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Ceremony by Michael Hafftka

Ceremony by Michael Hafftka

Emotion and Expressionism in Holocaust art

by Claudia Moscovici

The Holocaust brought out the worst in human emotion: hatred, prejudice, fear and indifference to immeasurable human suffering. Indifference too is an emotion, not merely the absence of feeling. Its underlying foundation is often contempt: in this case, for the lives of specific groups of human beings deemed by the Nazis to be “subhuman”.  After all, as Samuel Beckett famously stated, “Nothing is more real than nothing” (Malone Dies, New York; Grove, 1956, 16).  It is only fitting that the horrors of the Holocaust be captured by an artistic movement known for its emphasis on emotion and reviled by the Nazi regime: Expressionism.

Edvard Munch, Separation

Edvard Munch, Separation

In retrospect, the best-known artist considered to be the forefather of the Expressionist movement is the Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch (1863-1944). Rather than focus, like the Impressionists did, on the optical experiments with play of light in natural settings, Munch turned within, to express through art our most raw human emotions: love, jealousy, hatred, anxiety, fear of death. Munch rendered explicit the goal of his art, stating: “We want more than a mere photograph of nature. We do not want to paint pretty pictures to be hung on drawing-room walls. We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity. An art that arrests and engages. An art created of one’s innermost heart” (Edvard Munch, http://www.edvard-munch.com/backg/index.htm).

Edvard Munch, The Scream

Edvard Munch, The Scream

His most famous work, “The Scream”, exists in several forms:  two pastels (1893 and 1895), two oil paintings (1893 and 1910) and several lithographs. In fact, “The Scream” remains one of the most well known paintings in the history of art, selling for $119,922,500 in 2012. “The Scream” series began as an introspective expression of agony, or as Munch put it, “the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self”, but soon became a general symbol of humanity’s angst in the modern era. The bright colors reflect feelings of madness and hysteria, while the skeletal form on the bridge confronts our mortality, sketching the boundary between life and death.

Expressionism as an art and literary movement, however, crystallized a decade or so later, in Germany, at the beginning of the 20th century. Expressionist painters, poets and writers placed primary emphasis on the expression of emotion, images and impressions that haunt human beings: in dreams, visions, and in life in general. Not shying away from the underside of human emotion, Expressionist artists conveyed anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, often mixing sex and violence. As the psychologist Carl G. Jung observed, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious”.

Chain of Command, Michael Hafftka

Chain of Command, Michael Hafftka

With this apt citation, Robbin Zella, the Director of the Housatonic Museum of Art introduces the work of Michael Hafftka, an American artist whose paintings convey the horrific experiences and the dark emotions that characterize the Holocaust. The son of two Holocaust survivors, Hafftka experiences the pain and misery of this dark era of history not as a direct witness, but as someone deeply haunted by the experience nonetheless. For him it becomes a revelation as well as a way to commemorate the suffering of his parents and other victims of the Holocaust. Michael states: “I began to paint my dreams and soon enough the experience of painting brought on exciting and mysterious experiences, as suggestive as dreaming. I felt freer than I had ever felt before. Painting became revelatory” (Michael Hafftka: A retrospective: large oils 1985-2003, Housatonic Museum of Art, Bridgeport CT, with an introduction by Robbin Zella).

Externalizing the nightmare that has haunted his family and his childhood, Hafftka expresses the raw emotions and undisguised horrors of the Holocaust. In his oil painting “Chain of Command”, we see mutilated–decapitated and amputated–humanoids whose features have been wiped out by misery and torture. Most of them are naked, deprived of every shred of civilized humanity. It’s not clear anymore who are the victims and who are the victimizers. As we know, in the sordid life of the concentration camp, prisoners acted as guards and torturers of fellow prisoners. With each person fighting for even one more day of survival, empathy was rarely possible in this environment. At Auschwitz, Polish and Ukrainian prisoners guarded the Jews, and some of the Jews were forced to be a part of the group that ran the crematoria. Humanity is desecrated to the core, reduced in its entirety to an emotion that is inseparable from sensation: unspeakable pain.

Ceremony by Michael Hafftka

Ceremony by Michael Hafftka

In the painting “Ceremony”, we see the aftermath of the slaughter of the innocent. The title is somewhat ironic, however, since millions of human beings were ruthlessly sent to their deaths–gassed and burned–with no ceremony whatsoever, and no real burial to commemorate their death. Their truncated, desecrated bodies become intertwined in the last effort to defy death in the gas chambers by climbing upon another body, living or dead, for a last breath of air.

The Charnel House, Pablo Picasso

The Charnel House, Pablo Picasso

As Sam Hunter states in his introduction to Hafftka’s series of paintings of the Holocaust, “The maimed and truncated body forms, with their ghastly pallor, recall the visual obscenities of the Nazi death camps seen in postwar photo journalism, not to mention Picasso’s mournful and eloquent Holocaust elegy, “The Charnel House”. (Michael Hafftka, with an introduction by Sam Hunter, DiLaurenti Publishing, 8). Like in Picasso’s masterpiece, there is no human emotion left on the canvas in “Ceremony”. Instead, it’s all transposed to us, the viewers, who observe with horror the gruesome spectacle of death.

 Claudia Moscovici, postromanticism.com

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