On Remembering the Holocaust through Art exhibited at the University of Wyoming’s Art Museum.

Remarks for Holocaust Remembrance Event
Nov. 11 2018.
Seth Ward

Here are the exhibit details:

Art and the Holocaust Faculty Response Panel
Hillel Student Group
UW Art Museum
November 11, 2014; 5:30 pm

William Gropper (American, 1897-1977)
War series, undated lithographs

Jack Levine (American, 1915-2010)
Mein Herr

Philip Reisman (Polish/American, 1904-1992)

George Biddle (American, 1885-1973)
Mussolini/Hitler: Let Her Bleed a While Longer, First 1937

Philip Guston (American, 1913-1980)
The Street, 1971

MaxWeber (Russian/American, 1881-1961)
Head of a Woman, Not dated

Frank Kleinholz (American, 1901-1987)
Say Cheese, 1963

(This is a rough draft for my remarks. The panel format will undoubtedly not give me enough time to read the entire statement).

Thanks for inviting us. Thanks to Rachel Clifton and to Noelle Johnson, whose vision, hard work and curatorial expertise created this exhibit and thanks for the readiness of my colleagues to participate in this panel. I note the recent anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall; of Krystallnacht—the occasion for our annual Holocaust Remembrance Week—and that today is Veterans Day. Please also note that I am showing the Israeli film Kadosh by Amos Gitai later on this evening, in Coe Library in the screening room on the lowest level, room 123, after this evening’s event, you are all welcome to come.

I am glad that we are honoring cultural creativity in this year’s Holocaust Remembrance week, with an important exhibit of art by American Jewish artists who were alive in World War II. The pieces are all from the period before the emergence of the Holocaust as a theme in the US — esp. after the films Holocaust (1978, with Meryl Streep and others), the broader establishment of Holocaust commissions and memorial committees (starting in the 1970s) and esp. Claude Lanzmann’s 9-hour documentary film Shoah in 1985. To prepare for this panel, among other things, I looked at the retrospective catalogues of three of the artists, in our Coe library collections. William Gropper (1897-1977) is not only the best represented in this exhibit but probably also the most important and best known of the artists exhibited here. But my personal favorite is Jack Levine (died 2010), who among other things did a series on prophets and kings that has wide visibility in many synagogues. In addition to Gropper and Levine, I looked at Philip Reisman (1904-1992). These volumes have numerous images of the artists’ works, along with essays by art historians.

These volumes are: Jack Levine by Levine, with intro. by Milton Brown, compiled and edited by S. R. Frankel, (Rizzoli, 1989). William Gropper by Lozowick, forward by Milton Brown, (Assoc. Univ Press, 1983). and Philip Reisman, People are his Passion, by Martin H Bush, Ulrich Museum of Art, Wichita, 1986.

Levine wrote a memoir to go along with the volume on his work. “Mein Herr” is not included in it, but it is similar to Levine’s “1932 (In Memory of George Grosz),” produced in 1959; Grosz—an extremely important artist of the period—had just died. “1932” is an image of von Hindenburg, Chancellor of Germany, handing the baton of power to Hitler after the elections. Levine talks of Hitler as being “silly” (p. 87), and his image can be seen as something of a lampoon — just as Levine lampooned Stalin in his “Stalingrad” (1970) with its “Kiss of steel.”  The Soviet leader’s adopted nickname “Stalin” means something like “Man of Steel”—and the image has him kissing a sword. Levine drew von Hindenburg because, although he repeated often that drew what he wanted, he admits that “the gas ovens were too horrible for me to face.” The horror of the Holocaust was never something Levine wanted to depict.

His memoir makes it clear that he was much more at home drawing the prophets and kings, or visiting the new State of Israel. This was not for lack of passion and awareness, as Milton Brown observes about the Social Realists–a group that Levine and Gropper were part of:  They “wrote off the majority of artists for their political obtuseness or lack of commitment at a time of world crisis” (p. 10)–but he observes that the group’s approach did not outlive the war.

Reisman also addressed contemporary moral issues. The piece in the exhibit is entitled “Victory” but, as Theodore Woolf observed in 1982 (Christian Science Monitor, 15 June 1982), Reisman is noteworthy “for creating an art that placed human and social values above purely formal or experimental ones.” Martin Bush, the author of the retrospective catalogue goes on to note that Reisman “was never afraid of any subject be it the Ku Klux Klan or Nazi Germany or any complicated and hard-to-paint city scene” (91). Nevertheless, the Holocaust does not play a major role in his work. World War II and the destruction of European Jewry is far better represented in the works of William Gropper.

In describing Gropper’s work, Louis Lozowick (1892-1973) (Philadelphia, Assoc. Univ. Presses, 1983) cited Man Ray’s account of an art expert who discussed the wonderful balance in Picasso’s Guernica but said “not a word about Picasso’s rage at the bombing of Guernica.” Man Ray observed that “This explains youth’s revolt against esthetics.” (cited from NYT Magazine Sept. 6 1971). Lozowick says the formal elements were omnipresent in Gropper’s work–even in the thousands of cartoons and drawings he did over his career–“but so is human compassion, rage, and revulsions against Guernicas wherever they occur. (69). Gropper dedicated tireless energy to defeating the Axis with thousands of cartoons and drawings against Hitler and Mussolini, and a 1941 exhibit entitled “Meet the Axis.” (53) The exhibit features his War Series, and you can easily see motifs associated with the Nazi destruction of Judaism in these images. Gropper also commemorated the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and destruction with a series in the 1960s called “Dedication,” produced annually for a few years.

Our exhibit collects works of Jewish artists working in America during the Second World War, indeed, mostly working and exhibiting in New York. Many of them exhibited in the same galleries and are part of the same movements. Many were ardent communist sympathizers, and ardent opponents of Fascism, already in the 1930s. Jewish themes play an important role in their works, especially for Levine and Gropper; Gropper drew for the Yiddish newspaper Der Forverts and included Yiddish in some of his cartoons. Many of our artists were collected by targets of the McCarthy era–and were called upon to testify either because of their communist sympathies or because of the sympathies of those who exhibited or bought their art.

All were collected by William Dean, a major contributor to our Art Gallery but about whom I have not been able to find anything.

A survey of Holocaust Art works today (not particularly scientific: I selected four books somewhat randomly from the Coe Library catalogue) shows that not only are these artists not represented in the discussion (at least according to the lists of works and the indices) but that discussion in recent decades emphasizes different themes. These volumes discuss works by survivors and first-hand witnesses of the Holocaust, or works that go beyond the specifics of the details to create an aesthetic memorial more clearly focused on the execution of Jews and its apparatus—perhaps one of the many modalities of Holocaust denial. Or the role of cultural creativity in the thought of (among others) Kant, Hegel and Adorno.[1]

Our artists responded to the Nazis, and to the need to address social and political causes. Their works form aesthetic memorials, to be sure, although generally the art serves the message of the individual artist or work, and fits in the artists’ artistic styles and subjects. Moreover, these works reflect a period in our cultural history in which humanity was still grappling with ways to reflect on the enormity of what happened, but “The Holocaust” had not yet become the symbol and narrative trope that was to emerge in the final quarter of the 20th century, at least not in the United States.

Levine was hardly alone in his inability to face the gas chambers in his art; nevertheless his art celebrates Jewish roots and survival. On the other hand, Gropper’s political and polemic messages show out clearly in the body of his work, with images that are clearly realistic, but also meant to memorialize and to express “human compassion, rage, and revulsion.”

Interpreting the Shoah through the lens of cultural expression must exist alongside the historical, moral and philosophical examinations. Moreover, these must exist alongside pragmatic responses and considerations. How can we possibly effect “Holocaust Remembrance”—our theme this week—given the enormity of the crime, and the immense significance we have come to attach to it as a foundational event shaping our world (perhaps even more than the Cold War or its end, symbolized just this week by the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall), or for that matter the Atomic Bomb or rise of militant movements self-identifying as Jihadi. The pragmatic issues of remembering the Shoah remain important: how can we express our revulsion at evil and the need to respond to it?

And examining cultural expression, we must be reminded of the growth of memory. Our exhibit displays a slice of cultural creativity of those who lived through the period in America, together with their audience, and strongly believed that their art should respond to the world as it is, and reflects the concerns of a time and generation in which our modern tropes of Holocaust memory were not yet formed. Their themes are strong reminders about the ways our own concerns reshape the way our creativity fashions memories in every generation.

Last Friday I heard a lecture by Carl Wilkens, who, twenty years ago was the only Westerner in Rwanda when it was undergoing the terrible genocide; his talk not only recalled the terrible events of that time, but also followed up some of the orphans who survived. His conclusion

“We are not defined by what we lost — what was taken from us. We are defined by what we do with what remains. “

I could not help but think that our artists did not merely articulate “what was lost”—and their revulsion at evil or their belittlement and lampooning of the perpetrators—but articulated the reality that the role of what today we might call “Holocaust Memory” helped determine what remained of Jewish society, but they also reflected a time and place in which “what we do with what remains” remained an important and more urgent concern.

Many thanks to Hillel at UW and especially to Rachel and Noelle for organizing this important exhibit and event.

Seth Ward

[1] The works I selected are Henry Pickford Sense of Semblance, Berel Lang Holocaust Representation: Art within the limits of history and Ethics, Toll, When Memory Speaks, and Bohm-Duchen, ed. After Auschwitz, Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art.

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