Jiří Kolář (Protivín, Sept. 9, 1914 – Prague, August 11, 2002) Shoah, 1952
collage from two gelatin silver prints, 223 x 330 mm (330 x 453 mm)
Signed and dated LR/1/: JK52
Provenance: donated by the artist
The Hebrew word Shoah means catastrophe, and it has a rather specific meaning in the context in which it is used today: the genocide of European Jews by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the period 1933-1945. The writer Elie Wiesel, himself a survivor of the greatest mass murder in history, named it “holocaust,” borrowing the Greek word for a burnt offering, and this has become the term that is most common/2/.
Many intellectuals and artists in the postwar period felt the need to respond to the Holocaust in their work, and so it found its way into literature, music, fine arts, the stage and screen. Despite Theodor Adorno’s dictum “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,”/3/ the adoption of the Holocaust as a motif and its representation in the works of European and American artists in the early postwar period was a widespread phenomenon. And this was also true for artists in the countries of the Communist Bloc who until 1989 were forced to conform to Soviet ideological doctrine. Any expression free of propaganda came either from the sphere of unofficial culture or during the short period when totalitarian censorship was eased.
Similar to other countries, artwork incorporating Holocaust motifs in postwar Czechoslovakia can be divided into two basic groups. The first, and much smaller, group is made up of work by survivors relating their own experiences, and this often includes very limited albeit intensive works done during the war years while interned in a ghetto or a concentration camp, or in hiding. This creative outlet helped them to bear the difficult conditions and suppress the immediate impact of the trauma they had to face on a daily basis. The second, more numerous group is artists reflecting on the Holocaust who were not threatened with genocide themselves but were affected by the war (some suffered political persecution), and felt a natural need to come to terms with this experience in their work.
The visual medium that adopted the Holocaust theme the most vigorously was film, many times with a work of literature providing the story. Some examples are: Distant Journey by Alfréd Radok (1948); Romeo, Juliet, and Darkness by Jiří Weiss (1959, based on Jan Otčenášek’s novel); the films based on Arnošt Lustig’s writings: Transport from Paradise by Zdeněk Byrnych (1962), A Prayer for Katerina Horovitzova and Dita Saxova, both by Antonín Moskalyk (1965 and 1967); … and the Fifth Horseman Is Fear by Zdeněk Byrnych (1962, using motifs from a novel by Hana Bělohradská); The Shop on Main Street by Ján Kadár and Elmar Klos (1965); and the adaptation of Ladislav Fuks’s The Cremator by Juraj Herz (1968).
Though representation of the Holocaust is not as common in the fine arts as in film or literature, there are number of artists for whom it was an important motif and in certain respects dominated or influenced the overall tenor of their work. Special mention should be made of those authors who personally experienced the Holocaust, such as Vavro Oravec (1915–2009), Helga Weissová-Hošková (1929), Robert Piesen (1921–1977), Pavla Mautnerová (1919–2001), Aleš Veselý (1935), Jarmila Mařanová (1922–2009), and other artists active primarily in the 1950s and 60s who took up the Holocaust in their work more as a form of protest against official cultural doctrine that tended to suppress anything Jewish. The most important of this group of artists were Václav Boštík (1913–2005) and Jiří John (1923–1972), who during the 1950s worked on creating the Holocaust memorial to Jews from Bohemia and Moravia in Prague’s Pinkas Synagogue. Other artists also deserve mention, and one of these is Jiří Kolář, whose work was also associated with the Prague Surrealist Group and the postwar movement known as Art Informel.
The collage exhibited here in the Object of the Month series is one of a set of eleven images composed of reproductions of original photographs from the Jewish Community of Prague’s photographic studio, which was tasked during the war with documenting community activity, including the confiscation, processing, and distribution of property taken from Jews, and the registration of persons for transport. Also included is the so-called Auschwitz album, which comprises photos taken by members of the SS at the beginning of 1944 when the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau took place. The collage is a typical example of Kolář’s method: a rhythmical blending of two separate images, which in this case represents two phases of a single motif. A space is thereby created for bearing witness to the perverse technology of the liquidation process (from the registration of persons to their arrival at the ramp at Auschwitz).
/1/ Verified and signed by the author in 2001.
/2/ Wiesel first used the term in his novel Night (1958).
/3/ Theodor W. Adorno, Prismem: Kulturkritik und Gesellschaft (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1955), p. 342