Daniel Biesold, German, b. 1964
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Making art about the Holocaust has long been considered problematic, even taboo. Shortly after World War II, philosophers such as Theodor Adorno warned that to make art faced with the horror of Auschwitz was morally suspect; the existentialist thinker Jean-Paul Sartre cautioned that artists must be conscious of adopting an approach commensurate with such a tragic subject. Several decades later, in 1978, a popular television miniseries catapulted the Holocaust into popular consciousness, inspired a wave of research, and provided major impetus for a popular pedagogy that continues today. The new attention to the subject engaged a sizable number of contemporary artists for more than three decades.
Given initial reticence toward dealing with the subject in art, it is all the more fascinating that some of the works included here take theatrical approaches in their picturing of this demoralizing history. George Segal’s Holocaust (1982) transforms the heartrending photographic documents of piled corpses found immediately after the liberation into an epic sculptural monument. The artist offers a life-size mise-en-scène in which his characteristic plaster casts produce an impassive solemnity. The other works of this genre all bear elements of the theatrical or vestiges of the performative: the tenderly choreographed performances of Eleanor Antin’s Vilna Nights; the intense lighting in Christian Boltanski’s Monument (Odessa); the eerie stage set of Tadeusz Kantor’s The Desk; Fabio Mauri’s props for a performance; and the operatic scale and theatrical brushwork of Anselm Kiefer’s Die Himmelspaläste (The Heavenly Palaces). By engaging with the tools of dramatic technique, these works evoke historical tragedy with immediacy and visceral impact.
Earlier works on the subject of the Holocaust are rare. For example, Rico Lebrun’s Buchenwald series (1955–58) and Morris Louis’s series the Charred Journal (1951) respond to the Holocaust in ways that range from documentary to symbolic. Michael David, Nancy Spero, and Deborah Kass deploy symbols to evoke this tragic subject. Others artists prefer to keep their references abstract.
Artists amidst the escalating tragedy beginning in the 1930s and observers of the devastating facts shortly after the end of World War II reacted with images that run the gamut between metaphor and reportage. Some recent artists focus on the locus of the concentration camps as both monument and tourist destination. A younger generation of artists has turned the discourse inside out, substituting images of the perpetrators for the victims. The latter warn against the seductive aspects of fascist ideology and imagery that seep through the thin veneer between this horrific past and contemporary culture.
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