Auschwitz in Sculpture. The Newest Publication from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum
Auschwitz in Sculpture, by Jolanta Kupiec—an art historian who has served for many years on the staff of the Collections Department at the Museum—provides readers with a new educational resource on the art works held at this special memorial site. These sculptures round out the image of the history of Auschwitz, serving as visual reminders of the crimes committed there. They are compelling reminders of the depravity caused by Nazism and war.
There are more than 100 pages presenting sculpture made after the war, and now held by the Museum. These works, autonomous or forming parts of series, were sculpted by former prisoners who received their artistic training before the war, artists from the postwar generation, or non-professional sculptors. The artists come from various countries, mostly from Poland, but also from Israel, the former Yugoslavia, Germany, the USA, Hungary, and the former Soviet Union.
The diversity of the artists’ apperceptions of the tragic fate of the Nazis’ victims yields works of great individual power. It is precisely its variety, not only in the emotional means of expression but also in the materials used, that makes the collection so eloquent. While the majority are works of realistic figurative sculpture, some of the works have a force that is accentuated by non-realistic shapes and the deliberate distortion and deformation of human bodies.
The sculptures are accompanied by information about the authors and their works, and are divided into several groups. Selected artists, including Mieczysław Stobierski, Anna Raynoch-Brzozowska, and Bronisław Chromy, are presented along with full profiles of their work. Others appear under such thematic groupings as one-offs, symbolism, socialist realism, portraits, and non-professional sculptors.
[From the introduction:]
It is mankind’s eternal desire to leave behind something that he has produced, so as not to be forgotten. For those with artistic talent, such possibilities lie in the creation of works, graphic or sculptural, that can become just such an enduring vestige. Physical death does not mean their total demise.
Many of the prisoners who were the victims of the concentration camps also desired to leave behind some trace of themselves, some information about their sufferings and the inhuman crimes committed in these places. Those who survived returned to freedom bearing an internally coded imperative to bear witness about the nature of the concentration camps, the suffering that people endured there, and the universal prevalence of death and destruction.
The core holdings of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim consist of the historical buildings standing on the grounds of the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camp sites, along with the remaining furnishings and equipment, and the remaining property that once belonged to the prisoners. Additionally, the collections include a rich and varied group of artistic exhibits—paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, and artistic crafts.
The collection of sculpture at the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim is relatively small, in comparison to the other types of artistic exhibits. There are almost 150 sculptures, ranging from large, multi-figure pieces, to smaller, single-figure ones.
In terms of period, the sculptures, like all the art works at the Museum, can be divided into two historical timeframes: the years 1940-1945, when the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp was in operation, and the postwar years. Sculpture, however, makes up a relative minority of the works made in the camp.
Only a few small pieces, mostly made from wood, are extant. This material was relatively accessible in camp conditions, because of the fact that the expansion of the camp was constantly underway and necessitated the existence of a carpentry shop and other sorts of crafts workshops. The sculptural works were mostly made illegally, and their miniature dimensions made it possible to conceal them from the SS. . . .
The postwar sculptures are distinguished above all by larger formats and the use of a wider range of materials. Like the majority of the Museum exhibits, they deal with martyrdom themes, which are the primary determinants of the form and automatically compel the artists to use various methods to express the tragic nature of the figures and scenes from camp life that they depict.
A particular metamorphosis through the creative stages can be seen in the shaping of this three-dimensional, spatial expression—from the realism and expressionism of the first postwar years, through the socialist-realist period and the gradual quest for new idioms in the 1960s and 1970s, up to the leaving behind of traditionalism and the exploratory use of various forms of abstraction in the 1980s and 1990s. . . .
The first postwar sculptures appeared in the Auschwitz Museum almost from the very beginning, at the end of the 1940s and the beginning of the 1950s, when items were being assembled for display in the first museum exhibition. . . .
Artists approach the creative treatment of the martyrdom theme in their works in an unusually serious way—as an earth-shattering message to future generations, and as symbols of the suffering, pain, humiliation, and horror of war, and the cruelty committed by human beings against other human beings, but also as symbols of warning against human aggression and ruthlessness. In the case of the works of sculpture held in the collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim, this symbolism is clearly legible.
Jolanta Kupiec. Auschwitz w rzeźbie. Ze zbiorów Państwowego Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu [Auschwitz in Sculpture: From the Collections of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim]. Oświęcim, 2006
Published by: Państwowe Muzeum Auschwitz-Birkenau w Oświęcimiu
editor: Jadwiga Pinderska-Lech
photographs by Wiesław Zieliński, Krzysztof Miszułowicz, Lidia Foryciarz
graphic design: Maciej Hojda, Grafikon
21 x 23 cm., 119 pp., color photographs, texts.