July 12-October 26, 2008
Florida Holocaust Museum
55 5th Street South, St. Petersburg, Florida
Unwanted Beauty: Aesthetic Pleasure in Holocaust Representation
By Brett Ashley Kaplan
University of Illinois Press, 2007, 240 pages, $35
Some of history’s greatest paintings have explored tragedy, from Francisco Goya’s “Saturn Devouring his Son” and etching series on “The Disasters of War” to Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” to John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed.” Claude Monet, hailed as the father of Impressionism, is generally associated with pastel colors and sunlight, but one of his most gripping paintings is of his late wife, “Camille Monet, on Her Deathbed.”
Some would accuse Monet of callousness for painting his dead wife and for somehow managing the concentration to mix colors, and to paint while his wife’s body was still warm. But however uncomfortable this makes us feel, Monet painted just one corpse. What if he had tried instead to depict six million?
Many have wondered whether it is appropriate for artists – and particularly artists who did not witness the concentration camps – to represent the Holocaust. These claims tend to center on some form of the argument that the Holocaust is non-representable, so artists need not even try – for fear of failure or irreverence. Worse yet, a successful Holocaust painting would not only carry the Holocaust as its content; it would also be aesthetically beautiful. Surely beauty does not apply in the least to World War II, so it must find no haven in art about the Holocaust.
Detail. “Wooden Synagogue Story II.” 26″ x 37″, mixed media on lupa paper. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.
Such is the dilemma that Brett Ashley Kaplan grapples with in her book, Unwanted Beauty. “I have been struck repeatedly by the fact that much prose, poetry, visual art, and architecture representing the Holocaust is beautiful, even though remaining mournful,” writes Kaplan in the introduction. She admits that this attraction and “illicit pleasure” sounds “counter-intuitive,” yet “because they are beautiful, these works entice our reflection, our attention, and our questioning.”
The viewer, it seems, can see a painting – even one that depicts genocide – as beautiful, insofar as she or he manages to intellectually appreciate the layers of meaning in the work. “In contrast to some notions of beauty as merely pretty or attractive, I use beauty to designate texts that offer ambiguous, diverse, complicated, open-ended reflections on the Holocaust,” Kaplan explains. According to this definition of beauty, even evil can be beautiful – so long as it is deep. Evil might even be directly proportional to beauty – the greater the evil, the more potential for beauty.
“Kovno Ghetto.” 22″ x 30″, watercolor/photo collage, mixed media on paper. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.
Kaplan’s book does not mention Washington, DC-based artist Joyce Ellen Weinstein, but it still proves an invaluable model for contextualizing and analyzing Weinstein’s work. Weinstein, whose Holocaust paintings and collages will be on exhibit next month at the Florida Holocaust Museum, readily admits she intends to create beautiful works despite the gruesome content, which surfaces in the form of illegible writing – as in “Wooden Synagogue Story II.”
The title refers to the once numerous European wooden synagogues created between the 17th and early 20th centuries. Today only 23 remain, according to Weinstein, who has visited many of the remaining synagogues, especially the eight that still stand in Lithuania. She was particularly fascinated by the “many layers of history” she found in the synagogues. They stand in remote villages, looking more like barns than places of worship, and in a hidden cemetery abandoned during the Holocaust and the subsequent Soviet occupation.
Layered over the painting (which includes a collage of elements from the synagogue), Weinstein wrote out her memories of the synagogue. If the writing looks sloppy it is not the quality of the photograph, for Weinstein wrote the text twice – one on top of the other. “It is my contention that no matter how we try to understand history and human behavior, it is impossible, since so much is left to interpretation and misunderstanding in communication,” she explains of the unreadable text. “Also it is always a mystery to me how history constantly repeats itself, albeit in different forms, because humans never seem to learn anything regardless of how much is written. All writing and interpretation is important, but relatively useless and often confusing.”
Joyce Ellen Weinstein poses in her studio. Photograph: Menachem Wecker.
This sort of writing – which carries form and content, but not lasting meaning – resembles the daily exercise of retired calligraphers outside the Summer Palace in Beijing. Even after retirement the calligraphers continue practicing their craft but, instead of deploying ink on paper, they write with water on the sidewalk. The “writing” quickly evaporates in the sun, but the act seems to be more about the act of writing than it is about communicating.
The same can be said about Weinstein’s texts. She explains that her works are “personal interpretations” and “sometimes conceptual,” and not literal. “I am very careful not to imply that I or any member of my family was caught up in the horror,” she says. “Although I am interested in learning about it, it is from a distance, a modern American woman searching for the past.” This distance can potentially create problems, as it did for Weinstein. In the beginning her work was “extremely sincere,” and she was “deeply immersed in the feeling of it.” But then the paintings started to become rote, so she had to stop making them. “I needed it to be totally honest,” she says. “I think there is a lot of exploitive art being done about the Holocaust.”
Weinstein sensed the importance of perspective traveling in Prague. She became so aware of being a tourist that she decided to stamp her pieces with a frame evocative of a camera viewer. Even as she admits she is not a survivor, Weinstein is a “Holocaust tourist” – an outsider whose every view is framed by the boundary of the lens.
“Old Wooden Synagogue in Lithuania.” Digital Photograph. Courtesy: Joyce Ellen Weinstein.
The camera viewfinder and the illegible writing-atop-writing are two techniques that Weinstein uses to situate herself within a larger historical context, which she says is sadly ignored today. Noting that older and mature artists have always chastised the younger generation for losing a sense of history, she nonetheless maintains that many young artists today are seduced by technology and pop culture, which causes them to lose their sense of art history.
“I believe that the foundations of art, like drawing skills, are essential to producing good art even if the artists are doing totally conceptual or totally formal work – because without drawing, for example, one loses the profound sense of observation and awareness of the world around them,” she says.
Without her sense of history, Joyce Ellen Weinstein’s art would just be the disoriented and selective musings of an outsider. But a tourist like Weinstein, who has done her homework and approaches her travels with a sense of history and research, can turn a disadvantage into a great strength. Precisely because she is an outsider, Weinstein is able to infuse her Holocaust paintings with beauty, and it is that blend of beauty and horror, of life and death, of light and shadow, that allows her to communicate with other tourists.
Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at email@example.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.