April 21, 2019

How to Portray the Holocaust in Art

” “How do you shoot the devil in the back?” asks the character played by Kevin Spacey in the 1995 movie The Usual Suspects. A similar question has plagued artists for centuries. If evil stops to pose for a portrait, what if you miss your shot, trivializing Hitler or turning Torquemada into a cartoon character?

For many, the 2002 exhibit Mirroring Evil at the Jewish Museum in New York missed the mark egregiously. Among its works commemorating the Holocaust were Chanel-, Hermès-, and Tiffany-branded poison-gas containers and a concentration-camp photograph into which the artist had inserted himself holding a Coke. Even for artists exploring the subject of the Holocaust thoughtfully, gorgeous brushwork or careful cross-hatching can so prettify the surface as to tie up evil in a neat bow.

All the more edifying, then, at the other end of the artistic spectrum, are Leonardo da Vinci’s portraits of ugly people—exquisitely drawn, but there’s no mistaking their individual hideousness.

Such thoughts came to mind on a recent visit to Auschwitz and Birkenau. Even articulating what it’s actually like to stand at the notorious train tracks leading to the entrance gates and all that lay beyond them is like trying to explain color to someone who has never seen. How could art possibly supply the want?”

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