Abstraction and the Holocaust
By Mark Godfrey
Yale University Press, 2007, $55
When Mark Godfrey first stumbled across Peter Eisenman’s Memorial to the Murdered European Jews in Berlin, he did not recognize it. On a walk, he found himself in “a huge space that I have since read is the size of two football pitches,” which was “cordoned off by a wire fence.” The space was “all pretty messy: the grass had not been cut back; there was the odd portacabin here, a small truck there,” yet Godfrey could tell “something was definitely happening: I could see, against the sandy soil, groups of grey concrete rectangular blocks.”
Though he is a lecturer in history and theory of art at University College London, Godfrey can be forgiven for being confused when viewing the site of the Berlin Holocaust monument. It is abstract, after all, resembling the prehistoric structures of Stonehenge, if a mighty wind blew the tops off. But in a time where rogue world leaders are being charged with Holocaust denial, do abstract memorials which confound art scholars help or harm Holocaust memory?
Godfrey acknowledges Eisenman’s work raises many important questions, “all of them difficult.” He asks: “What does it mean to memorialize Nazism’s victims in the centre of Berlin?” and “What, and who exactly is being remembered in this site?” But the aspect that caught Godfrey most off guard, which is the central subject of his book Abstraction and the Holocaust, is the way that “abstraction and Holocaust memory,” which has a bittersweet 50 year history of being ignored, “had come together in such a public way.”
Cover shot, Abstraction and the Holocaust.
The sort of inquiry Godfrey conducts navigates several complicated terms which require unpacking. To define abstraction, he cites Briony Fer’s definition, “a type of art which does not allow us to interpret it with reference to what is depicted.” Godfrey explains, “Abstract artists eschew depiction and figuration and sometimes, overt symbolism, but this is not to say their work refuses signification. In front of abstract art works, the lack of a depicted image tends to heighten our awareness of materials, of compositional (or anti-compositional) structures, of the process of looking itself.”
The “process of looking itself” and “our awareness of materials” make for insightful conversations in museums and galleries, but does abstract art, insofar as it is divorced from subject matter, really convince the viewer of its content?
When Picasso drew a Cubist painting, he surely saw the model sitting in front of him. He chose to leave viewers not with a mug shot of that model that would help identify her in the street, but with a work that had more to do with paint, color, line and perhaps time, than it did with a woman. This sort of representation (which is of course non-representational) can be viewed either as transcending realism and capturing something about the model that is more than skin deep, or as neglecting the model altogether. “If my husband ever met a woman on the street who looked like the women in his paintings, he would faint,” Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s second wife, once said. The same ought to extend to artists depicting anything abstractly, including the Holocaust.
Godfrey briefly entertains the possibility that abstraction is the best form of representing “an event that is beyond representation.” He quickly rejects the model that the Holocaust is “sublime” or “unrepresentable.” Just because we cannot fathom the evil of genocide, does not mean we cannot discuss it in paint or words. If the reverse were true, only murderers could truly understand Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Julius Caesar.
Frank Stella. Chodorow II, 1971. National Gallery of Art. According to Godfrey, Stella’s “Polish Villages” series was based upon synagogue architecture.
Abstraction and the Holocaust explores the works of several artists, including: Barnett Newman, Louis Kahn, Frank Stella and Beryl Korot. But Godfrey’s discussion of the work of Morris Louis, reviewed in this column on November 13, 2007, specifically the Charred Journal: Firewritten paintings, offers the most interesting perspective on the question of abstraction’s ability to engage the Holocaust.
According to Godfrey, the “firewritten” aspect of Louis’ piece references Nazi book burning, as well as the original form of the Torah, which, according to Midrashic and Kabbalistic texts, consisted of white fire letters composed on black fire. Godfrey notes the sources “are extremely visual, describing the origin of the book through the distinction of figure and ground that occurs when white fire is seen against black, but also when black ink stands out against white parchment.”
Further, “the white lines become suggestive of the renaissance of writing since the Jewish book, though destroyed by flames, was born as flames.” Louis’ work shows that the letters of the books burnt by the Nazis may have flown away like those of the 10 Commandments Moses destroyed, “since unlike the stone they were indestructible.” Godfrey speculates, “Perhaps Louis wished to suggest that like G-d’s letters, the writing burnt by Nazi fires would not be destroyed, but would fly away unharmed.”
As a fair art historian should, Godfrey explores what he calls the “modernist” position, typified by renowned art historian Michael Fried, which holds the woks to be unconnected to any Jewish material. “Michael Fried, for instance, would never have looked at the title in order to explain the possible significance of the works; he would never have begun to read the white lines, even as unreadable or destroyed or proto-writing. He would have seen them simply as figures against a ground,” Godfrey writes. “It is possible to imagine another viewer before the paintings, at first considering associations and forming readings of the kind suggested in the last section of this chapter, and then suddenly halting, viewing the surfaces anew with the eyes of a modernist critic, and seeing them just black and white, paint and canvas, figure and ground.”
Joel Shapiro. Loss and Regeneration, 1993. U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, DC. According to Godfrey, “From some perspectives, the shape appears as an angular tree, and from others, it resembles a falling ‘stick man’ whose ‘head’ tips downwards towards the left, and whose ‘arm’ is raised upwards to balance the fall.”
Godfrey admits this sort of interpretation renders his analysis of Louis as a Jewish artist “extremely precarious,” but he has the insight to ask the further question: “what should be made of this precariousness?” The question is particularly potent given the fact, as Godfrey later discusses, that Barnett Newman’s widow claimed that his own “White Fire I” bore no Jewish or Kabbalistic relevancy beyond its title.
Newman himself had written an angry letter to Hans van Weeren-Griek, then curator of The Jewish Museum in New York, about the 1965 symposium, “What about Jewish Art.” Newman wrote he wanted to “express my disgust at the Jewish Museum’s sponsorship of the debate ‘What about Jewish Art’ … What the Jewish Museum has done is to compromise me as an artist because I am Jewish. Please therefore notify all concerned not to ask me to cooperate ever with any of your shows since you have made it impossible for me to show my works in your museum.”
In asking the question whether he has wasted his time interpreting abstract work symbolically, as Newman charged The Jewish Museum had done, Godfrey discovers that “There is surely something important about the unfixability of the references to the book burnings and to the renaissance of Jewish writing. There is something compelling about the idea that the paintings can encourage interpretations of the kind I have suggested and also of the kind made by the modernists.”
If a “realistic” painting of Auschwitz approximates a literal photograph of the location, an abstract work, according to Godfrey, can include many levels of interpretation. As the joke goes, 20 Jews will undoubtedly voice 21 opinions, and an abstract Holocaust memorial can contain as many interpretations as there are people. This undoubtedly will cause some people to worry, for multiple interpretations can quickly degenerate into chaotic misinterpretations.
But Godfrey returns to his experience of Memorial to the Murdered European Jews at the end of the book. Wandering throughout the different paths of the piece, he discovered “the memorial would exceed my attempts to fathom it. To walk within the memorial was to become at once conscious of the random nature of my own navigation, and of the uniformity of the directional choices available to me.”
It might be better if we could forever continue to remember the Holocaust in a linear way, but as we approach the time where there will be no living witnesses of World War II, this sort of memorial will become the norm. As art lovers and as people interested in preserving Holocaust memory, viewers would do better to examine its potential than to bemoan its relativism.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.