The History of Art in Poland and the Holocaust. Introduction


Przepraszamy, ten wpis jest dostępny tylko w języku Amerykański Angielski.

The history of art in Poland has thus far marginalized the Holocaust—a liminal event and experience of the modern world. International studies on the Holocaust have included extensive research into art and there are a growing number of Polish monographs devoted to individual artists. Nevertheless, the Holocaust and art of (from) the Holocaust1 has not been the subject of a deeper reflection, one that would expand the scope of the history of art and which might go on to challenge fundamental assumptions concerning among others mode of research, narrative, chronology, methodology, epistemological assumptions, and the very self-identity of art history. Art history in Poland rarely deals with the period between 1939 and 1945 at all, and when it does, it is to focus primarily on artworks related to World War II—not on the Holocaust and its aftermath.2 On the other hand, research centers such as the Polish Center for Holocaust Research have prepared numerous publications and research projects and produced historical, sociological and psychological studies. These efforts have had considerable success in expanding our understanding of the Holocaust as it took place on Polish territory, including Polish complicity.3 The history of art must take into consideration this extremely important work. Recent years in Poland have witnessed the appearance of equally important work invoking literature, theatre and film. This work has both helped the humanities regain its memory and has revealed cracks and fault lines in the foundations of Polish culture—presenting charges and analyzing basic paradigms and presumptions.4 For instance, Tomasz Żukowski’s book Wielki retusz. Jak zapomnieliśmy, że Polacy zabijali Żydów [The Great Makeover. How We Forgot That Poles Killed Jews] (2018) has exposed the cultural framework which structures ongoing processes of denial, processes that erase both the Holocaust and Polish complicity in it from Polish culture, memory and history.5 A few years earlier, in 2013, Grzegorz Niziołek extended Zygmunt Bauman’s reflections on sociology in the following way: “Must not forms of theatre originating in Enlightenment educational projects and Romantic national ideologies (as well as procedures created within this framework) become, by their very nature, instruments for practicing defensive strategies, both social and individual, when faced by an experience such as the Holocaust? Are practices elaborated in Polish theatrical institutions regarding the initiation of performances, construction of identity (based on the exclusion of the other) and the establishment of a relationship with an audience (treated here as part of the common community) genuinely able to measure human experiences, which have isolated different social groups from one another and, as Jerzy Jedlicki suggests, set the bar of empathy very high? Has not Polish theatre therefore become, on account of its traditions, fervently harnessed to participating in ideological projects that deny memory of too painful a past? And in the same way, has not theatre become—similarly to sociology in Bauman’s critique—‘blind’ to the Holocaust?”6 We would like to pose similar questions in the context of the history of art in Poland as well.

The foundations for multidimensional work on Jewish cultural and artistic heritage have been laid by the years of research and archival work of the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, work that has been carried out in numerous sites of memory like the museums of concentration camps and of death camps including the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum and, after 2005, the Museum of the History of Polish Jews POLIN. (We should mention here, among the work of historians, Renata Piątkowska’s perceptive texts.7) Jerzy Malinowski’s research8 (including on the War) has also greatly benefitted work on Jewish artistic identity, art and culture. In the 1970s and 80s, Janina Jaworska9 carried out pioneering work on wartime art and art related to the Holocaust and the camps. Around the year 2000, in publications that have set the tone for the development of art history in Poland, Piotr Piotrowski and Andrzej Turowski introduced war as a key context for artistic practice, with Piotrowski’s studies on the work of Andrzej Wróblewski, and Turowski’s on Teresa Żarnowerówna and Władysław Strzemiński.10 Around the same time, Eleonora Jedlińska11 was carrying out important research on artistic practice after the Holocaust. The publication-interventions of Katarzyna Bojarska12 and Izabela Kowalczyk,13 in turn, brought critical reflection to bear on art’s relationship to the Holocaust and the place of memory of the Holocaust in Polish art history, and the second decade of the 21st century has seen many studies focused on the period of war. The Holocaust and the aftermath of the war has broadened the scope of sources used in studies, as exemplified by analytical work on artists from Cracow and Warsaw between 1939-45 and later (Maria Zientara, Magdalena Tarnowska, and Agata Pietrasik).14 Marcin Lachowski,15 on the other hand, has provided a synthetic conception of the relationship of modern art to the war and the Holocaust for the period of 1945-60. Finally, individual artists have also been given new interpretations, ones that have redefined their work or rescued it from oblivion. (These new interpretations include both Jewish witnesses and non-Jewish Holocaust observers). New methodological work has appeared as a result, breaking the previous constraints limiting academic monographs (the work of Dorota Jarecka and Barbara Piwowarska, Luiza Nader and Piotr Słodkowski).16 This revaluation in academic thought has been accompanied by important curatorial gestures and historical exhibitions.17

In spite of this major body of knowledge—developed by the aforementioned work of historians and artists, both in publications and in expositions—the fact of the Holocaust and the experience of the Holocaust remain shrouded in the field of Polish art history, not to say excluded. One might sum up the current situation by saying that the history of art in Poland, when facing the Holocaust, has remained unmoved, untroubled, indifferent. In preparing this publication, we seek, on the one hand, to emphasize existing research that has worked towards the visibility of the Holocaust in both art and the history of art in Poland, as well as to move (in the emotional and physical sense of the word), perhaps even shake up, our somewhat fossilized discipline, breaking down historical-artistic discourses, dissembling familiar epistemes, opening up new vistas for research.

In this, the 6th volume of “Miejsce. Studia nad sztuką i architekturą XX i XXI wieku,” our intention is to treat the Holocaust as the epicenter of a transhistorical and transgenerational experience in Poland’s history of art, while at the same time remaining sensitive to the distinctions involved in the many positions occupied by witnesses, bystanders, observers, viewers, onlookers and, finally, perpetrators.18 We wish to consider carefully the history of art’s vision, impaired vision or lack of vision as the case may be—as a discipline that is proud of its visual competence, its sensitive and perceptive eye. How can we, today, define our area of research on artworks when these works have been created in the face of the Holocaust, understood both as event and experience? How can we define the horizons of our discipline? How can we think in a new way about artists’ identities when those identities have been distorted, unsettled - or strengthened - by the Holocaust? How can art history avoid appropriating artworks from the Holocaust as well as those addressing the Holocaust and post-Holocaust existence? How to uncover these artworks’ vital role and their function, to understand them as crucial to artists’ experiences of choices (existential, aesthetic or ethical), and of what can and cannot be expressed? In terms of culture, art, institutions, etc., what kind of post-Holocaust landscape has emerged in Poland in the period from the 1940s till today?

The flipside of the inadequate visibility of the Holocaust in art historical studies is the existential superficiality and feebleness of reflection on the complex (self)identification of artists who are: Polish / from Poland, Polish-Jewish (or Jewish-Polish), or of other ethnicities.19 In repealing the still predominant paradigms that view our central categories as avantgarde, modernism and modernity, we believe that a history of art that can draw conclusions from the Holocaust as an event of far-reaching cultural impact must also be sensitive to questions of identity. It must, in other words, stubbornly consider how aesthetics and artistic practice served—both under communism and after 1989—to express complex, fluid and fragile identifications and experiences, be they individual, collective or generational. And it must also consider how the history of art, developing both at the time and later, privileged certain narratives around art and politics, and marginalized other aspects of art that had the character of testimony or visual forms of biographical exposition. We are convinced that thought about art that is sensitive to identity must cast off excessively reductive binary categories (beginning with the old division of modernist versus socialist realist). We need to overcome the false dichotomy appearing in talk of minority identities: where they are either to be removed and repressed, or subjected to a kind of ghettoization, being studied as specializations, in isolation from the main currents of the discipline.

The texts gathered in this volume represent a sort of constellation of performative utterances - with an effort to both think and act at the same time. They are an attempt to open up a public discourse, to create a language to achieve this, and at the same time to debate the state of art history (in Poland, but not only here) by contributing to efforts to reinterpret Polish culture through the many aspects of the experience of the Shoah. They embark on a “conceptual voyage” (to refer to Mieke Bal’s term “travelling concepts”), initiating a growing movement involving both theory and methodology, research objects/subjects, the intertwined areas of art history, artistic research and the space of transdisciplinary studies on the Holocaust and in other areas of the humanities.

Magdalena Tarnowska’s article perfectly illustrates how the history of art, when confronting the Holocaust, must not only face the conservatism of the discipline but also much more rudimentary problems. She sets herself the apparently modest task of establishing the basic facts of the life and work of Kazimierz Libin (1904-1944)—a forgotten portraitist in the milieu of Tadeusz Pruszkowski and the Warsaw School of Fine Arts. However, this particular case harbors a fundamental methodological question touching on a broad area of studies into the work of Jewish artists who remained in the shadow of the war in various ways: How should we carry out research into and preserve the memory of artists when there is an almost total lack of historical sources? Libin’s work was destroyed by fire in the Warsaw Uprising. The initial impulse to reflect on his art came from memoires taken down by his son, as well as a modest collection of photographs of paintings, family mementoes, documents, reviews and just two landscapes preserved in the National Museum. Magdalena Tarnowska takes these scraps of information and from them reconstructs the outlines of a biography and of the character of Libin, the evolution of his painting, and his views on national identity. She gives us an example of the detailed foundational work that is needed for subsequent synthetic work to develop.

Zuzanna Benesz-Goldfinger writes about the post-war sketches of Izaak Celnikier, one of the leading artists of the “Arsenal”—the location and informal name of the 1955 Ogólnopolska Wystawa Młodej Plastyki “Przeciw wojnie–przeciw faszyzmowi” [Nationwide Exhibition of Young Art “Against War–Against Fascism”]. These are drawings from the 1940s and 50s which the artist left behind in Poland when he emigrated to France in 1957, a decision influenced by growing anti-Semitism in the country. Benesz-Goldfinger draws our attention in particular to Celnikier’s illustrations for a collection of Abraham Reisen’s Yiddish stories that had appeared long before the war (in 1915, 1916 and 1929) and which were published in the Polish People’s Republic by the publisher “Idisz Buch.” She convincingly invokes these modest remnants from the artist’s œuvre to demonstrate that Celnikier interpreted his literary inspiration through the prism of his own wartime experiences and he illustrated the particular stories he did because they served as a prefiguration of the Holocaust. In this way little-known work acquires considerable significance in a new perspective. Instead of assuming contexts, such as the relationship of art to politics, and taking socialist realism as her point of departure, Benesz-Goldfinger precisely analyzes the distortion and reinterpretation of the wealth of Jewish culture that took place as a result of the Shoah.

Paweł Michna places the collage albums that appeared in the Łódź Ghetto’s Graphic Office in the context of a historical sequence of images related to the avantgarde art of the 1930s, at the same time posing questions about their status as the products of testimonial practice. He undertakes the task of returning these works to the history of art from which they have been doubly marginalized: as works issuing both from the Holocaust and from Eastern Europe. He also perceives a variety of areas of ambiguity in these works: their propagandist nature—the false representation of ghetto realities—but also the key role they played as part of survival and reparation strategies. He presents the possibility of perceiving these works as a field for a “prospective historical policy” of the Judenrat in the Łódź Ghetto, one that would contest Nazi propaganda. He considers them “modernist marginalia” (here paraphrasing Andrzej Turowski), also claiming that they reveal “the dark side of modernity.” He draws attention to their ambiguity and the fundamental interpretative challenges they represent, in the end making use of Dorota Głowacka’s term “negative testimony” [świadectwo negatywne].

Agata Pietrasik surveys representations of Majdanek in the drawings of the Jewish-Ukrainian artist Zinowij Tołkaczew. Her analysis leads her to place these works in the extended field of emerging “cultural texts” that are an attempt to bear witness to recent wartime experiences. At the same time, she provides a model of research that allows art history to function as an integral part of transdisciplinary Holocaust studies. All the media used in the 1940s encountered similar limitations and problems: the powerlessness of descriptive language in the face of extreme events, advancing oneself as an eyewitness and yet wavering between a cool, objective tone and emotional engagement. This is why, as Pietrasik shows, different aspects of statements overlap here: metaphor, art, evidence, information, testimony. Besides this, the reception of the work also provided an essential context for its understanding and illustrated the fact that any work was liable to be politically misappropriated, most typically in an attempt to universalize the Jewish experience of the war. Adopting a broad perspective, Pietrasik sees Tołkaczew’s drawings and exhibitions in the context of a network of 1940s’ issues; she brings out clearly what is reflective of this background in the artist’s work and what is unique. Her article is an important impulse to take up comparative research on the still unstable image of the war in the initial post-war years.

Marcin Lachowski also presents the confrontation of tradition and war, but his perspective is broader still. His subject: the postwar landscapes of modernist Polish artists and their relationship to the heritage and theory of landscape painting. Bronisław Wojciech Linke’s realist scenes developed two of André Breton’s spatial conceptions (the image-window and image-screen). On the other hand, Jadwiga Maziarska’s objects, persisting in their oscillation between the visual and the tactile, worked in a different way—outside of realism’s conventions. They seem to reach the borders of the modernist understanding of representation, presenting an image as a structure, a fossil, a crack, a formlessness. Finally, to effect a reinterpretation of landscape painting after the Holocaust, Jonasz Stern’s landscape work is also paradigmatic. In his work, the painting’s structure, an object and photography encounter a persistent and personal recollection of place. In all these cases, landscape is raised to the status of a capacious bearer of signs—the opposite of the simple imitation of nature. Postwar landscapes, Lachowski claims, function as an embodiment of the abyss, a threshold or a place to be returned to again and again; they are representations stretched between vision and the visionary on the one hand, and de-visualization and the literalness of matter on the other.

Katarzyna Bojarska considers how the collective memory of the war, the Holocaust and the uniquely Polish attitude of bystanders is communicated in art after 1989. She makes us aware that art can bring “narrative shocks” (Elżbieta Janicka, Tomasz Żukowski) and is capable of diagnosing mechanisms of denial in facing shared responsibility for violence towards Jews. This is exactly how Wilhelm Sasnal’s art works. Katarzyna Bojarska asks key questions in this context: How can shaming a community and the affect of shame lead to the desirable condition of “precarious reflexivity” (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick), and allow a reworking of the past? And how can one speak from within a community with images, being from there and preserving one’s attachment to that place, but at the same time rejecting the ideology that the national discourse has become? Facing up to these problems, Bojarska connects the work of the painter to the thought of the pediatrician and psychoanalyst Donald W. Winnicott, creating the category of “transitional images.” If toys play the role of transitional objects because they absorb the child’s accumulated emotions by teaching them to connect with an unknown world, then Sasnal’s artistic work—that which comes into contact with the Holocaust—fulfils an analogous function of providing transitional images, ones which provoke anxiety and disturb, but which ultimately facilitate familiarity with unassimilated history.

Izabela Kowalczyk proposes rewriting the history of modern art so that this time the Shoah and other wartime experiences are taken as key points of reference. We would draw out three aspects of this project above all others, ones which integrate with or support the other researchers here in what they are undertaking. First of all: the appreciation and problematization of entangled Polish-Jewish (Jewish-Polish) identities, including migrating artists, and those who change their names to live on “Aryan papers,” thereby retaining “Holocaust identities.” Secondly: the expansion of the researcher’s scope of interest to include completely new and essentially diverse material—artefacts from camps, ghettos, hideouts, objects related to the Holocaust, and other works that are not directly related but which have, nevertheless, appeared in its shadow. Thirdly, Kowalczyk’s diagnosis leads her to posit the need to set aside the traditional periodization of Polish art after 1945—which has today come to seem doubtful to many researchers—and to ask key questions: What of the artwork produced after 1939? Is the threshold of 1949 (the introduction of socialist realism by decree) really so significant for art related to the war? Can we hold onto the current significance that the years 1955 and 1989 hold for us? This project surely challenges a linear and progressive narrative for Polish art history, as well as joining efforts to rebut accepted research paradigms that have been defined by the horizons of “avantgarde,” “modernism” and “modernity.”

The complex and ambiguous relationships that hold between the critique of representational and other underappreciated visual forms of Holocaust testimony, and the structural exclusion of women’s artistic practice from the discourse of art history—this makes up the territory of Dorota Głowacka’s reflection. She studies a wide spectrum of work depicting women’s bodies in the context of violence—work created during the Holocaust and after, both by female and by male artists. This then leads her to consider how gender has structured both the critique of the western concept of beauty (related as it is to the ideal of female beauty), and aestheticization in the context of both representation and the Holocaust. She draws fine distinctions and stratifications in the representation of women’s bodies by female and male artists. She observes that images of women made by male artists (especially those that are images of violence against women), often reproduce objectification, cruelty, involve voyeurism and harmful stereotypes. Images of this sort do present radical evil and extreme suffering, but at the same time they exclude the perspective of the victims themselves. To bring balance Głowacka invokes the artistic activities of women who have been able to give agency back to women to regain their capacity to bear witness, depicting the human body both as a space of life—of beauty, intimacy and pleasure—as well as a locus of the processes of disintegration and death.

In her article, Renata Piątkowska is the first to draw attention to and analyze the drawings of Elżbieta Nadel—a young woman on the verge of adulthood who was living with her family during the Holocaust in Lvov. She observes that, with the sole exception of photography, visual evidence from the Holocaust is rarely taken seriously as a historical source. She also points to the methodological challenges involved in the interpretation of this kind of work, the need to collate and combine a multiplicity of research perspectives, including: the approaches of traditional art history that invoke artistic values; the perspective of history with its analysis of sources and biographical experience; knowledge and detailed empirical research from Holocaust studies; the perspective of women’s experience and, finally, a focus on the material and intermedia values of the work. When Nadel’s drawings are viewed within the framework of the Holocaust of Lvov Jews, they reveal their real power: their force as a woman’s autobiographical narrative; as an exceptional record of everyday life in extreme conditions and one that goes beyond a record of trauma; as a portrait of a family and domesticity; as intellectual and manual work that strengthens the emancipation of the subject and emboldens it to further existence.

Piątkowska invites the viewer to engage with the Holocaust intimately, but also with its everyday and local dimensions. Another important vernacular aspect of the Holocaust which has been ignored by the history of art is brought to light by Roma Sendyka in her article. She approaches the problematics surrounding “bystander images” - thus described for two reasons. Firstly, she considers images that have been created not by a witness but by a bystander (“postronny” in Polish), defined by Sendyka as a subject who has observed crimes against humanity committed on Jews and who has been “co-present at the scene of violence.” Secondly, the visual afterimages that Sendyka investigates are “bystanding” precisely because of their vernacular character: they transgress the boundaries of professional, academic, elite art. She analyzes works of Antanas Kmieliauskas, Józef Charyton and Roman Lipa and we become deeply aware of their utmost value as testimonies of the dispersed Holocaust that took place on Polish soil. These works open up a space for thinking about the multiple and variable practices of visual testifying, materializations of which we cannot find exhibited in museums of contemporary art. They also don’t figure in academic syllabuses, being relegated to ethnographic margins as so-called “folk art.” These works contain within themselves mediations, aporia, as well as “transgressions” (of subject, chronologies, styles, expressions, disciplines, paradigms etc.) and thereby force us to revise many well established judgments about visual representations of the Holocaust—to completely rethink the foundations of art history.

Natalia Romik introduces us to a vernacular “architecture of survival,” a subject which has gone completely unnoticed by art history. This architecture poses foundational questions to art history at many levels—literally as well as figuratively. We encounter the space of hideouts which offered a means of survival for Jews during the Holocaust. Romik describes how her research has amalgamated artistic methods with tools drawn from architecture and art history. She focusses on three case studies: a cellar hideout in a private home in Siemiatycze Śląskie; a bunker in a grave on Okopowa Street in Warsaw; and the inside of a 650-year-old oak in Wiśniowa. She tells the stories of the people who were hiding in these places, carrying out a kind of archaeology as well as a topographical, architectural and affective analysis of the hideouts—including their current state. She reconstructs their material and emotional layout by means of personal narratives as well as by a vivisection of the places and what remains of them, and shares her thoughts on the possibilities for their artistic commemoration.

The last text in this volume is by Jacek Leociak. It takes the reader into the history of things that have been hidden from view, and which have led an underground existence, on the post-Warsaw-ghetto site. These things are implicit in places and people by means of metonymy, and Leociak takes examples, like a pot, with intimate relations to bodily needs, to close and tender attachments. These things are viewed in their movement, within the space of the practices of everyday human experience, and also in the passage of their degradation—through time and events of extreme violence that leave their imprint on both subjects and objects. Leociak outlines the history of Warsaw’s Muranów district, a neighborhood that has existed for hundreds of years and which was a main site of the life and death of Warsaw’s Jews. He gathers remnants of narratives, fragments of poetic images and finally material remains to be able to recreate a network of relationships all connected to a modest object of everyday life—a pot. Things, in Jacek Leociak’s fine text, move around the ghetto, go underground, pass beyond the ghetto walls, finally scattering across the entire city. Used, protected, carefully stored away—only to be burnt, stolen or dug out of the ground by thieves and looters. Many of these objects remain hidden there, comprising, as Leociak writes, an “underground Holocaust vault.”

The aforementioned studies either implicitly or explicitly demand a fundamental rethinking of the state and limitations of our discipline. In considering works from, about or after the Holocaust, we would like to emphasize the need for re-professionalization on the one hand, and an imperative for the extreme expansion of art history, on the other.20

The re-professionalization we advocate should lead to the establishment of research inquiries based on three mutually interrelated assumptions.

First of all, a strategic awareness is required of source and object where the latter possesses the status of testimony (here see Paweł Michna on Holocaust documents in the Łódź Ghetto). An object of this kind can shape our understanding of key biographical trajectories (see Renata Piątkowska on Elżbieta Nadel, and Natalia Romik on the architecture of hideouts); it can bring back faded memories of artists on the basis of mere fragments (Magdalena Tarnowska on Kazimierz Libin) or increase the visibility of the oeuvre of already recognized artists (Zuzanna Benesz-Goldfinger on Izaak Celnikier).

Secondly, unique material demands an openness to theoretical and methodological inputs from various domains of the humanities. This cooperation in turn enables familiar artistic gestures to be re-examined (Marcin Lachowski on the landscapes of the Holocaust), as well as reframing artefacts and testimonies previously understood too reductively and inadequately (see Agata Pietrasik on the drawings of Zinowij Tołkaczew). Nowhere else is theoretical sensitivity when faced with a work as essential as it is for studies on artefacts of (or from) the Holocaust. It is only from this perspective that the subject of our research “works” most effectively. In other words, the possibility emerges of sensitizing ourselves to what, following Ewa Domańska, we can call the “texturing of the past,” and thereby come up with innovative understandings on the basis of “a historical source as a material artefact.”21

Thirdly, the aforementioned “re-professionalization” of the discipline should encompass an ethic and practice governing the aspects of research discussed, whereby theory is “grounded” on the basis of detailed records, rich sources and a close encounter with the image-object.22 With this postulate we follow the superb example of Ewa Domańska, who has opposed the mechanical application of received conceptions and concepts, bravely proposing new “bottom-up” research categories on the basis of source analysis.23 In support of this line of thought, we claim that this kind of approach is and should be one of the basic points of the re-professionalization of art history in Poland. We feel that the studies contained in this volume give strength to this attitude, providing innovative interpretative categories (Katarzyna Bojarska) and mature methodological proposals (Roma Sendyka), careful and destabilizing readings of older aesthetic concepts (Dorota Głowacka) and presenting revelatory projects for new research (Jacek Leociak).

In summation: the process of the re-professionalization of the history of art, which we support, does not amount to a pre-critical or, worse still, uncritical return to the object but a focus on the subject of research that preserves an alertness to theoretical inspiration (“re-” here means “anew” and not “again”). We believe that the history of art should strengthen its core disciplinary competencies: awareness of material specificity, conservation analysis, a sensitivity to what is idiomatic in the object, detailed description and careful analysis. This perspective, one that focusses on the subject of research, has the benefit of allowing us to bridge the otherwise unbridgeable gulf between aspects of our discipline: the museal-expert aspect, in close contact with the work itself; and the academic approach, usually methodologically more advanced but nonetheless working at a physical distance, via the representations of various media.24

In our efforts to make the fact and the experience of the Holocaust a main point of reference for the history of art in Poland (and beyond), our second postulate is a radical expansion of the scope of the history of art, so that rather than being an obstacle, marginal phenomenon or curiosity, an integral element will be the crack/rupture, splitting/tearing, or cleaving/fissure of received artistic canons, research paradigms, evaluations, chronology, initial assumptions and even terminology and language. We need to introduce anxiety, tension and friction into the culture of contemporary historical-artistic discourse. Art history understood in this way strikes one as a blurred discipline, one occupying border areas and characterized by the demands of transdisciplinary support and horizons of understanding of the (post)humanities. At the same time, it benefits from artistic research and provides useful tools and research procedures to analyze visual and material testimonies, reports, objects and spaces connected to the Holocaust. A radically expanded art history is open to dynamic influxes of knowledge between other (academic and artistic) disciplines and conversely impacts those disciplines, developing a variety of transgressive tactics as it does so: going beyond, above and below the values, procedures and paradigms traditionally attributed to the “flock of sharp-eyed eagles” [the art history profession].25 The heart of an art history of that takes the center of its emanation to be the Holocaust—becomes the concept of witness, bearing witness, witnessing, testimony, testifying (concepts that have been ignored thus far in the history of art) together with an ever growing galaxy of related thoughts, concepts, methods and theories.

The articles collected here abandon the rhetoric of certainty. They also encourage the reader to go beyond the existing paradigms of art history which has left the visual records and material remains discussed here in a limbo of ethnography, archaeology, museal curiosities, court exhibits or testimonial practices. In light of the brilliant research and reflection the authors present, we can add a little to the ongoing matter of a radically extended view of the history of art. Let it be a discipline grounded in: a determined re-professionalization, as well as in care; methodological openness and a self-critical and self-reflective attitude; the ability to take on multiple perspectives, combining the techniques, practices and knowledge of the historian of art with the experience, theories, knowledge and understanding brought by interdisciplinary studies on the Holocaust and other areas of learning, practice, intuition and the efforts of other subjects to broaden our understanding (among others: literary studies, philosophy, law, ethnography, archaeology, artistic research, conservation, biology, botany and the so-called neuro-sciences). This is an ontology of stable but lost, disturbed or burnt artpieces, fragile works, ephemeral words, mobile things. Hidden spaces, active landscapes and plants; “unprofessional” artistic practices; objects/subjects of ambivalent identity, inadequate and doubly marginalized; remains, fragments, obsolete things; unnamed, unknown forms of visual testimony; cruelty that reveals itself through material scraps and visual traces; unthinkable violence, death; emotions, affects, intensiveness, “there and then” interwoven into the fabric of what remains, what was saved from the Holocaust; the everyday, the vernacular, the intimate, poly-sensory experience of the world. Care, love, memory, recollection. Artistic practice as an immersion in the now, directed to the future and a method to investigate the past. The ethics of art history, facing the Holocaust.

Translated by Patrick Trompiz

  1. We use the phrase “art of (from) the Holocaust” following Jacek Leociak’s term “photography of (from) the Holocaust.” See: Jacek Leociak, “Damaged Photographs of (from) the Holocaust,” in Jacek Leociak, Limit Experiences. A Study of Twentieth-century Forms of Representation, trans. Alex Shannon (Berlin: Peter Lang, 2019), 210–225. ↩︎
  2. On the subject of rethinking the main research paradigms of art history with reference to the Holocaust see: Luiza Nader, The Sticky Spot of Crime. Rethinking Art History in Poland (2015), https://​ehri​-project​.eu/​s​t​i​c​k​y​-​s​p​o​t​-​c​r​i​m​e​-​r​e​t​h​i​n​k​i​n​g​-​a​r​t​-​h​i​s​t​o​r​y​-​p​o​l​and (accessed: 05.28.2020); Luiza Nader, Afekt Strzemińskiego. Teoria widzenia, rysunki wojenne, Pamięci przyjaciół–Żydów [Strzemiński’s Affect. The Theory of Vision, Wartime Drawings, In Memory of Friends–Jews] (Warsaw–Lodz: Akademia Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie, Muzeum Sztuki w Łodzi, Wydawnictwo IBL PAN, 2018); Luiza Nader, “Polscy obserwatorzy Zagłady. Studium przypadków z zakresu sztuk wizualnych—uwagi wstępne” [Polish Observers of the Holocaust. Case Studies Drawn from the Visual Arts—Initial Remarks], in Zagłada Żydów. Studia i materiały, vol. 14 (2018): 165–211; Piotr Słodkowski, „Reparacyjne strategie przetrwania. Losy i wojenne prace Henryka Strenga / Marka Włodarskiego” [Reparation Strategies for Survival. The Fate and Wartime Work of Henryk Streng / Marek Włodarski], Teksty Drugie, no. 5 (2014): 64–82; Piotr Słodkowski, Modernizm żydowsko-polski. Henryk Streng/Marek Włodarski a historia sztuki [Jewish-Polish Modernism. Henryk Streng/Marek Włodarski and Art History] (Warsaw: Akademia Sztuk Pięknych, Wydawnictwo IBL PAN, 2019). ↩︎
  3. The many important and distinguished publications include: Jan Tomasz Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2001); Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak, The Warsaw Ghetto: A Guide to the Perished City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Barbara Engelking, Jacek Leociak, Dariusz Libionka, eds., Prowincja noc. Życie i zagłada Żydów w dystrykcie warszawskim [The Province of Night. The life and Annihilation of Jews in a Warsaw district] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IFiS PAN, 2007); Jan Tomasz Gross, Fear: Anti-Semitism in Poland after Auschwitz: An Essay in Historical Interpretation (New Haven: Princeton University Press, 2006); Barbara Engelking, Jan Grabowski, eds., Zarys krajobrazu. Wieś polska wobec zagłady Żydów 1942–1945 [Sketch of a Landscape. Rural Poland and the Holocaust 1942–1945] (Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, 2011); Barbara Engelking, Such a Beautiful Sunny Day…: Jews Seeking Refuge in the Polish Countryside 1942–1945 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publications, 2016); Jan Grabowski, Hunt for the Jews: Betrayal and Murder in German-Occupied Poland (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013); Jan Tomasz Gross, Irena Grudzińska-Gross, Golden Harvest (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012); Jan Grabowski and Dariusz Libionka, eds., Klucze i kasa. O mieniu żydowskim w Polsce pod okupacją niemiecką i we wczesnych latach powojennych 1939–1945 [Keys and Cash. Jewish Property in German Occupied Poland and the Early Post-war Years 1939–1945] (Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, 2014); Barbara Engelking, Jan Grabowski, eds., Dalej jest noc. Losy Żydów w wybranych powiatach okupowanej Polski [Endless Night. The Fate of Jews in Selected Counties of Occupied Poland—abridged English translation forthcoming], vol. 1 and 2 (Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, 2018); Joanna Tokarska-Bakir, Pod klątwą: społeczny portret pogromu kieleckiego [Cursed: A Social Portrait of the Kielce Pogrom], vols. 1 and 2 (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Czarna Owca, 2018). ↩︎
  4. See: Jan Tomasz Gross, Upiorna dekada. Eseje o stereotypach na temat Żydów, Polaków, Niemców, komunistów i kolaboracji 1939–1948 [Harrowing Decade. Essays on stereotypes about Jews, Poles, Germans, communists and collaboration 1939–1948] (Cracow: Wydawnictwo Austeria, 2007); Leociak, Limit Experiences: A Study of Twentieth-Century Forms of Representation; Tomasz Majewski, Anna Zeidler-Janiszewska, Maja Wójcik, eds., Pamięć Shoah. Kulturowe reprezentacje i praktyki upamiętniania [Memory of the Shoah. Cultural representations and commemorative practices] (Lodz: Officyna, 2009); Feliks Tych, Monika Adamczyk-Garbowska, eds., Jewish Presence in Absence: The Aftermath of the Holocaust in Poland. 1944–2010, trans. Grzegorz Dąbkowski, Jessica Taylor-Kucia (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem Publishers, 2015); Elżbieta Janicka, Festung Warschau. Raport z oblężonego miasta [Warsaw Fortress. Report from the Besieged City] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2011); Sławomir Buryła, Dorota Krawczyńska, Jacek Leociak, eds., Polish Literature and the Holocaust (1939–1968), trans. Jan Burzyński (Peter Lang AG, 2020); Grzegorz Niziołek, The Polish Theatre of the Holocaust, trans. Ursula Philips, (York: Methuen Drama, 2019); Bożena Keff, Antysemityzm. Niezamknięta historia (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Czarna Owca, 2013); Andrzej Leder, Prześniona rewolucja. Ćwiczenie z logiki historycznej [A Revolution We Slept Through. An Exercise in Historical Logic] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2014); Elżbieta Janicka, Tomasz Żukowski, Przemoc filosemicka? Nowe polskie narracje o Żydach po roku 2000 [Philosemitic Violence? New Polish Narratives about Jews Post-2000] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IBL PAN, 2016); Dorota Głowacka, Po tamtej stronie: świadectwo, afekt, wyobraźnia [On the Other Side: Testimony, Affect, Imagination] (Warszawa: Wydawnictwo IBL PAN 2016); Justyna Kowalska-Leder, Paweł Dobrosielski, Iwona Kurz, Małgorzata Szpakowska, eds., Ślady Holokaustu w imaginarium kultury Polskiej [Traces of the Holocaust in the Polish Cultural Imagination] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2017); Jacek Leociak, Młyny boże. Zapiski o Kościele i Zagładzie [God’s Mills. Notes on the Church and the Holocaust] (Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2018); Tomasz Żukowski, Wielki retusz. Jak zapomnieliśmy, że Polacy zabijali Żydów [The Great Makeover. How we forgot that Poles killed Jews] (Warsaw: Wielka Litera, 2018). ↩︎
  5. Żukowski. ↩︎
  6. Niziołek, 31–32. ↩︎
  7. See: Renata Piątkowska, “‘Intra muros’–Roman Kramsztyk w getcie warszawskim” [“Intra Muros”–Roman Kramsztyk in the Warsaw Ghetto], Kwartalnik Historii Żydów, no. 2 (2002): 195–205; Renata Piątkowska, “Zagłada i ocalenie Jonasza Sterna” [The Annihilation and Return of Jonasz Stern], Pamiętnik Sztuk Pięknych, no. 2 (2002): 53–65; Renata Piątkowska, “‘Żywa pamięć.’ Pomnik bohaterów getta Natana Rapoporta (1917–1987)” [“Living Memory.” Nathan Rapaport’s Monument to the Ghetto Heroes (1917–1987)], in Rzeźba w architekturze [Sculpture in Architecture], eds. Katarzyna Chrudzimska-Uhera and Bartłomiej Gutowski (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Kardynała Stefana Wyszyńskiego, 2008), 69–84. ↩︎
  8. Jerzy Malinowski, Grupa “Jung Idysz” i żydowskie środowisko “nowej sztuki” w Polsce 1918–1923 [The “Jung Idysz” Group and the Jewish “New Art” Movement in Poland 1918-1923] (Warsaw: Instytut Sztuki PAN, 1987); Sztuka i nowa wspólnota. Zrzeszenie Artystów “Bunt” 1917–1922 [Art and a New Community. The “Bunt” Artistic Group] (Wrocław: Wydawnictwo Uniwersytetu Wrocławskiego, 1991); Malarstwo i rzeźba Żydów polskich, vol. 1 (Warsaw: PWN, 2000), vol. 2 (Warsaw: DiG, 2007). Volume 1 has been published in English (trans. Krzysztof Cieszkowski), as Painting and Sculpture by Polish Jews in the 19th and 20th Centuries (to 1939) (Toruń: Tako, 2017). ↩︎
  9. Janina Jaworska, Polska sztuka walcząca 1939–1945 [Polish Fighting Art 1939–1945] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Artystyczne i Filmowe, 1976); “Nie wszystek umrę…”: twórczość plastyczna Polaków w hitlerowskich więzieniach i obozach koncentracyjnych 1939–1945 [“Not all of me will die…” Polish Works of Art in Nazi Prisons and Concentration Camps 1939–1945] (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1975); Henryka Becka “Bunkier 1944 roku” [Henryk Beck’s “1944 Bunker”] (Wrocław: Ossolineum, 1982). ↩︎
  10. Piotr Piotrowski, Znaczenia modernizmu. W stronę historii sztuki polskiej po 1945 roku [The Meanings of Modernism. Towards a History of Polish Art Post-1945] (Poznań: REBIS, 1999), 10–32; Andrzej Turowski, Budowniczowie świata. Z dziejów radykalnego modernizmu w sztuce polskiej [World Builders. From the History of Radical Modernism in Polish Art] (Cracow: Universitas, 2000), 216–234. ↩︎
  11. Eleonora Jedlińska, Sztuka po Holocauście [Art after the Holocaust] (Lodz: Tygiel Kultury, 2001). ↩︎
  12. Katarzyna Bojarska, Wydarzenia po Wydarzeniu. Białoszewski—Richter—Spiegelman [Events after the Event. Białoszewski—Richter—Spiegelman] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IBL PAN, 2012). ↩︎
  13. Izabela Kowalczyk, Podróż do przeszłości. Interpretacje najnowszej historii w polskiej sztuce krytycznej [Journey into the Past. Interpretations of Recent History in Polish Critical Art] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo SWPS Academica, 2010). ↩︎
  14. Maria Zientara, Krakowscy artyści i ich sztuka w latach 1939–1945 [The Artists of Cracow and their Art 1939–1945] (Cracow: Muzeum Historyczne Miasta Krakowa, 2013); Magdalena Tarnowska, Artyści żydowscy w Warszawie. 1939–1945 [Jewish Artists in Warsaw. 1939–1945] (Warsaw: DiG, 2015); Agata Pietrasik, ’Radość nowych konstrukcji’ w czasach bezdomności. Twórczość Mariana Bogusza w latach czterdziestych[“The Joy of New Constructions” in Times of Homelessness. The Work of Marian Bogusz in the 1940s], “Miejsce. Studia nad sztuką i architekturą polską XX i XXI wieku,” vol. 1 (2015): 24–43; „Żałoba nie przystoi Elektrze. O (nie)pamięci wojny w dziele Felicjana Szczęsnego Kowarskiego” [Mourning Does Not Become Electra: On the (Non)memory of War in the Work of Felicjan Szczęsny Kowarski], Rocznik Muzeum Narodowego w Warszawie. Nowa Seria,” no. 3 (2014): 363–383. ↩︎
  15. Marcin Lachowski, Nowocześni po katastrofie. Sztuka w Polsce w latach 1945–1960 [Moderns in the Wake of Catastrophe. Art in Poland 1945–1960] (Lublin: Wydawnictwo KUL, 2013). ↩︎
  16. Dorota Jarecka, Barbara Piwowarska, Erna Rosenstein. Mogę powtarzać tylko nieświadomie / I Can Repeat Only Unconsciously (Warsaw: Fundacja Galerii Foksal, 2014); Nader, Afekt Strzemińskiego. “Teoria widzenia,” rysunki wojenne, Pamięci przyjaciół—Żydów; Słodkowski, Modernizm żydowsko-polski. Henryk Streng / Marek Włodarski a historia sztuki. ↩︎
  17. Among the exhibitions with a synthesizing approach, we should above all mention Gdzie jest brat Twój, Abel? [Where is thy brother, Abel?], curator: Anda Rottenberg, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw 7.05.1995–20.08.1995; Polak, Żyd, artysta. Tożsamość a awangarda [Pole, Jew, Artist. Identity and the Avantgarde], curators: Joanna Ritt, Jarosław Suchan, Muzeum Sztuki, Lodz, 17.10.2009–31.01.2010; Sztuka polska wobec Holokaustu [Polish Art and the Holocaust], curator: Teresa Śmiechowska, the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw 17.04.2013–28.11.2013; Zaraz po wojnie [Just after the War], curators: Joanna Kordjak, Agnieszka Szewczyk, Zachęta National Gallery of Art, Warsaw 3.10.2015–10.01.2016; Historia sztuki w walce o pamięć [The History of Art in the Fight for Memory], curators: Mikołaj Getka-Kenig, Jakub Bendkowski, the Emanuel Ringelblum Jewish Historical Institute, Warsaw 6.10.2016–19.03.2017; Terribly Close: Polish Vernacular Artists Face the Holocaust, curators: Erica Lehrer, Roma Sendyka, Wojciech Wilczyk, Magdalena Zych, The Ethnographic Museum, Cracow, 1.12.2018—31.03.2019. ↩︎
  18. On the many-layered issues surrounding the roles of the witness, bystander and perpetrator, see: the texts in the volume Świadek: jak się staje? czym jest? [Witness: How does one become one? What is it?], eds. Agnieszka Dauksza and Karolina Koprowska (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IBL PAN, 2020). ↩︎
  19. Izabela Kowalczyk has pointed out this problem, see her article: “Zwichnięta historia sztuki? – o pominięciach problematyki żydowskiej w badaniach sztuki polskiej po 1945 r.” [Broken Art History? On the Omission of Jewish Issues in Polish Art History after 1945], Opposite, no. 1 http://​opposite​.uni​.wroc​.pl/​2​0​1​0​/​k​o​w​a​l​c​z​y​k​.​htm (accessed: 06.01.2020) ↩︎
  20. In 2014 Piotr Słodkowski suggested that the history of art should be both strategically closed and open. Closed—because it should focus inwards on strengthening its core disciplinary competencies: material specificity, conservation analyses, a sensitivity to the idiomatic in the object, and its close and in-depth study. Open—because the unique tools of the history of art are most effective when we are open to interdisciplinary stimuli from across the humanities and, conversely, the new perspective views the history of art as an essential part of kaleidoscopic research (in this case: research on the Holocaust). Being both open and closed are, in fact, complementary attitudes which enable us to re-professionalize the history of art. See: Piotr Słodkowski, Reparacyjne strategie przetrwania. Losy i wojenne prace Henryka Strenga / Marka Włodarskiego, 66–67. Earlier, Ewa Domańska made this proposal with reference to history in: Ewa Domańska, Historia egzystencjalna. Krytyczne studium narratywizmu i humanistyki zaangażowanej [Existential History. A Critical Approach to Narrativism and Emancipatory Humanities] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2012): 164–168 and thereafter. ↩︎
  21. Domańska, Historia egzystencjalna, 96 ↩︎
  22. See: Kathy Charmaz, Constructing Grounded Theory: A Practical Guide through Qualitative Analysis (Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2006); see, also: Kathy Charmaz, “Teaching Theory Construction with Initial Grounded Theory Tools: A Reflection on Lessons and Learning,” Qualitative Health Research, vol. 25 (2015): 1610–1622. On the application of grounded theory and the need to create new concepts and middle-range theories for research into artwork related to the Holocaust, in the context of the history of art, see: Nader, Afekt Strzemińskiego. ↩︎
  23. Domańska, 145–176. ↩︎
  24. Some of the thoughts presented here come from the book Słodkowski, Modernizm żydowsko-polski, 439–445. ↩︎
  25. We have borrowed the phrase, “korporacja rysiookich ostrowidzów,” literally “the guild of the lynx-eyed-sharp-sighted,” from Maria Poprzęcka, as applied to the profession of art history in her book Inne obrazy. Oko, widzenie­, sztuka. Od Albertiego do Duchampa [Other Images. Eye, Vision, Art. From Alberti to Duchamp] (Gdańsk: Słowo/obraz terytoria, 2008), 161. ↩︎

Luiza Nader


Historyczka sztuki, adiunkt na Wydziale Zarządzania Kulturą Wizualną Akademii Sztuk Pięknych w Warszawie. Jej badania koncentrują się na sztuce nowoczesnej, awangardowej i neoawangardowej, związkach wydarzeń granicznych z polem kulturowym, relacjach sztuki i Holokaustu. Inspiruje się teoriami afektu, traumy, pamięci, archiwum, koncepcjami związanymi ze „zwrotem materialnym” oraz humanistyką i etyką afirmatywną. Obecnie pracuje nad książką habilitacyjną poświęconą cyklowi kolaży Władysława Strzemińskiego Moim przyjaciołom ŻydomTeorii widzenia. Autorka książki Konceptualizm w PRL (2009).


Piotr Słodkowski


Historyk sztuki, absolwent Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego i Akademii Artes Liberales; doktorant na Wydziale Historycznym UW, uczestnik Międzyuczelnianego Programu Indywidualnych Studiów Doktoranckich AAL. Asystent w Katedrze Historii Sztuki Polskiej Najnowszej Wydziału Zarządzania Kulturą Wizualną warszawskiej ASP. Zajmuje się polską sztuką nowoczesną i współczesną. Publikował m.in. w „Artium Quaestiones”, „Ikonothece”, „Tekstach Drugich” oraz w tomach pokonferencyjnych, m.in. Od pamięci biodziedzicznej do postpamięci (2013). Jest redaktorem książek Przestrzeń społeczna. Historie mówione Złotego Grona (1963–1981) i Biennale Sztuki Nowej (1985–1996) (2014) oraz Czas debat. Antologia tekstów krytycznych o sztuce z lat 1944–1959 (2015, wspólnie z Agatą Pietrasik). Stypendysta Programu Młoda Polska za rok 2014.