“Birkenau” by Gerhard Richter

Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 260 x 200 cm, catalogue of works: 937-1
Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 260 x 200 cm, catalogue of works: 937-1

Birkenau by Gerhard Richter as a place of remembrance

 


After 1945 there were only a few attempts to use authentic pictorial material from the concentration camps for artistic purposes. The shock of the mass murder and the respect for the victims were simply too great.

Władysław Strzemiński, a well-known Polish avant-garde painter, presented his nine-part cycle of collages entitled "My Jewish Friends" to the public in 1945. He had added documentary black and white photographs from the Warsaw ghetto, deportations and concentration camps to abstract compositions drawn with a pencil and using Suprematist lines. This led to an ongoing discourse in the international art and culture scene as to whether it was morally justifiable to use visual material from the factories of mass destruction.[1] With one exception, Strzemiński gave his cycle to the International Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, in Israel as the only conceivable and justifiable place for its presentation and safekeeping.

After Strzemiński, Jean-Luc Godard's monumental eight-part film Histoire(s) de Cinema[2] he began it in 1988 and only completed it ten years later – was the first attempt to insert authentic photos and film sequences from the concentration camps into an artistic production with a wide-ranging impact. The shocking archive pictures from the death factories now reached a mass audience for the first time. Godard's intention to address the "guilt" of the medium of film in not having filmed the camps, soon led to an international discussion about the use of such images, the "images in spite of everything"[3], as the French philosopher Georges Didi-Huberman described them in a publication in 2003. As examples of iconographic material, Didi-Huberman chose precisely those photographs taken by the Jewish task force in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944 for his reflections on the possibility or even the necessity of using "images in spite of everything" in the cultural business.[4]

The camera and its film were smuggled into the camp by a Polish resistance group[5]. In August 1944 a Greek Jew, Alberto Errera, took seven pictures from a hiding place showing, among other things, undressed women on their way to the gas chamber and members of the Sonderkommando burning bodies in the open air[6]. A Polish woman, Helena Datoń, brought the exposed film out of the camp in a toothpaste tube and handed it over to members of the Polish resistance group in Krakow along with a note from the Polish prisoners Stanisław Kłodziński [7] and Józef Cyrankiewicz (later Polish Prime Minister in the Communist government in 1947-52 and 1954-70)

 

[1] Władysław Strzemiński, "Moim przyjaciołom Żydom" (My Jewish Friends), 1945, a nine-part cycle, collaged drawings. A version of this cycle is now in the National Museum in Kraków. For further information on the cycle (in Polish), see: Luiza Nadar: http://www.riha-journal.org/articles/2014/2014-oct-dec/special-issue-contemporary-art-and-memory-part-1/nader-strzeminski-pland also by Eleonora Jedlinska http://www.przeglad.uni.lodz.pl/t/2014nr1/05.pdf

[2] Godard typically uses details from the Polish feature film "Pasażerka" (The Passenger) by Andrzej Munk in his monumental work. The 1963 film, which could not be completed due to the director's sudden accidental death, is based on the eponymous novel by Zofia Posmysz (published in Polish in 1962), who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp.

[3] Georges Didi-Huberman, Bilder Trotz allem, Paris 2003, German edition, München 2007. See page 203.

[4] In the place indicated p. 27 ff.

[5] See: Records and the collection of evidence on Nazi crimes in the State Museum at Auschwitz-Birkenau, Oświęcim, pp. 353-354.

[7]  Quoted from Didi-Huberman, in the place indicated, pp. 32-33

Mediathek
  • Gerhard Richter, "Birkenau" 1

    Gerhard Richter, "Birkenau" 1

    Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 260 x 200 cm, catalogue of works: 937-1
  • Gerhard Richter, "Birkenau" 2

    Gerhard Richter, "Birkenau" 2

    Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 260 x 200 cm, catalogue of works: 937-2
  • Gerhard Richter, "Birkenau" 3

    Gerhard Richter, "Birkenau" 3

    Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 260 x 200 cm, catalogue of works: 937-3
  • Gerhard Richter, "Birkenau" 4

    Gerhard Richter, "Birkenau" 4

    Gerhard Richter, Birkenau, 2014, oil on canvas, 260 x 200 cm, catalogue of works: 937-4
  • Template 1

    Template 1

    The photo taken by the Sonderkommando from the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum (Miejsce Pamięci i Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau), inventory no. 280
  • Template 2

    Template 2

    The photo taken by the Sonderkommando from the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum (Miejsce Pamięci i Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau), inventory no. 281
  • Template 3

    Template 3

    The photo taken by the Sonderkommando from the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum (Miejsce Pamięci i Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau), inventory no. 282
  • Template 4

    Template 4

    The photo taken by the Sonderkommando from the collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum (Miejsce Pamięci i Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau), inventory no. 283
  • Notiz von Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz

    Notiz von Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz

    Notiz der polnischen Häftlinge Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz vom 4. September 1944 (auf Polnisch)
  • Notiz von Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz k-136a

    Notiz von Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz

    Notiz der polnischen Häftlinge Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz vom 4. September 1944 (auf Polnisch)
  • Notiz von Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz k-137a

    Notiz von Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz

    Notiz der polnischen Häftlinge Stanisław Kłodziński und Józef Cyrankiewicz vom 4. September 1944 (auf Polnisch)
  • Dow Paisikovic, Zeitzeugenaussage vom 17. Oktober 1963

    Dow Paisikovic, Zeitzeugenaussage vom 17. Oktober 1963, Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau