Visual Indictment: Exhibition of the Jewish Museum Opened in the National Gallery

2024. Április 26. / 14:34

Visual Indictment: Exhibition of the Jewish Museum Opened in the National Gallery

Sharp phantom image and even sharper phantom pain - this is how the exhibition “This is How it Happened. The Early Memory of the Holocaust in the Works of Eyewitness Artists” of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives at the Hungarian National Gallery can be summed up in a nutshell. The exhibited images are images of crime and criminals, crime scenes and victims, life and death, created by the most authentic eyewitnesses with the need for documentation and the hope of being able to process the pain.

It is no wonder that at the press tour held at the Hungarian National Gallery this Monday, one of the participants collapsed after half an hour and was unable to continue watching the...

Watching what? Not just the pictures, but rather: the reality.

This is rare, since one does not go to an exhibition with the intention of seeing reality itself in black and white - after all, one of the most well-known theses of art enjoyment and art analysis is that it would be a mistake to question the factuality of a work of art (or more precisely, reality). The "space" created and displayed by a painting is a mediated, abstracted, "created" copy of reality, but in this quality, a picture, a representation is not inferior to reality, even equal to it.

But in the exhibition "This is How it Happened" one can see such strong images with such a strong coherence that the verb in the past tense becomes the present tense. This is how it happens. Yes, people are able do that. Like that, in the present tense.

The curator Zsófia Farkas is an art historian from the Jewish Museum, who cannot be praised enough, as it can be said based on her performance in recent years that she has an incredible sense of creating a completely new quality by arranging different works in the same space. Actually, of course, this is (should be) the task of the curator, just to see an example of an exhibition where there are pictures, but the organizing principle is missing. Except in the case of Zsófia Farkas, who conveys thoughts that have been thoroughly thought through, thoroughly digested, and approached from many, many directions through her images.

For this exhibition, the curator painstakingly selected real images and placed them next to each other, meaning that these images are actually ethical works: the truth itself, that is, the ethical truth, is called to account, and then the filth of elementary injustice is revealed to us. It's as if they were just saying: we know what the truth is, because we have seen man in his bestiality, and we know why there is no truth, because we have seen death. And now you also see what we saw, because what happened is happening right now, when you glimpse reality from the trail of our pencils.


That's why that spectator collapsed during Monday's press tour. He was experiencing what he thought was the past in the present tense. This is what real art is known for: its effect is cathartic, because what it talks about is not ephemeral, but eternal. Consequently, suffering is also eternal. This is what makes collapse when the facts of the world penetrate a person's soul at a more sensitive point.

However, the representation in this exhibition is factual: this happened, this is how it happened, and it all happened to us. This happens, this is how it happens, it all happens to us. The installation is also based on this idea: the pictures hang on vaguely translucent walls, and from this blurred environment, a sharp knife cuts out the frame of the works.

And finally, let us also praise the Hungarian National Gallery, which hosted this unforgettable exhibition, since the responsibility of a state-run, leading cultural institution is inestimably important when it comes to processing the Holocaust. We have already written many times: the Holocaust is not a Jewish issue, but a Hungarian national issue. This exhibition is not a "Jewish matter" either, but universal and human.

This exhibition is a must see for Jews and non-Jews, as much as it hurts. Face phantoms and feel the phantom pain of a severed limb. In this way, if it is not forgivable, perhaps what happened will be a little more tolerable. What happens now.

The exhibition guides visitors through different sections, thus drawing a specific arc of the approaches of the artists who witnessed it. The first unit shows how artists of Jewish origin lived through the period of the growing rise of anti-Semitism and the increasing disenfranchisement of Jews from the mid-1930s.

After the German occupation, there are works made in the ghetto, during labor service and in concentration camps. The peculiarity of the works created at the same time as the events, on the spot, is that, in addition to documenting, the experiences ("telling" and processing of them through drawing) could also help artists to survive.

In the next section, one can see works made in the two or three years after the liberation, which often become more symbolic and abstract as the memories recede, and sometimes they mix the documentary representation of the experiences with metaphors and imagined scenes. The concrete film frames of personal memory thus slowly begin to merge with the summarizing images of collective memory.

The last section emphasizes the continuity of the eyewitness role: the survivors, whose work can be understood as a visual indictment of the war, will actually be draftsmen of court trials when they make drawings of the defendants of the People's Court trials and the Eichmann trial.

The exhibition presents the works of nearly 30 artists, including Béla Kádár, Endre Bálint and Ilka Gedő. Most of the artefacts come from the collection of the Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, which are complemented by works received from other institutions in Hungary and abroad. 

(Source: Hungarian National Gallery)

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