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Yad Vashem Virtues of Memory

"Gaunt of bone, with glassy gaze" (Meir Bosak)

Granting the body an image

The "Virtues of Memory" exhibition has eleven sections representing thematic or visual catergories of works. "Gaunt of bone, with glassy gaze" is one of the sections.

From the dawn of humanity, artists have confronted the aspiration to present the human body as an expression of man's existence. They have sought, by the swish of a line or a blob of colour, to express the endless subtleties of the human anatomy – the nude human body. On occasion, the artist exhibits a beautiful, erotic physique; on others, it is iconic or divine, but invariably faithful to the body itself as a member of the human race of his time. And what does an artist do in that age when he is numbered among a human race doomed to annihilation, when there is no validity for the anatomical beauty of the human form and when, arising out of the Nazi creed of super-race, a culture glorifies the torso of the hobnailed brute viciously oppressing his victims (among them the artists) and crushing their bodies?

There is a built-in paradox in the desire of the survivor artist to attach himself to art history, to the chain of expression of the human body. That body starved into gauntness, its decline, and its elevation in the smoke of the extermination camps’ crematoria, is no echo of the divine form revealed in man. Although that theme is not absent from the creative work of the survivors – after all, it relates to their own fate and the fate of their dear ones – memory recalls every element of that existence, even when it is inhuman. In the words of artist Adolf Frankl: "Gradually the patches of colour are materializing into faces, sometimes creatures, half man, half animal – and my memories return with renewed force and clarity." 1

Discernible in the works of the survivors are several categories of relationship to the human body, but the expressionist element is dominant in almost all. Needless to say that this choice does not mark an extension of the trend characteristic of twentieth century artists, who employed exaggeration and distortion of the human body as a means of personal expression and departure from a reflection of reality as is; after all, the reality experienced by the survivors and the sights they had seen with their own eyes, were twenty times worse than any bodily distortion artists may conjure up in their imaginations. Is there any distortion greater than that staring at us from the photographs taken in the extermination camps when their inmates were liberated?  Shrunken bodies, wasted with hunger and disease, heaped up in impossible postures, in huge human pile upon pile – is that the human figure?

Overall in the works on display - excepting those where the artist focuses upon his own portrayal – the erasure of the individual by the brutal oppressor is evident in the grouped bodies: the human bonding of the last moment before; out of shame of the naked body; out of fear. Yet human defensiveness, expressed by blending into the group, cannot protect them from their inevitable fate. At the same time – including those works where the artist focuses, albeit undeclared, upon his own image as reflection of the period, even as the events are in train - the self-portrait symbolizes someone who may have emerged from the inferno, but whose soul is scarred and twisted; as expressed in the words of artist Rena Bekin: "I grew upside down, my head in the ground and my roots in the wind." 2

1 Frankl, Adolf, Visions of the Inferno, Rome: Chiostro del Bramante, 2000, p. 19

2 בקין, רנה ר., מנחם, קיבוץ ברעם: מוזיאון בר דוד לאמנות יהודית, 1995, ע’ 13