Making Mute Art Speak for the Victims. Reflections on the UMN Course “Holocaust Art: History and Commemoration”

My official title during my Spring 2017 teaching appointment at the Global Studies program – Visiting Professor – was in some ways misleading. The University of MN campus was not in any form new to me. I trod its paths as a graduate student back in the seventies, and later as a faculty member in the Classical and Near Eastern Department in the nineties. I was glad to be invited to revisit a familiar turf, not as a momentary visitor, but as a staff member. Embraced by Chair of CHGS, Professor Alejandro Baer, and ever-accommodating Program Coordinator, Jennifer Hammer, I plunged into the University’s old and new teaching routines with a little side splash. Challenges were encountered on unexpected fronts such as the likes of decoding the mechanics of discourse between computers whose compatibility was unnatural – a “Hebrew Speaking” PC and the campus’ Apple lingo. Or the ever-astonishing fact of a May 1st snow storm. Even as a veteran of a dozen winters I was caught by surprise. Perhaps the twenty warm years since I left the campus, and the Israeli scorching sun must have affected my brain’s memory cells. I was also surprised by the sign over the entrance door to Classroom 1-111 on the first floor of Hanson Hall, which read: The Dairy Queen Class. Quite ironic, I thought to myself, for a course on the history of the Holocaust. Evidently no prank, just one coincidence of what life is made of.

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Jennifer Hammer, Yehudit Shendar, and Alejandro Baer

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[Re]Telling: Holocaust Art and Contemporary Response

When I first saw Fritz Hirschberger’s paintings in art storage, I was struck with cognitive dissonance. In the time that I’ve worked for CHGS, I looked at Hirschberger’s paintings and read about the artist quite a bit, but only in print or online in CHGS’ digital collection.

This was my first encounter with a Hirschberger painting in its physicality. Five feet tall, painted in translucent layers of bright oils, there, before me, stretched a saturated orange and purple canvas filled with the a war horseman brandishing deadly weapons. Hirschberger chose the Fifth Horseman precisely because it could not be discerned through physical senses,* yet here in my first encounter seeing this piece in person, it was arresting precisely because of its physical nature.

Weeks later, the paintings were installed and ready as part of [Re]Telling, an exhibition of Holocaust art, narrative, and contemporary response, held in the Tychman Shapiro Gallery at the Sabes JCC. Yehudit Shendar, retired Deputy Director and Senior Art Curator of Yad VaShem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, gave remarks at the opening reception of [Re]Telling featuring seven paintings by survivor Fritz Hirschberger selected from the CHGS permanent collection.

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“[Re]Telling” participating artists and artwork by Robert O. Fisch
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“Scaffold”: Atrocity-Art and Its Limits

Gas Chamber installationIn March 2006, performance artist Santiago Serra constructed a homemade gas chamber inside a former synagogue in the Cologne area and invited Germans to be symbolically gassed. Exhaust pipes from six cars were hooked to the building, which was then filled with deadly carbon monoxide and visitors entered the space wearing protective masks. What was the artist’s intention? Serra said his aim was to give people a sense of the Holocaust. The Jewish community was furious. It was considered a provocation at the expense of Holocaust victims, an insult to survivors and the whole community. “What’s artistic about attaching poisonous car exhaust into a former synagogue?” said writer and Holocaust survivor Ralph Giordano (1923-2014), “and who gave permission for this?”

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Capturing Every Day Life in Conflict

We have grown accustomed to seeing photographs captured during conflict dehumanizing victims and fetishizing their suffering. Our Eye on Africa column has previously discussed the disproportionate ways in which the pain of non-western victims is consumed through the media, even though it does not educate us about the context leading to the suffering. Yet, other forms of war-photography capture something else: everyday life under conflict. Instead of focusing on the pain and suffering of victims, these photographs aim to highlight the continuity of life. They focus on the possibility of a future and the necessity to maintain a sense of self. Conflict and suffering can in fact be captured in ways that do not always freeze moments of agony and death in eternity.

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Graffiti in Aleppo, Syria

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Whose History? Why Not All History Needs to be Represented in Our Capitol (Part 2)

If you’ve been to St. Paul lately, you’ve likely seen that the Minnesota Capitol Building is undergoing a massive renovation. More than $300 million is being spent to make the century-plus building a host of structural and technological upgrades. Once completed in the fall, a nearly two year-long project will come to an end.

However, it is not the building itself that’s been grabbing headlines. Instead, it’s the art inside – art that’s been estimated to be worth nearly $1 billion. Many of these pieces depict key moments in the state’s history: Among them the landing of Father Hennepin and the gallantry of the 2nd Minnesota Company from the American Civil war. One piece that will not be on display when the Capitol reopens is a 1906 work by Anton Gag. It shows the attack on New Ulm by Dakota warriors during the short-lived 1862 conflict.

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“Attack on New Ulm” by Anton Gag, 1904

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The Art of Minnesota’s UnCivil War: Is the State Capitol its Proper Home? (Part 1)

The Minnesota State Capitol, not unlike other political spaces around the world, displays artwork meant to illustrate important moments in the history of the state. Of these, a number of paintings have created significant debate among politicians and community members.

Nearly a decade after the contentious Dakota War of 1862, an oil painting depicting Dakota warriors attacking white German settlers in New Ulm has, until this year, hung on the walls of the Minnesota State Capitol. The artist, Anton Gag, created “Attack on New Ulm” nearly forty years after the event. On January 26th, 1887, The New Ulm Review reported that, “Mr. Gag’s undertaking is commendable and every one interested in the history of the dark days of New Ulm should aid him.”

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“Attack on New Ulm” by Anton Gag, 1904

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Curating an Exhibition about Displacement

CHGS Director Alejandro Baer has written about the analogies drawn between refugees fleeing Nazi Germany in 1938 and the current global refugee crisis. The ease in which comparisons are made between those who fled World War II and those fleeing the atrocities committed by ISIS and other groups is made stronger by the widely circulated images of refugees we see on a near-daily basis.

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Displaced: The Semiotics of Identity

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Lucien Philipe Moretti, “Father’s Barber Shop,” c. 1973, on display in Wilson Library at UMN

Displaced: The Semiotics of Identity, is an ambitious exhibition of art and historical artifacts that explores diverse aspects of the displacement of people and things, and its many repercussions. On display at the Wilson Library at the University of Minnesota, this sprawling exhibit inhabits walls throughout the first and the fourth floor, as well as having an online component. The exhibit’s theme is to explore the meaning made of a person’s or object’s identity in different spaces and times. The topic is in-and-of-itself huge, but the process whereby the show developed is why it is so ambitious: Displaced was curated by students.

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The Art of the Empathizer: Witness and Legacy Revisited

With the coming of the 68th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I was thinking about the Center’s first art exhibition, Witness and Legacy, curated by founding director Stephen Feinstein, with the American Museum of Art in St. Paul Minnesota in 1995.  CHGS did not physically exist until 1997, but the roots of what it would accomplish were planted years earlier with this exhibition.

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