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DRAWN OUT OF HORROR

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The Brooklyn Museum of Art’s new exhibition, "The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz," accomplishes the breathtaking feat of bringing to the fore the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust while simultaneously celebrating the resilience of the victims who, through art, tried to document, rise above or resist the atrocities they suffered.

The exhibition rooms are filled with paintings and sketches drawn by Holocaust victims. Many of the salvaged works are made from crude materials like folded cardboard, others drawn in small sketchbooks and some even on canvas. Some are made by trained artists and some by people who craved this form of expression.

"To a certain degree the exhibition challenges notions of an art museum," explained Flatbush native David Mickenberg, curator of the exhibition and director of the Davis Museum and Cultural Center at Wellesley College. "Certainly there are some well-trained, important artists in the exhibition - Felix Nussbaum has a museum dedicated to his works in Germany, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis is an important artist and well-trained, Mieczyslaw Koscielniak is one of the important artists of mid-20th century in Poland, and Jozef Szajna came out of Auschwitz and Buchenwald and became one of the most renowned Polish directors," said Mickenberg. (The museum is trying to arrange a visit from Szajna in June.)

"So there are, definitively, people here who were well trained and continued to be or became renowned artists in the field, but there are artists here who are not artists, who were not trained, who took up pen and paper and brush in order to survive and in order to document and in order to resist, or for any number of reasons one of the things the exhibition addresses is the role of art in cultures in times of great political and social duress."

Previously exhibited at Northwestern University and Wellesley College, this is the last stop of the "Last Expression" tour, which was organized by the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art at Northwestern.

Mickenberg lauded Marilyn Kushner, curator and chairwoman of the department of prints, drawings and photographs at the Brooklyn Museum, for the additional research she did to flesh out the identities of the individual artists and to put the artwork in context.

"The exhibition has been different in every location and in Brooklyn it looks particularly stellar in the information it communicates and the way it is installed," said Mickenberg.

Kushner explained her philosophy on mounting the exhibition.

"I did a lot of research to put each drawing into context, because I was looking at a drawing and I said, ’Who was that artist, what are they depicting, and how did that fit into the experience at Auschwitz? How did it fit into the history of the Holocaust?’ Art can’t be seen in a vacuum," said Kushner. "It’s part of a social network."

The Brooklyn Museum augments these works with interactive computer kiosks that display works too fragile to handle, an extensive reading room with many texts in addition to the catalogue, and archival film footage.

Visitors can sit on a large couch covered with an army barracks-style blanket while watching the film, "Nazi Concentration Camps" (1945), directed by George Stevens. Stevens, who went on to direct "The Diary of Anne Frank" (1959), assembled this official documentary report from footage taken March 1-May 8, 1945.

The black-and-white film, which the museum has labeled with a caution against allowing children to view its explicit footage, was made under orders from Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower.

The resulting film, documenting the camps as they were "liberated," shows innumerable nude, emaciated, lifeless bodies with shorn heads in heaps, and in wood carts, too many to bury. They are filmed being shoveled into mass graves with bulldozers. There are tight shots of faces crawling with insects, their mouths open in silent screams.

The bits of narration reveal a litany of Nazi atrocities: sickness, starvation, abuse, murder, medical experimentation, crematoriums and gas chambers made to look like shower stalls. Victims’ clothing hangs outside the "showers" as if their owners were going to return for them at any moment.

Exposed are the numbers tattooed on their arms, replacing their names and ethnicities - their very identities. The bodies seem even more skeletal when compared to the buxom, well-fed female guards who are forced to bury the dead after the American liberation of the camps.

At the Ohrdruf camp, inmates demonstrated the rack used to torture them, and near a forest, a "crude woodland grill" is discovered, where inmates were burned out in the open.

The artwork in "The Last Expression" gives but a glimpse of the atrocities Holocaust victims suffered, but it is striking evidence that the victims used art to maintain their identities as well as to document the horrors they experienced daily.

The works hang in maize-and-brown-colored rooms that have been designed by Matthew Yokobosky. The enormous wood beams overhead and painted fences and train tracks hint of the stifling sensation of being corralled into a concentration camp.

The more than 200 works of art were created at the Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Gurs and Drancy concentration camps, and in ghettos such as Lodz and Theresienstadt, yet each artist in the exhibition, whether from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Austria or Germany is bound by the common tie that each was incarcerated or murdered at Auschwitz.

Mickenberg said the works were scrupulously researched and all can be said to be "au courant at the time of the Holocaust."

"The more research we did and the more scholars we talked to in the field, the more we wanted this exhibition to be completely undeniable and not be affected by issues of memory," said Mickenberg. "Therefore we chose the dates 1941-1945 for works of art to be put in the exhibit.

"We didn’t want anybody to look at this exhibition and say that something wasn’t accurate because [the artists] were remembering how it was five years later," he said. "We didn’t want anybody to deny the accuracy or truth of what’s being included in the exhibition based on distance in time and what the effects of memory would be on the actual representation of a given scene or an object or a person."

In the exhibition, the works are grouped according to subject matter: portraiture, art made on command by a Nazi officer (Auschwitz was one of the few camps that had an art studio and museum), prisoner experiences, satire and illustration.

The works cover a range of subjects. A poster warns of the deadly typhus epidemic at the camp. Lice carried typhus, and Mieczyslaw Koscielniak’s gripping poster, a color linoleum cut, in its scuffed wood frame, warns that one louse means death in blazing red letters next to a skull and menacing insect drawn in equal size. On the one hand, the artist’s skill is evident, on the other hand, the poster tells of the indescribable filth and degradation the prisoners had to endure.

Koscielniak’s "A Friendly Favor" (1943), is crayon on cardboard, showing two men carrying a collapsed man between them. The curators write that a drawing with this subject matter would have been forbidden.

Waldemar Nowakowski’s small watercolors on cardboard document in impactful, graphic illustrations the brutally masochistic methods of torture and murder the inmates witnessed.

Some artists used their art to escape their reality. Zofia Stepien-Bator created romanticized portraits of the other prisoners with stylish hair and clothes. With her small gesture of resistance, she created a flattering "Portrait of Mala Zimetbaum" (1943) with crayon on cardboard. The artist imagines Zimetbaum with her head held high, with a fashionable hairstyle and civilian clothing instead of prisoner’s stripes.

Both curators agree that because Holocaust survivors are aging, it’s urgent that research and oral histories are gathered before it’s too late.

On the opening night of "The Last Expression," Holocaust survivor Frederick Terna, who lives on Washington Avenue with his wife, Rebecca, came to see the exhibit and give a few remarks to the members. Terna, whose work is not part of the exhibition, said that although the art on display could only render "a tiny facet of the horror," he considered the displayed artifacts of vital importance for the survival of civilization.

"The works shown here go beyond the traditional scope of art," said Terna. "The work of these artists is testimony, commentary and also a warning.

"What is their message? There is no value higher than a human life. We are all responsible for each other. And we have to strive for an open, fair and just community if we want to avoid a reoccurence of this."

"The Last Expression: Art and Auschwitz" will be on display at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (fifth floor, 200 Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue in Prospect Heights) through June 15.

The museum has also organized dance, music and film performances to complement the exhibition.

Admission is $6, $3 students with valid ID and an adult and free children under 12. For information about museum hours and upcoming events, call (718) 638-5000 or visit the Web site at www.brooklynmuseum.org. For more information about the exhibit, go to http://lastexpression.northwestern.edu.

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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