Art from the Holocaust at DHM Berlin

January 28, 2016

Germany

100 Museums Challenge: Museum No.1

So, as I mentioned in my previous post, my new year – and thus my ‘100 Museums‘ challenge got off to a slow start. On 27th January, I visited my first museum of 2016. The Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin was offering free entry to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, which I thought was the perfect opportunity to visit their newly opened special exhibition ‘Art from the Holocaust’.

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‘Art from the Holocaust’ features 100 works created between 1939 and 45 by 50 artists, half of whom were murdered in the Holocaust. The artworks reflect the tension between the urge of the artists to document the terrible events they had to endure, and their desire to use their art as a form of escapism, to lose themselves in the realms of beauty, imagination and faith. The exhibition is divided in to three parts. REALITY shows works created by Jewish artists in ghettos and camps, at the risk of their lives. TRANSCENDENCE shows how the they used art as a means to break free from their cruel environment, with images ranging from beauty in nature – such as sunflowers, trees or mountains – to illustrations of biblical verses. And PORTRAIT, I learned, was a prominent genre of Holocaust are, with around a quarter of surviving works falling in to that category. A quote from the exhibition text panel captures it so well: “In reproducing each individual’s face, the artists gave back the subject’s soul – the very quality the Nazis sought to eliminate”.

Best of all, every single image displayed in the exhibition comes with a description. Not just your usual ‘ink on paper’ (tell me something that’s not obvious!), but a description of what the artwork was showing, the story behind it, any relevant information relating to the artist, that kind of thing. Every single one! I just wanted to shout out “thank you!” really loudly, but I didn’t think it would be appropriate. There were audio guides available too, but they only ever cover select artworks. I hate it when I find myself in front of a piece with lots of questions, and all it tells me is the not always obvious title and your typical ‘oil on canvas’. So thank you!

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The exhibition was complemented by four poems, written during the same period and displayed larger than life on the exhibition walls, which echo what the artists have expressed through their artworks. The one that touched me the most was ‘Doch meine Seele ist frei’ (But my soul is free), written by Margarethe Schmahl-Wolf on 29th August 1942 at Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, two days before her death, and translated by Ruth Schwertfeger:

I am lying here in sick bay
On wooden boards to hold me.
My boy’s weak and skeletal
But my soul is free.

My limbs are weak from lying
In a body racked with needs.
Theresienstadt is where I am living
But my soul is free.

What I once was is forgotten.
I do not complain of what they took from me,
for I am reaching for the heavens
And my soul is free.

(From Women of Theresienstadt: Voices from a Concentration Camp, by Ruth Schwertfeger)

‘Art from the Holocaust’ is showing at the Deutsches Historisches Museum until 3rd April 2016. In the trailer above, you can get a bit more of a taster (photography was not allowed in the exhibition itself, since the artworks are all loans). The exhibition text is in German, English and Hebrew. Details on opening times and admission can be found on the museum website.

It’s a great exhibition. Harrowing, but great. The artworks touched me in a completely different way that photographs documenting that terrible period in our history do. Maybe because they art so personal. If you find yourself in Berlin, go see it!

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