While interned at Auschwitz, many prisoners risked their lives to create art that reveals their individuality and feelings of rebellion. Some of these works currently are featured at the Block Museum of Art.
Nearly 220 pieces of art produced from 1939-45 are being shown as part of the exhibit, “The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz,” which opens today and runs through Dec. 8.
Chief Curator David Mickenberg, former director of the Block Museum, said the purpose of the exhibit is “to give a voice back to those whose voice was taken away from them because of the circumstances of concentration camps, ghettos and hiding places.
“The subtext is a discussion about the role of art in survival, the role of art in times of great political and social constraint and the role of art in making us human,” said Mickenberg, who is now director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College.
Most of the items on display are small in scale because art supplies in the camps were scarce. Some works were created with scraps of paper and rust for coloring, although some paintings are done in color. Prisoners had to take great risks to create their art because it was an act punishable by death.
Little of the exhibit is abstract art, said Corinne Granof, assistant curator. In fact, “it is quite literal and very direct,” she said.
Prisoners recorded experiences of their lives while in the concentration camps, usually through sketches and drawings. Some artists included elements of irony and satire in their work.
Not all works on display were created of the prisoners’ free will. The exhibit also includes a section called “Art on Command,” which features various works ordered by S.S. officers, such as portraits, paintings to hang in offices and Christmas cards.
The collection is unique because most Holocaust art exhibits feature works created after World War II. Granof calls Block Museum’s collection “art from the camps,” since it features victims’ works.
This is the largest loan ever from Auschwitz, the state museum at Auschwitz, and Yad Vashem, a Holocaust museum in Israel. Contributions also came from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., various European museums and private collections.
Initially the project organizers intended to create a film about illustrated diaries from Auschwitz. But it soon expanded to include several different works of camp art, as there was a wealth of material not yet exposed.
Many Northwestern faculty members in departments such as technology and Slavic languages contributed to the research and presentation of the exhibit. NU also provided some funding to make the project possible.
Exhibit attendance is difficult to speculate, Granof said. But many tours are booked already, and she anticipates many Polish and Jewish groups in the Chicago area to visit.
In addition to the art itself, many programs are planned for the community. A series of lectures, Holocaust-related films at Block Cinema, concerts, poetry readings and a Holocaust memorial service also are open to the public.
The exhibit will travel to the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College and later to the Brooklyn Museum of Art.
“Instead of looking at the loss and death, (the exhibit) celebrates the lives of those who suffered in the concentration camps,” said Will Schmenner, assistant curator of film for the Block Museum.