Road to Congress: Art in the extreme

From May 27 to June 3, York University will host the 8,000 delegates to the 75th Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences. In the run-up to Congress, one of the biggest academic events ever held at York (see YFile Feb. 2), YFile is profiling researchers whose focus is in the humanities and social sciences. The Association for Canadian Jewish Studies will be holding its 30th annual conference as part of CongressCarol Zemel, professor in the Department of Visual Arts in York’s Faculty of Fine Arts, and a faculty member in the York Centre for Jewish Studies which is affiliated with the Association for Canadian Jewish Studies, is exploring the way prisoners in concentration camps used art to communicate and preserve the memory of their experiences.

In 1945, as Allied forces swept through Auschwitz, Dachau, and the other concentration camps of the Third Reich, photographers were present to capture images of the atrocities they uncovered. Today images such as these play a vital role in preserving the public memory of the Holocaust (or Shoah). Much attention has been given to these photographs, but there exists a large body of artwork produced by prisoners of the camps which precedes those familiar images of liberation.

Comparatively little has been said about this second body, but York Professor Carol Zemel (left) of the Faculty of Fine Arts is exploring the way that prisoners used art to communicate and preserve the memory of their experiences. This research will form the basis of an upcoming book titled Art in Extremis: the Urge to Imagery. The project extends from ghettos to the liberation and the years just past the liberation. “The book explores a model for art produced in extreme circumstances,” says Zemel, “from images produced in ghettos to those made in Palestinian refugee camps or by prisoners of the current conflict in Iraq.”

Approximately 30,000 drawings have been recovered from the concentration camps, but scholars estimate that this total is only one-tenth of those created. As drawing and photography were forbidden, prisoners made use of whatever they could find, including scraps of paper, toilet paper, coal or pencils, depending on their privileges. Most surviving drawings were hidden, buried or smuggled out.

This art provides important first-hand documentation of the day-to-day experience of the prisoners in a way that written accounts can’t. Although a few prisoners kept journals, these were far more difficult to hide, so the majority of Holocaust narratives come from survivors who’ve had time to process their experience. The artwork, however, was created from the perspective of those who didn’t know if they would survive. “There’s a different response to time,” explains Zemel. “In the first case, the war is over and you have to pick up your life again. In the camps, there’s an endless terrible present.”

In each case the images are used differently. Images produced after the war, which serve to memorialize the horror of the camps, tend to centre on images of people being led to their death, corpses and mass graves, all of which render the suffering inflicted on the Jews and other imprisoned minorities in vivid detail. But in the art produced within the camp, there is seldom any representation of death or suffering until 1945, when the Allied forces arrived. Many of the common images of “Holocaust iconography”, such as the image of the mother and the child, are curiously absent from these drawings.

Right: A charcoal drawing by Mauricy Bromberg titled Five Jews in One Yoke (Auschwitz), Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw, Poland.

 As a whole, the artwork of those confined is devoid of emotion or sentiment. “There’s very little in the way of human and emotional interaction, even though many people say that in reality if you didn’t connect with someone else, it would be harder to survive,” Zemel observes. The art often serves as a form of communication – either to warn or instruct other prisoners or with the hope to reach others outside of the prison. Many of the drawings suggest that they are made in the hope that they will find their way to a relative or friend outside the camp.

Dominant themes include work routines, the labour force, images of crowded barracks, and roll calls. The gas chambers and other dangers are referred to only obliquely. Even extreme cases, such as the drawings produced by a sondekommando — a Jewish captive in charge of cremating the corpses of those who died in the gas chambers — shy away from representing his experiences directly. They are more symbolic or composite images, though Zemel points out that the artist’s posture in the drawings often mirrors that of the Nazis who supervise his work, indicating an uneasy identification with the soldiers.

Zemel is concerned with the ethical issues surrounding the act of making and studying images of suffering. She is also concerned with what viewers choose to see, what they do not see, what they are permitted to see and how  the image maker shapes that ethical response.

Art in Extremis: the Urge to Imagery will be published in 2007, after the release of her book Graven Images: Visual Culture and Modern Jewish History, which explores art in diaspora communities and will be published later this year.

More about Carol Zemel

Zemel joined the faculty in the Department of Visual Arts in 2000. Prior to York, she taught at Concordia University, Temple University (Philadelphia), Dartmouth College and the State University of New York at Buffalo, where she chaired the Art History Department from 1997-2000.

Zemel’s areas of research and publication include 19th and 20th-century European art, the modern art market, feminism in the arts, Jewish visual culture and diaspora studies. An authority on the work of Vincent Van Gogh, her books include The Formation of a Legend – Van Gogh Criticism 1890-1920 (UMI Research Press, 1980) and Van Gogh’s Progress: Utopia and Modernity in Late Nineteenth-Century Art (University of California Press, 1997). Her articles have appeared in The Art Bulletin, Art History, Artscanada, Art in America, Jong Holland and several scholarly anthologies. She served as co-editor of RACAR (Revue d’art canadienne/Canadian Art Review) from 1995-1998.

From 2000 to 2001, Zemel was a Fellow at the Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, engaged in completing a book titled Graven Images: Visual Culture and Modern Jewish History. With Professors Shelley Hornstein (York University) and Reesa Greenberg (Concordia University), she is co-founder and co-director of Project Mosaica, a Web-based exploration of Jewish cultural expression in the arts.

This article was written by YFile graduate assistant Chris D’Agostino, master’s student in English.