One of the most compelling lectures on the power of art that I have ever attended. Atonement & Overcoming.
Winchester Arts Society talk on October 17th, 2023, was by Angela Findlay and the subject: Germany’s art response to its history of WWII.
How does a nation deal with its past? How does it atone for its guilt? How is this expressed in art?
For the Germans there is a word for it ‘vergangenheitsbewältgung’ meaning ‘dealing with, coming to terms with, overcoming the past’.
Here in the UK (and elsewhere) we erect memorials to the ‘lone soldier’ and such plinths as ‘The Cenotaph’. Also as in my previous blogs, statues to airmen/women, soldiers, sailors etc. We are all so familiar with them that we now simply pass them by as a matter of course. We leave these memorials to do the remembering for us.
According to Angela Findlay (and I hope I’ve got this right) because of the enormous atrocities the Nazis committed and of course, as they lost WWII and history as we know is written by the winners, we here in the UK look up to the heroes both military and everyday workers securing victory. There they are immortalised on their plinths and in our folklore, myth even worship. Quite right. We tend not to assimilate into our psyche the horrors of war and what these people achieved and went through.
Germany, to come to terms with what was caused by the Nazis has learned to deal with it differently it seems. You’ll not find ‘lone soldiers’ or Cenotaphs etc in Germany but rather memorials created as invitations to remember, to learn from and above all, refuse to allow it to happen again.
Memorials placed in appropriate places where events actually happened for instance the memorial ‘Tiergartenstrasse 4/T4’ (in Berlin) is placed where the Nazis planned their euthanasia campaign to exterminate those with handicaps and disabilities.
So, the importance of place. Another example is the memorial at Track 17 Grunewald Station where thousands of Jews and other ‘undesirables’ were fed onto cattle trucks to go to their last destination as we know.
These art works are not heroic memorials. They are designed to help people remember, come to terms with, absorb into their psyche and move on with trying to ensure nothing like that ever happens again. ‘Counter memorials’ not allowing people to forget but to remain vigilant. Memorials designed to trigger the memory, to remain in the mind ‘lest we forget’.
1933 saw the first of the book burnings with the rise of the Nazis. This is memorialised by the work of Micha Ullman who has created a pit on the site of the Berlin burnings, within which are empty library shelves. Very similar approach to that of Rachel Whiteread’s ‘Judenplatz Memorial’ in Vienna.
A particularly striking memorial is that of Gunter Demning.
Gunter Demning (born 27 October 1947 in Berlin) is a German artist. He is best known for his Stolperstein (“stumbling block”) memorials to the victims of Nazi persecution, including Jews, homosexuals, Romani and the disabled. The project places engraved brass stones in front of a former residence for a Holocaust victim who was deported and murdered by Nazi Germany. The memorial effort began in Germany and has since spread, with more than 100,000 stones placed across 26 countries in Europe.(source of this quote – Wikipeadia)
I’m not 100% sure I’ve described this as well as I could have. The lecture gave me huge pause for thought in respect of how our different yet similar cultures deal with the past.
In the UK we are having increasing notifications, interpretations and reminders of our past particularly our colonial past and whatever your opinion, history is now being revealed in different ways.
Is this the way forward? There’s the debate. Obviously, it’s very difficult indeed to get it right. But we’ve got to try. Atonement & Overcoming
Whatever our thoughts, this certainly reflects what can be the overpowering power of art. The visual, the presence occupying that space, that place where it happened. The sheer physicality cannot be bypassed and ignored. It’s there. This lecture was really all about how that presence occupied its space and how its presence was constructed with the huge psychological impact designed for that particular purpose.
Atonement & Overcoming