ARTMargins Home Articles Oskar Hansen and the Auschwitz "Countermemorial," 1958-59

Oskar Hansen and the Auschwitz "Countermemorial," 1958-59 Print E-mail
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Written by Katarzyna Murwaska-Muthesius (London)   
Monday, 20 May 2002 17:51

The following essay is part of a series devoted to contemporary art and architecture East-Central Europe. It was first delivered as a paper at a conference held at MIT in October, 2001.

Even before we attempt to consider it, there is a relatively fixed mental map of post-1945 European visual culture already impressed upon our minds and ready to use.(The paper was made possible through a Henry Moore Research Scholarship at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds and at the Henry Moore Foundation in Perry Green in 1998. It would not have been completed without the help I received in Poland from Oskar and Zofia Hansen and Darek Mitura, as well as Maryla Sitkowska and Jolanta Gola from the Museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.)

No matter at what point of this map we may position ourselves, the major fault line is the political division of the continent into West and East, the binary opposition between modernism and realism, or the disinterested abstraction in the "West" and the politically committed figuration in the "East."

Binary thinking was the "structuring structure" of the post-1945 world order, and today it still dominates our mechanisms of representation and self-representation. But binaries are always forced, loaded with value, and exclusionary.

The map of public sculpture in Europe in the aftermath of the Second World War was well suited to prove the superiority of Western modernism over Eastern dogma and monumentalism.

Indeed, even the most recent publications dealing with sculpture and monuments after 1945 identify modernist self-referentiality, abstraction, and freedom with the West, while figuration and "heavy emotionalism," and-in Greenbergian terms-"vulgarity" and aesthetic impotence with the East.

The iron opposition between the sculpture of freedom and that of oppression is notoriously visualized by the juxtaposition of Reg Butler's design for the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner with the heavy bodies of Soviet soldiers who, from their high pedestals, police the conquered lands of Eastern Europe.

In a recent book on post-1945 sculpture, it is the Skylon monument of the 1951 Festival of Britain that serves as a signifier of Western postwar public sculpture, precisely because it is "uncommemorative" and hence "apolitical."(Andrew Causey, Sculpture Since 1945 (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 16-24. For a subversive view, decentering the identification of freedom, and uncontaminated creativity with the West, see Robert Burstow, "The Limits of Modernist Art as a 'Weapon of the Cold War': Reassessing the Unknown Patron of the Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner," The Oxford Art Journal 20.1: 68-80, and Axel Lapp, "The Freedom of Sculpture-The Sculpture of Freedom: The International Sculpture Competition for a Monument to the Unknown Political Prisoner, London, 1951-3," The Sculpture Journal 2: 113-22.)

As Paul Wood observed in 1989, "Modernism constructed realism as its Other." To this he added, "Modernism found its Other not only in the past, but in the East . . . waving the flag of a free abstract art in the face of an imprisoned and imprisoning doctrine of Socialist Realism."(Paul Wood, "Realism contested," in L'Art et les révolutions. Section 2, "Changements et continuité dans la création artistique des révolutions politiques", ed. K. Herding (Actes des XXVIIe congrès international d'histoire de l'Art, Strasbourg, 1989), Strasbourg: Société Alsacienne pour le Développement de l'Histoire de l'Art, 206-7.)

One does not need to assert, however, that "realism" is not, and never was, an inherent property of Eastern culture, even within the boundaries of its narrower European framework.

On the contrary, if we were to essentialize the mapping of art forms in Europe, realism-in the sense of mimetic narrative and spatial illusionism, as well as the notion of social interventionism in art-was "born" in the West, while rigid anti-narrativity and spirituality, as well as a lofty disregard for representing trivia, were "defended" by the Orthodox East. And yet, the East-West binary pasted upon the Figuration-Abstraction opposition was internalized, voluntarily, by post-Stalinist Eastern European discourses.(See Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, "Dreams of Sleeping Beauty: Henry Moore in Polish Criticism and Media," in Henry Moore, ed. Fiona Russell and Jane Beckett (London: Ashgate, 2002).)

However, these sharp binaries are likely to be just the dominant narratives of the post-1945 world order that dramatize the "reality" and disregard those "marginal" cases that do not fit into the mainstream argument.

As a result, Polish nonfigurative, quasifigurative, or demonstratively modernist public sculpture of the late 1950s and the 1960s, commissioned by the State-let alone the complexities of the debates of the late 1940s-is practically unknown in the West.

This paper is an attempt to examine the abstraction-figuration binaries by looking at some of the debates that took place in the late 1950s and accompanied the post-Stalinist return to the modernist idiom in Polish public sculpture.

According to the dominant narrative, this development is identified with the direct and "liberating" touch of the West, and in particular with a fabulous victory of Henry Moore's and his soft form of modernism, shown to the Polish public in 1959.(Ibid.)

What I want to discuss here is the earlier intervention of Henry Moore in Poland, as Chairman of the International Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Competition, launched in 1957, and their rejection -we may even say his rejection- of the most radical design proposed by a Polish team led by the architect Oskar Hansen.

Liberating itself from the "logic of sculpture" and the "logic of the monument"-identified with "signs on pedestals"-Hansen's team conceptualized the memorial as a black tarmac road, crossing the site of the former concentration camp, and thus devised a monument deprived entirely of any vertical markers.

However, my aim is not to present an account of Hansen's extraordinary project and its abandonment, nor to discuss the monument that was finally erected by an international team of Polish and Italian sculptors and architects in 1967.(On the International Auschwitz Memorial, see Romuald Gutt, "Projekty Pomnika Oswiecimskiego," Projekt 2, 16-19; Jerzy Soltan, "Le projet polonais du monument d'Auschwitz," La Pologne 3, 6-7; Jerzy Zachwatowicz, "The International Memorial at Auschwitz," in Poland, January 1965, 11-13; Irena Grzesiuk-Olszewska, "Konkursy na pomniki: Oswiecimski i Bohaterów Warszawy jako przyklad kontrowersji miedzy twórca a odbiorca," in Sztuka Polska po 1945 roku, (Warsaw: PWN, 1987), 229-41; James E. Young, The Texture of Memory: Holocaust Memorials and Meaning (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1993), 128-141; Jochen Spielmann, "Auschwitz is debated in Oswiecim: The Topography of the Remembrance," in The Art of Memory: Holocaust Memorials in History, ed. James E. Young. (Munich: Prestel, 1994), 169-173; Irena Grzesiuk-Olszewska, Polska Rzezba Pomnikowa w Latach 1945-1995 (Warsaw: Neriton 1995), 98-112. See also M. De Micheli, Il Monumento d'Auschwitz di Pietro Cascella (Milan: CEI, 1970); L. Quaroni et al., Pietro Cascella: Opere 1946-1986 (Milan: L'agrifoglio, 1986). It is surprising that even in the growing literature and interest in the "representation of Holocaust," Hansen's design is hardly discussed at all, if not omitted entirely; c.f. Monica Bohm-Duchen, ed., After Auschwitz: Responses to the Holocaust in Contemporary Art, exhibition catalogue, (London: Royal Festival Hall, 1995).)

My intention is, rather, to reinsert Hansen's uncompromising attempt to redefine the notion of the public monument, following the precepts of his avant-garde theory of the Open Form, into a larger critical debate on the demise of monumental imagery as the dominant form of public memorial-a debate that is customarily confined to, and suspended within, an exclusively western framework of references.

In January 1957, an international organization of Auschwitz survivors, based in Vienna, in cooperation with the International Union of Architects, launched a competition for a monument that would eternalize the suffering of the victims of racial politics.

Henry Moore was appointed as the Chairman of the Auschwitz Memorial Committee, and the international jury was composed of representatives of the Comité, including Odette Elina, a female French artist, the architects Giuseppe Perugini of Milan and Jacob Bakema of Rotterdam, August Zamoyski, a Polish sculptor living in France, and Pierre Courthion, a French critic.

The competition was open to artists from all countries, apart from those who had in any way collaborated with the Nazis. This was not intended to exclude West German artists, who were in fact the second most numerous national group taking part.

Nor were there any constraints as to the form of the memorial, apart from the indication that the site was a monument in itself and should be preserved intact. The winning project was to be located at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, between the ruins of the crematoria, "at the end of the rails, the final station for most of the victims."

The jury first met in Auschwitz to choose from over 400 designs submitted by more than 600 sculptors and architects from 36 countries. Both figurative and abstract options were proposed and considered, and a number of them were illustrated in a catalogue of the exhibition of the projects submitted.

The seven short-listed designs, after further refinement, were presented at the second stage of the competition in November 1958 in Paris at the UNESCO headquarters.

An Italian team comprised of Julio Lafuente and Pietro and Andrea Cascella exhibited a project incorporating 23 carriages carved in stone and linked by barbed wire, signifying the twenty-three national/ethnic identities of the victims. Another Italian team of Maurizio Vitale, Giorgio Simoncini, Tommaso Valle, and Pericle Fazzini proposed "a gradually sloping 'road of death,'" leading to a rectangular basin, cut into the ground, between the crematoria, with a large relief of human figures.

The Polish team of Oskar and Zofia Hansen, Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz, and Julian Palka formulated the final version of their road-crossing-the-camp concept.

However, the jury, with Henry Moore the chair, did not nominate an outright winner. It is difficult today to be entirely clear about the story of the competition.

At first the jury had voted unanimously for Hansen. But then, as generally believed, it was the Auschwitz survivors who were not able to identify their suffering with such an abstract, or "purely negative," expression of remembrance.

Moore had to maneuver through this conflict, and in a much-publicized statement after the session, he did this by raising the questions of how to memorialize murder and horror, and whether a work of art "can express the emotions engendered by Auschwitz." He uttered his belief that perhaps "a very great sculptor-a new Michelangelo or a new Rodin-might have achieved this. The odds against such a design turning among the many maquettes submitted were always enormous. And none did. . . . Nor were any of the purely architectural-or predominantly architectural-projects fully satisfactory. . . . "(Quoted in Henry Moore, The Auschwitz Competition, (Auschwitz: State Museum of Auschwitz, 1964). After many struggles, the memorial erected in 1967 was a compromise between two teams, Italian and Polish, and does not even remotely remind us of any of the selected designs. See footnote 6.)

Hansen resigned from participation in the subsequent stages of the project, not being able, according to his own words, to bear the contamination of his antimonument manifesto with figurative sculpture: "The floor carved as stelae and the expressive sculptures of railway carriages were to be related to the conception of the road. It was too much for me. I backed out."(Czeslaw Bielecki, "Pragmatyzm utopii [The pragmatism of utopia]: Hansen," Architektura 31.3: 14.)

What Hansen's team was proposing was a 70 meter wide and 1,000 meter long tarmac road cutting diagonally through the concentration camp territory. It omitted the main gate of Birkenau, through which trains had transported the victims.

No one was ever to pass through that gate again. The black road was to be laid across the remains of the barracks, petrifying and preserving their foundations, the chimneys, the barbed fence, and latrines.

Having reached the crematoria, the road was to end abruptly among the fields and woodlands. Only the road was to testify to the horror of the crimes committed on this site. Everything else was to be left untouched, according to the prisoners' wishes, and unavoidably, the former camp would surrender to the invasive action of grass and weeds.

The stated intention of the authors was to make the visitors who traversed the camp along the black road imagine what was experienced by the victims and confront the idea of oblivion. The road was to cross over the horrors, petrifying them, but not memorializing the drama in any other way. Oskar Hansen argued that

The diagonal was laid with an aim of showing the mechanism of the camp . . . but it was also meant to be something more-the crossing over of the form, according to the idea of the Open Form, the crossing over which creates the climate for reception and participation, which visualizes the subtext of spatial interactions. The road is the site for spontaneous gestures. If one should wish to leave a note with a name, or a figure of an Angel, one could do it by the road. . . . The process outside the road was meant to be a biological clock. Already then trees were growing there, we saw running roe-deer and hares. We wanted to preserve the evidence on the road . . . in the way in which lava preserved Pompeii. . . . Monument-the Road is the exploration of continuity. It departs from life, transgresses death, and returns again to another life. Life and death are defined through each other.(Ibid.)

Hansen detested the old concept of a memorial as an object, which for him was the manifestation of a "closed form." Conversely, the Auschwitz design was an early expression of his far-reaching conception of the Open Form, which he explained later at a meeting of the International Congress of Modern Architects (CIAM) in Otterlo in 1959, when he addressed his fellow architects.

The idea was to shape social space, to decenter the subjectivity of the artist/creator and to draw other elements into the process of creation, opening the design to the free intervention of the audience and of time. He wrote in 1959 that "[t]he open form will awake the need of existence in every one of us… we will walk through it, and not around it.(For a further analysis of Hansen's concept of the Open Form and its links with Polish avant-garde, see Wojciech Wlodarczyk, "Rozmowa z Oksarem Hansenem," in W kregu Formy Otwartej, exhibition catalogue, ed. Jola Gola, et al. (Warsaw: Muzeum Akademii Sztuk Pieknych 1986), 22; Anna Król, "'Forma otwarta'-pierwsza nowoczesna koncepcja rzezby w sztuce polskiej," in Sztuka polska po 1945 roku (Warsaw: PWN 1987), 227.)

Hansen's idea of the Open Form could be read in postmodern terms as shifting the focus from the author towards the reader. Hansen's design, although unrealized-and perhaps precisely for that reason-made a huge impact on ways of thinking about the language of public monuments in Poland.

The maquette and Hansen's explanations, as well as those by other members of his team, Jerzy Jarnuszkiewicz and Julian Palka, were widely published and illustrated, thus entering the general discourse of public sculpture.(See Hanna Kotkowska-Bareja, Polish Contemporary Sculpture (Warsaw: Interpress, 1974); Andrzej Oseka and Wojciech Skrodzki, Contemporary Polish Sculpture (Warsaw: Arkady, 1977).) A dismissal of figurative language, the incorporation of space into the design of public monuments of the 1960s as at Grunwald, 1960, and Treblinka, 1964, may be directly attributable to the resonance of the Hansen's radical modernism.

Before I return to the issue of East-West binaries, I would like to refer back briefly to the role of Henry Moore in the competition and indicate some further sociopolitical circumstances that contributed to paralyzing the competition. Intriguingly, the role played by Moore as leader of the Auschwitz jury, although listed in the ritualized chronologies which are added as a necessary counterpart to practically every catalogue of Moore's exhibitions, remains one of the least known and documented episodes in his eventful public career.

Moore's biographies also reveal a kind of repression of memory about Auschwitz, conveying a sense of anxiety that the artist's name and his presence there were "being used" for extra-artistic, political purposes.(Donald Hall, Henry Moore: The Life and Work of a Great Sculptor, (London: Victor Gollancz, 1966), 152; Roger Berthoud, The Life of Henry Moore (London: Faber and Faber, 1987), 271-73; Archives of the Henry Moore Foundation, Henry Moore's Diaries, 1959.)

One of many reasons for the absence of extended international discourse contemporary to the event (such as those which accompanied the later Washington and Berlin Holocaust memorials) was the fact that awareness of the Holocaust was, seemingly, not yet absorbed on a global scale; it did not fully penetrate postwar European intersubjectivity; even the term "Holocaust" was not yet widely used.

Moreover, the Auschwitz Memorial competition was presented by some in the West as a "Communist plot," devised and backed by the Kremlin, which, while hiding the massive genocide conducted in the Soviet labor camps, wanted to revive the memory of Nazi atrocities to evoke hatred of contemporary West Germany.

Moore's West German links, particularly with the Noack foundry in West Berlin, were well established by that time. In effect, Moore withdrew from the final stage of the competition, which he had himself announced in Paris.

It seems, then, that the resistance to Hansen's experimental design cannot be attributed solely to the philistinism and hostility of uninitiated audiences, nor to the obstinate opposition to the politically ambiguous language of abstraction on the part of the Communist authorities in Poland. Henry Moore's position vis-à-vis the competition and the winning design was colored by the politics of the day as well as by purely practical concerns.

Moreover, at the time of the committee's rejection of Hansen's proposal, Moore had just completed his much-celebrated, soft modernist Reclining Figure for the UNESCO headquarters in Paris.

One might thus speculate that Hansen's "countermemorial," in renouncing the traditional logic of sculpture, transcended the conditions of artistic production of his time, and could be aligned neither with the Eastern nor the Western idiom of the public monument of the late 1950s.

The subversiveness of Hansen's unrealized countermemorial decenters the familiar binaries and proves that, "in the East," reflection on the ontology of the contemporary memorial, on "pure negativity" as a prerequisite for a new sculpture, had arrived independently from the conceptualization of the "expanded field" of postmodern sculpture which took place in the West during the 1960s.

With its repudiation of the preexisting definition of the commemorative monument as a sculpted object in space, Hansen's design does indeed evoke associations with the "not landscape, not architecture," or "landscape-not landscape" categories in Rosalind Krauss's diagram of postmodern Western sculpture, a sculpture that has freed itself from the "logic of the monument." Hansen's countermemorial, along with Christo's Running Fence might have been included in the category of "marked sites," with or without political underpinning.(Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," in Postmodern Culture, ed. Hal Foster (London and Sydney: Pluto Press, 1985), 40.)

Moreover, reading Hansen's words today, one cannot help associating his ideas with the advent of the countermemorials of the late 1980s, decentering the "closed form" of the traditional monument and personalizing the process of memorialization as an intersubjective, and yet individual experience, as an act of being confronted with oblivion, since it is only oblivion that can evoke memory.

Looking at the "overlooked," at the unknown, or at the forgotten work of artists "behind the Iron Curtain," may help to displace some of the iron binaries of post-1945 art history that are firmly rooted both West and East of it.

Katarzyna Murawska-Muthesius, formerly Curator of the National Museum in Warsaw, teaches at Birkbeck College, University of London, Faculty of Continuing Education. She is editor of Borders in Art: Revisiting Kunstgeograhie (Warsaw, 2000), and has recently published 'Paris through the Iron Curtain', in Paris: Capital of the Arts 1900-1968, exh.cat., (ed.) Sarah Wilson, Royal Academy of Art, London 2002. 

 
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