 1941 and 1945 during its operation as a concentration camp and killing center, and art made by artists who were incarcerated there, but who produced art elsewhere during the war in other camps such as Buchenwald, Gurs, Drancy, and ghettos such as Lodz and Theresienstadt.

Drawn from collections in Poland, Israel, the United States, Germany and France, the artwork contains genres ranging from self-portraits and landscapes to illustrated letters, political cartoons, caricatures and images of camp existence. The works were made by both amateur and trained artists working clandestinely and on the command of the SS. Some were by artists trying to supply evidence to the resistance while others sought to create works designed to placate the SS.

Some artists sought to give expression to suffering while others used art to repress it. The function of art in the Holocaust, the role that art plays as documentation, as resistance, as catharsis and as a means of control for the benefit of the perpetrator is the subject of this unique exhibition.

"There has been little attention paid to the art produced by those in the maelstrom of the Holocaust," explains David Mickenberg, curator of the exhibition and the Ruth Gordon Shapiro ’37 Director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center. "Recent discussions in museums and in the press have primarily dealt with contemporary art that refers to the Holocaust or appropriates images from it. There has been little discussion among art historians of the works created between 1939 and 1945, yet there may have been as many as 20,000 works created for a variety of reasons and under a variety of circumstances, by victims, many of whom survived the war.

"These works speak about the complex function of art during the Holocaust. It may be painful to think that art can be used for immoral as well as moral purposes, but in addition to art that was made for documentation, catharsis, and dissent, many works were created on command for the benefit of the SS for personal reasonsæto decorate their barracks or to illustrate the very training manuals that were used to control and abuse those who created them. The Last Expression presents a broad range of work created by victim artists and provides insight into the diversity of art created during times of political, social and cultural duress."

An accompanying catalog, co-published by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art and Northwestern University Press, will present another forum for exploring the exhibition’s themes. The exhibition began as a research project at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art by David Mickenberg, who was formerly director of the Block Museum before coming to Wellesley to head the Davis. Along with Block Museum Assistant Curator Corinne Granof, the two have worked on the exhibition since the late 1990’s.

Mickenberg also curated the exhibition’s permanent web site which explores aesthetic, philosophical and moral issues relating to art produced in the Holocaust. Viewed by several million visitors to-date, the site features a database of digital photographs from collections in Poland and Israel, artist biographies, interviews with surviving artists, scholarly essays on art and the Holocaust, and a glossary and bibliography, among other features. The site can be seen at www.lastingexpression.northwestern.edu.

Wodzimierz Siwierski,
Sculpture, 1941,
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oswiecim

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