Spectacle in art is an old story
Though it seems that our age, with its ability to resort to technological extravagances, is unique, the desire for a view of the spectacular, whether in the Victorian panorama, the era of the great travelling circuses, or in elaborate European church architecture, was alive in past societies.
One trend in recent filmmaking toward the blockbuster of eye-popping explosions and seemingly miraculous feats of world transformation is part of this tradition. In Inception, which is in theatres this summer, cities turn inside out like M.C. Escher drawings, and the filmmaker imagines his own ruined cityscapes that look like they might be modelled on an idea of the end of times, empty of people.
Images in Jewish art have an unusual history. Although until well into the 19th century Jews were kept out of mainstream European artistic schools, the past century and a half allowed for a reconnection between Jewish artistic creativity and major schools of visual art.
Technologies like photography and film have become crucial to modern ways of recording people’s lives, and it feels that we have arrived at a time when images, spectacular or not, define who we see ourselves to be.
These shifts have brought a change to the way Jewish themes such as the Holocaust are presented. It would be wrong to think that the events of the war were initially and most capably defined by words. G.I.s with Brownie cameras and newsreels shot by the occupying Allied forces answered the postwar need for a detailed and immediate record of events in Europe. But these media were largely documentary – factual – and not part of an artistic tradition.
Creative work linking images and the events of the war did not play much of a role until the 1950s, and then, it was a rare film, such as Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog, and rare paintings or drawings by Chagall and Picasso, which aimed to convey horror in ways different from those used by historians and novelists.
Today, if you were asked which visual artist treats the Holocaust in a way that is most satisfying, you would likely draw a blank. There is the conceptual art of Christian Boltanski; recently he undertook a darkly spectacular piece that consisted of a roomful of mountains of clothing, evocative of the possessions taken by the Germans from their victims at Auschwitz. But in popular terms, one might turn to the graphic artist Art Spiegelman as the best example of a figure who turned Holocaust-related narratives toward the image in ways that satisfied both critics and a large audience. Spiegelman’s methods seem uncannily well-thought-out: the black and white pages of Maus, the meagre stylization of his characters, who express themselves through the slightest shift in an eyebrow, and the novelistic quality of his narrative voice all signal that he does not wish to draw on what might be called the spectacular in comic book visuals – the fancy points of view, the exciting colours and overheated language common to stories of superheroes.
But one unavoidable outcome of Spiegelman’s success is the rash of other graphic novels associated with the Holocaust, many of them weaker and less fully developed than Maus. Recently, the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam published a graphic novel version of the famous diary, which is its raison d’être, and in discussions about it one hears the old questions resurface regarding the effectiveness of images in relation to words in telling a story. There is the issue of which medium most effectively conveys a dark story to children; and then the more contemporary consideration – too exaggerated to be true but still reflecting our times – that people don’t want to read anymore, and prefer to receive their information in shorthand, the way they do on a cellphone or text-messaging screen.
A graphic novel worth a look by a Canadian-based artist and author is Good-bye Marianne, which, not unlike the new Anne Frank publication, is adapted from what was originally a story book for young adults under the same name by Irene N. Watts. Good-bye Marianne approaches the Holocaust through a prewar framework and wisely, considering that it is aimed at young readers, follows a girl’s experiences in Nazi-run Berlin to reveal how totalitarian society destroyed children’s lives.
Some of the decisions by illustrator Kathryn E. Shoemaker seem influenced by the muted artistic approach taken by Spiegelman in Maus. The only colour in Good-bye Marianne is on its cover. Its graphic story of Marianne Kohn is rendered in soft pencil sketches, so the reader must look carefully into the rooms and faces on the book’s pages to get their full effect. The story’s original contribution to its genre may be its time and place – prewar Berlin, on streets made unsafe for Jews by prohibitions and Nazi spectacles. Much of it takes place, too, in the interiors of Jewish apartments at a time when the freedom to live in such apartments would soon be taken away.
One reads Good-bye Marianne in something like a half hour. Because of its artwork, it is the kind of book a reader might return to and muse over. It is well-suited to a young reader’s way of understanding events associated with the war, and resists presenting material in a lurid or sensational way. In this, the book follows Maus in its efforts to use images in a way that advances knowledge as much as it entertains. This is an interesting challenge for a visual artist: the creation of an eye-catching and stylistically interesting work that does not overwhelm the story at hand or fall into the clichés of art that flirt with spectacle.
Norman Ravvin is chair of the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies. His novel The Joyful Child is due out this fall.