For centuries, people have used art to present a particular image of rulers, wealthy lawyers, religious imagery and historical events. Suitable attributes captured the qualities of character and power, properly presented scenes popularized the desired version of events and over time became their symbols. Today, when we hear about the Battle of Grunwald, immediately we see the painting by Jan Matejko, although we are aware of discrepancy between the vision of the painter and the historical truth. It is easy to see how a great impact on our memory of past events can have depictions.
Nowadays, image manipulation to propagate their own visions is commonly used by the media. However, contemporary artists often try to take into consideration and question such images promoted by the mass culture. At the exhibition “Polish Art and the Holocaust” we can find a few works in which the artists take up the subject of the influence of pop culture on the collective memory, including the memory of the Holocaust.
Maciej Toporowicz in his work “Obsession” (1993) shows how the language of advertisement interweaves with iconography and the aesthetics of Nazism. For this purpose, the artist used fragments of films by Leni Riefenstahl, photos of Nazi architecture and sculpture, advertisements of Calvin Klein with gaunt model Kate Moss as well as Hollywood stories such as “The Damned” and “Il portiere di notte”. In Toporowicz’s works, the Nazi phantasms are mixed with the phantasms of the contemporary pop culture: the cult of the power, sex, idealized human body and interests in the dark side of human psyche. Thereby, he indicates the ease of subordination of social life to imaginary ideals, and the risks posed by such attitude.
A video by Józef Robakowski entitled “6,000,000” (1962), similarly to the work by Toporowicz, was made from fragments of famous films and photographs. Today, most of them are considered to be iconic depictions of the events from the Second World War. Repeatedly processed and used by pop culture are for example, photos presenting a barrier being broken in Gdańsk-Kolibki in 1939, or a photograph of a prisoner behind the barbed wire of the concentration camp in Auschwitz (used for example by Zbigniew Libera in his famous series Pozytywy [2002–2003]). Robakowski showed the war seen from the perspective of a black-eyed woman. He built the narrative from short frames changing dynamically to the music of Chopin’s waltz, which together with, shown at the beginning, images of choppy sea and murmuring willows symbolically indicates Poland as the place of the tragic events. Robakowski’s film shows how easily images become symbols, which duplicated by pop culture start to be identified with events presented by them and reduce them to a single frame, and make our memory takes it for granted that the event can be seen only in this one way. The artist also highlights the other side of this phenomenon, namely, how easily recognisable images-symbols limit our perception of events, limiting them to a single image and aspect.
Undoubtedly, on our exhibition, the issue of processing subjects related to the Holocaust by pop culture is most visible in a painting by Wilhelm Sasnal: Maus. The painting belongs to Sasnal’s series which duplicates fragments of a comic book by Art Spiegelman: Maus. The story of a survivor, published in Poland in 2001, caused discussion on the language that should or shouldn’t be used to talk about the Holocaust. Spiegelman, by using the language of comic books and animal symbolism (for example, he presented the Jews as mice, the Germans as cats, the Poles as pigs) told the story of his father, who survived the Holocaust. Thanks to works such as those by Spiegelman or Sasnal, the language of the culture has become, next to film or photography, one of the forms used to present historical events.
The power of pop culture and the version of the collective memory presented by it are well shown on the JHI’s exhibition. The majority of the artists who were born after 1945 refers to pop culture to talk about the memory of the Holocaust.