Artists As Witness To The Holocaust At Imperial War Museum

By Dan James | 05 September 2008

Transport 1974-77 © Roman Halter.

A sculpture piece replicating the entry and exit signs to the town of Oswiecim (Auschwitz) greet you at Unspeakable: The artist as witness to the holocaust.

As a result you are left in no doubt about the content of the Imperial War Museum London’s (IWM) latest temporary exhibition which runs from September 5 to August 31 2009. The exhibition is extremely powerful and moving.

At around 20,000 pieces, the IWM art collection is huge and recent acquisitions, supported by the Art Fund, have prompted the museum to put together a collection of artistic responses to the 1940s Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Four rooms guide you through an artistic timeline of the harrowing events. Cleverly arranged to allow visitors to experience the different art in premonitions, witnessing, remembering and responding.

Lama Sabachthani [Why have you forsaken me?] by Morris Kestelman © Sara Kestelman.

Morris Kestelman’s large and dark painting, Lama Sabachthani, is a rare British artist’s reaction to news of the atrocities in 1943. It greets you at the start of the exhibition and sets the tone. News of the persecution of Jews in Europe reached Britain during the early 1940s and Kestelman’s artwork is deeply religious with a prophetic demeanour.

Flanking Kestelman’s piece are two glass cases containing a display of ceramic shoes by Jenny Stolzenberg. Forgive but do not Forget symbolises the mountain of shoes found at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Stolzenberg’s connection is real as her father was a survivor of Blechhammer and Dachau camps. The colour and authentic detail of the shoes distracts from the poignant observation and statement they make.

Jewish Prisoners at Work 1944 by 'Bill' © IWM.

The next room explores the work of artists who had a much more direct experience of the Nazi atrocities. Eric Taylor was one of the first British soldiers to enter the Belsen concentration camp in April 1945.

He produced a series of compelling images. In his watercolour, Liberated from Belsen Concentration Camp, the imagery speaks a thousand words. The scene is a woman sitting and vacantly staring at the floor. She may be liberated but the psychological liberation for her is obviously a much bigger and arduous task.

Other artists featured include Leslie Cole who was a salaried war artist who recorded the aftermath of the war in Malta, Germany and the Far East. Doris Zinkeisen, a well-known society painter who exhibited at the Royal Academy also features and her work documenting the Belsen camp in 1945 is extremely vivid. Mary Kessel also wrote an extensive diary about her experiences in Germany and her drawings describe Belsen four months after liberation giving a different view as conditions improved.

Another interesting display contains a series of colourful small cartoons. A sense of entertainment pervades in the drawings. The sketches were gifted to the IWM by the family of a captured British soldier who ended up in Blenchhammer camp in 1944. He acquired the set of drawings from a Jewish artist in exchange for some cigarettes. The artist was known only as ‘Bill’ from the signature on the cartoons and his fate remains unknown to the museum.

Roman Halter's Starved Faces 1

Starved Faces 1974-77 © Roman Halter.

The exhibition moves on to explore the artwork of three survivors of the holocaust. Roman Halter, Alicia Melamed Adams and Edith Birkin all have grief-stricken personal tales to tell. They each have very different artistic styles yet the legacy of loss and despair can be seen throughout all the paintings.

Alicia Melamed Adams’ painting, The Parting, is particularly moving. It shows Alicia being parted from her family in prison. She never saw them again as they were shot the day after the split. She said: “Painting provided the only solace I knew. It helped me heal my wounds”.

Understandably many of the works in the exhibit are dark but Edith Birkin’s style remains fascinating. The ghostly faces featured in her acrylics of the death marches are contrasted with bright multi-coloured strokes. Many of us retain images of the atrocities from flickering black and white news film-reel and Birkin reminds us the pain and inhumanity took place in real life and full colour.

Roman Halter’s story of survival is also shocking. His family were forced into the Lodz ghetto in Poland and by 1942 his entire family was dead. He survived by making himself useful as a metalworker and was eventually sheltered by a German couple. The German husband who helped the young Halter paid for his kindness by being shot for protecting Jews. It took Halter 25 years before he could use his memories to create his paintings.

A Camp of Twins - Auschwitz 1982-1982 © Edith Birkin.

The exhibition is extremely compelling and touching as it frequently takes you to dark places. Anyone who visits will feel an emotional response. At the end of the exhibition the IWM provide materials and invite visitors to share thoughts and feelings about what they have seen. It is a great idea as not only are your artistic emotions roused but your human feelings are engaged and challenged by what you see.

While people may come away from the exhibition questioning the sanity of the human race some solace and hope from the whole tragedy comes from the words of one of the surviving artists. As Alicia Melamed Adams sat in front of her 40-year-old paintings at the exhibition launch her words resonated a lifting testament to life;

She said: “I still believe in love despite everything.”

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