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Excerpts from 'THE ASHEN RAINBOW'

 

Essays on the Arts and the Holocaust
By Ori Z. Soltes
 

"The question of the invisible God is subsumed into that of the non-existent or impotent or uncaring God; is subsumed into that of the absent Jews in post-War Germany; is subsumed into that of the absent Holocaust in post-war German discourse; is subsumed into the impossibility of words to convey God (and so Jewish mysticism, for example, seeks to transcend words, turning sense into non-sense just as the mystic seeking God must transcend the realm of the sensible if s/he would accede to the God beyond sense) and the impossibility of words to convey the Holocaust; is subsumed into the impossibility of visual art to convey God or to convey the Holocaust; is subsumed into an important aspect of the aesthetics of Western art history; is subsumed into the issue of Jews and Christians and Jews and Germans within two thousand years and within twelve years of Western history.

Geoff Laurence’s ISWASWILLBE as Epilogue

Anselm Kiefer offers a powerful instance of the wrestling match with identity and memory within the context of the Holocaust from a German, as opposed to a Jewish perspective. Geoffrey Laurence, one might say, summarizes the interweave within the interweave against which Kiefer and Ma’or—and indeed all of the artists under discussion—might be understood to operate with respect to these paired issues. He is the child of a survivor—but a survivor whose response to the horror was to turn his back on anything and everything Jewish, since it was being Jewish that resulted in so much pain. “Nearly all my relatives on both sides perished in the mountains of ash of the concentrations camps of Europe,” Laurence wrote in late 1999. But growing up, “I was told that I was not Jewish. My father. . . was vehemently anti-Semitic and refused to answer the obvious questions that occurred to me about his background. . . I was told not to emulate ‘Jewish’ traits. . . [Through my painting] I have embarked on a journey to find out exactly what being ‘Jewish’ means for me. Perhaps the Holocaust informs every thing that I paint. How could it not?”1The artist grew up with contradiction and identity confusion as part of his essence. While this may be reflected in any number of his works, nowhere is it as overt as in the painting “ISWASWILLBE” (fig. 69). In this work, two figures approach us on the front part of a stage, its curtains pushed back, Baroque style, in order to facilitate our view of the action.
The action is this: one of the figures is a Nazi officer, attired in full uniform, with jack boots and leather. He presents the second figure, arm around his shoulder, to us, the viewer—as if that second figure is being stage-managed or directed by the first. That second figure is a skeleton, and around its shoulders is what we can easily recognize as a tallit—a Jewish prayer shawl. Thus the message is clear: Jew and Nazi (Jew and German, Jew and Austrian, Jews and the representatives of those locales where Nazism was born and most fully flourished) are inextricably interconnected on the stage of history. Judaism has been brought to front and center of that stage in the half-century since Auschwitz, but the irony is that, when that position is dependant only on the matter of the Holocaust, it is the Nazis who become the impresario and the form of Judaism that they hoped to skeletalize has in fact been reduced to a skeleton of the robust living creature that has marched so dynamically across the stage of history for thousands of years. In the context of this discussion, we have arrived full circle (with more vehemence) to the beginning and the matter of R.B. Kitaj’s choice of the chimney as the ultimate symbol in Jewish art.
The stage lights of Laurence’s visual and conceptual theatre are harshly focused, sharpening the details and the edges of his paired characters and the questions that their performance forces before us. In an oblique manner we have returned to that question posed by Charlotte:2 but rather than asking whether the horror is life or theatre, Laurence asks whether in the theatre that is the life of the next generation and the next we will act in concert to produce a theatre of ongoing tragedy or arrive finally at a conclusion in which we might live happily, even if thoughtfully ever after. Laurence’s is the ultimate unfinished ending to the drama of the Holocaust and the varied arts struggling to reflect on it. "
3

 

"Perhaps the most bizarre twist to this particular thread in the post-Holocaust tapestry is that Sichrowsky became the Cultural Minister cum Public Affairs Officer of the Austrian “Freedom Party”—the right-wing, almost Neo-Nazi party in Austria led by Jorge Haider—in 2001. This certainly carries Primo Levi’s dictum that the Holocaust doesn’t let go of our throats in an oblique direction: what drives the child of survivors, whose grandparents all perished at the hands of the Nazis, who begins his inquiry into the Holocaust by way of trying to understand those, like himself, who continue to dwell in the lands of the murderers, and who continues his inquiry by trying to empathize with the discomfort of being a child of the killers—how does that individual end up allying himself with the ideological descendant of the killers?
In part the answer speaks simply of the unintelligible madness that defines everything having to do with the Holocaust, which is in turn a part of the unintelligible madness that defines much that has to do with humanity. In part the answer offers its own internal logic: of shifting from addressing the children of the uncomfortable victims of whom he is one, to addressing the uncomfortable children of the victimizers, to addressing and finding a place among those children of the victimizers who don’t feel uncomfortable with their ideology. In part it completes the picture of denial painted by Levi with regard to surviving victims and victimizers by causing it to intersect his notion of the long-term reach of the Holocaust: the place Sichrovsky has found is one of even more radical disconnect and discomfort than merely having been born in and living as a Jew in post-Holocaust Austria. It also encapsulates with a particular and peculiar intensity Levi’s articulation of the Grey Zone as it offers a reaching out from the territory of the Holocaust onto new ground that remains connected to that sacred territory.
Sichrovsky’s writing and his life are also simply a part of the fact that books and musical compositions, theatre and dance pieces, films and other works of visual art, as the new century arrived, have continued to pour out of a constantly increasing array of grapplers with the unresolved matter of the Holocaust. One of the most interesting of recent Holocaust-related paintings that I have seen, by Geoffrey Laurence, sums this up in visual terms. Laurence depicts, in an almost photographically realist manner, a stage with its curtains apart. Harsh footlights illuminate the two figures staring out at us from the stage. The key figure—the impresario, one might say—is a perfectly-attired Nazi SS officer, every detail conforming to stereotype. The other is a skeleton, identified as a Jew by his tallit—Jewish prayer shawl. Out of this Baroque theatre setting the Nazi and the Jew step to the front and center of the stage, the one interlocked with the other, albeit the one in full-fleshed full uniform, the other reduced to bones and a standard symbol of the religiously traditional side of himself. On the stage of history, the artist suggests, the Holocaust has pushed Jews to the front—the Nazis have, unwittingly, pushed Jews and Judaism to the front and center of the stage. But there is a double price that such repositioning has exacted. One is that Jews are often reduced to a skeletal aspect of our former selves, as a religion and as a culture: if our identity is limited to seeing ourselves or being seen by others in the Holocaust context, or even more broadly, the victim context, without engaging the rich cultural and spiritual heritage that defines so much more of our 4,000-year history than the Holocaust does—however traumatic that event—then we have lost much of the flesh and blood of what we should wish to preserve from the Nazis and other predators. And if there is no business like Shoah business (the painting, after all, depicts the two figures in a theatre setting)—if the Holocaust is used as a commodity to achieve various ends because of its ability to pull certain strings of sympathy, grief or guilt—then both we and the Catastrophe itself have been reduced to bones. The second price is this: that in the uneven, unasked-for-by-us-Jews arrangement in which we are pushed to  the center by default, we are inexorably, forever and ever—at least as long as memory exists and humans still weave history and moral questions together—intertwined with the Nazis. The Holocaust does not, as Primo Levi observed, let go, and thus not only the feelings to which he refers in considering “survivors” go on and on as long as they breathe and think. But the intertwining of Nazi and Jewish worlds didn’t end in 1945 when the War ended; it persists and will persist as long as there are thoughts and words and images with which humans engage the world and its problems and issues that are always all around us."


1 Originally from Laurence’s artist’s statement for and extracted in the catalogue of Jewish Artists: On the Edge, 70, but more fully extracted in the discussion of his work in Soltes, Fixing the World, 122-125. return to text

 2 See chapter four in this volume. return to text

 3 It goes without saying that there are many other artists whose work might have been included in what is already an extremely long discussion, and between the time of writing and the time of editing that number has increased. (This is apart from the problem of limiting the number of images that could be included of those artists whose work I have managed to discuss.) I did not discuss well-known work such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus, since works like his are so well-covered by others. Conversely, at the time that this essay was being written, for example, Sy Gresser, a superb sculptor, among other things, began work on an enormous Holocaust triptych that it would have been premature to attempt to include in this discussion. I hope to be able to write about work like his at a later date. I have also not discussed any of the artists such as those whose cynical visual responses to the Holocaust achieved such controversial renown in the 2002 Jewish Museum exhibit, “Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art.”  This is neither because of a sense of those works as offensive (although some of them were, to me at least, particularly coming from individuals with no personal contact with, or sensitivity to the suffering that was the hallmark of the Holocaust) nor because of a conviction that the work is second-rate (although some of it was, to me, but some of it was superb, and besides, some of the work that I have discussed might be regarded as second-rate to others). Both the matter of offensiveness and that of quality are, as with all discussions and interpretations of art, largely subjective. But for me to take seriously work that treats such an important subject, I need to feel that the artist has genuinely been wrestling with that subject, seriously and for some time, and not merely doing what, particularly in the case of some of the more cynical works of art, many of those works themselves criticize: seizing an opportunity for publicity. Art may have the prerogative and even a responsibility at times to epater le bourgeoisie, but if the act of epater seems both cruel and designed merely to gain notoriety for the artist and/or those who exhibit his/her work, I feel justified in ignoring it in my discussion. return to text

 A second play by Ari Roth, called Peter and the Wolf, and based on this strange development, premiered at The Theatre J in Washington, DC, in May, 2002. (See above, note #244).

 See Primo Levi, The Drowned and the Saved, chapters one, two and three; also see chapter two in this volume.

 I discuss this painting in somewhat greater detail at the end of chapter five in this volume.

 Levi, Ibid., 25 and chapter two in this volume.

above copyright of Ori Z.Soltes/Eshel books
 
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