Condemned to Hope – Drawings from Dachau
Curator: Marko Jenko
Exhibition design: Bevk Perović arhitekti
Duration: 27 February – 5 July 2020
Opening: Thursday, 27 February 2020, at 7 p.m.
Moderna galerija (Museum of Modern Art), Ljubljana
"I think it was on the 13th of April – I'm not quite sure what the date was – when we opened up Belsen Camp, which was the first concentration camp any of us had seen. We didn't even know what they were, we'd heard vague rumors that they were. I mean nothing could be worse than that. The gates were opened and then I realized that I was looking at Dante's Inferno, I mean ... I ... I still haven't seen anything as dreadful. And never will. [...] I went through some of the huts and there were tiers and tiers of rotting people, but some of them who were alive underneath the rot, and were lifting their heads and trying ... trying to do the victory thing. That was the worst."
— From the TV interview Above the Title (1986) with the English actor Dirk Bogarde (1921– 1999).
ON THE EXHIBITION
In a French interview, Claude Lanzmann (1925–2018), director of the film Shoah (1985), quotes Filip Müller (1922–2013), a former Auschwitz Sonderkommando, forced to assist in cremating the bodies of the dead in the gas chambers. Before Shoah, Müller had already published his testimony in a book, Sonderbehandlung. Drei Jahre in den Krematorien und Gaskammern von Auschwitz (1979), translated into English the same year under the title Eyewitness Auschwitz: Three Years in the Gas Chambers at Auschwitz. During the interview in which Lanzmann contemplates how it was even possible to survive the camps, he refers to Müller’s words from Shoah: “If you want to live, you’re condemned to hope.” The spark of hope gets a dark spin: one is condemned to it. As it turns out, Lanzmann had misremembered Müller’s words. What Müller actually said in Shoah was far simpler: “If you want to live, you have to have hope.”
Varlam Shalamov intimates something even more harrowing about hope in his masterpiece Kolyma Tales (1954–1973), giving an unrivalled insight into camps of another kind and a system that was—according to Jorge Semprún (1923–2011), who survived Buchenwald as a political prisoner—far more cruel: the Soviet Gulag forced-labor camps. Shalamov spent 17 years at Kolyma. Even hope can be taken away, yet life still continues. If you want to live, you are condemned to clinging to life without hope for a better tomorrow. In the fragment “Forty-Five Things I Learned in the Gulag” written in 1961 Shalamov says: “I understood why people do not live on hope—there isn’t any hope. Nor can they survive by means of free will—what free will is there? They live by instinct, a feeling of self-preservation, on the same basis as a tree, a stone, an animal.” Elsewhere in the same fragment he adds they can also live on anger, and on indifference. We can be stripped of everything—while alive. Even of what we hold as the (mentally) most intimate.
How does that reflect in the visual arts? How does art confront the point where absolutely everything can be taken away from us? Not simply as physical death, but as death while still alive. One of the fundamental issues of 20th century art was how to create art after the gas chambers. In the context of World War II concentration camps, many theorists actually forbid the image, even ruling out art. At the same time, the documentary is also invalidated. Zoran Mušič was acutely aware of this when he said he had not wanted to illustrate. Mušič’s eye is the eye of a painter, not a photojournalist. Shoah is not a documentary film either: documentariness falls short and can even be insulting to the victims. There simply was no why in Auschwitz.
Lanzmann’s “slip” serves as the subtitle of this exhibition of a selection of Dachau drawings by Zoran Mušič from 1945, on view within Moderna galerija’s permanent exhibition of 20th century art. 23 drawings were discovered in the archives of the National Association of Italian Partisans in 2016, and one in the Regional Institute of the History of the Liberation Movement in Friuli–Venezia Giulia. These drawings were first publicly displayed in 2018 at the Revoltella Museum in Trieste, which assumed the stewardship of the drawings. At the exhibition in Moderna galerija, they are accompanied by other Dachau drawings kept in Slovenia and a small selection of works on paper from the series We Are Not the Last… from both public and private collections in Slovenia and Italy. In addition, there are fragments of testimonies of Nazi camp survivors and liberators. The exhibition is dedicated to Erich Fischer. A testimony about his life in Auschwitz also accompanies the exhibited works by Zoran Mušič.
We wish to kindly thank the Revoltella Museum from Trieste for their collaboration, and of course the owners of the drawings and other loaned works. A thank you also goes to Gojko Zupan, MA, for his kind contribution. We would also like to thank rabbi Ariel Haddad for his generous support.
Video: Nika Ham and Marko Jenko
The exhibition was supported by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Slovenia.