What role does aesthetics play in drawing our attention to suffering? It’s an old question. The desire for beauty and order is irrepressible. Some–from Plato to Elaine Scarry–have seen it as benign, moving us toward a desire for good. But beauty and symmetry settle uneasily over a site of pain. The aesthetic imagination evokes the unseen in relation to the seen, indicates the possibility of an amenable reality even where one finds only an ominous reality. If beauty persuades, what does it persuade us towards? Justice, sometimes. We associate justice with good order. Yet order can also remove us from the chaos of the real, solace us where we ought to feel panic or rage. We grant aesthetics a role when we see it in a gallery, when we call its work “art.” But what about other contexts? What is the role of aesthetic display in a history museum, for instance, or a religious setting? Is the mind itself an installation space where we order and connect experiences? I had reason to ponder these enigmas a few years ago on a trip to Poland, where three unrelated exhibitions brought Wallace Stevens to mind.
Growing up in the Cold War, my husband and I had always been curious about Eastern Europe. We’d been to Western Europe often, but only as far as Vienna. When he was invited to speak to a business group in the now booming Warsaw, we jumped at the opportunity. Poland especially seemed full of contradictions formed by its history. How was it reviving stifled cultural traditions while facing dynamic modern forces?
But it was the contradictions this trip aroused in me that I will never forget. Some sights there upset my confidence in how I look at the world. Art and literature often present a lens; I tend to aestheticize and intellectualize what I see, to put what is disordered into an order. What are the pros and cons of such a lens? How should I respond to the synchrony of pain and beauty the world always puts before us? Three installations in Poland—one in an historical museum, one in a church, one in a gallery of contemporary art—form an uncanny triptych in my memory around this enigma of suffering beautifully displayed.
I knew I would have to make the excursion to Auschwitz on this trip. I was motivated not just as part of the postwar generation, but in a personal way by what I knew about my father’s war experience.
When I was about ten, 1960- 1961, my younger sisters and I found a stack of black and white photographs in my father’s desk. Pictures of my father and others in army uniform—posing with artillery or standing in front of ruins. In one my father and three others hold up a Nazi flag (VE Day! inscribed on the back). They leer at the camera, their arms supporting each other, as one raises a whiskey bottle. About half the pictures in the box, maybe a dozen, were not of living soldiers but of gaunt corpses, some laid out in rows, others forming heaps. In several shots, a group of uniformed soldiers in combat helmets looked over the bodies. One picture especially stayed with me—a sturdy looking man in the foreground, dressed in civilian clothes, was digging a deep, narrow trench. He stood in it so that only his head and shoulders, and an arm heaving a shovel, were visible. Behind him, two even columns of short rectangular pits receded like railroad tracks. Had he dug them all? At the far end of these stood a tiny figure, apparently supervising the other man’s work. I had little notion then of what it meant, but the mysterious composition intrigued me.
The desk was not in my father’s regular workspace near the living room, but in a kind of secondary office in a small room off the finished basement, so it was easy to rummage undetected. These pictures disappeared into the family attic shortly after my youthful discovery, but they lodged in my memory and are oddly mixed up with my otherwise pastoral childhood. Et in arcadia ego.
The pictures resurfaced about a decade ago when my mother, long a widow, was moving to senior housing, so I had another look. On the back of several: taken at Ohrdruf concentration camp in Germany, 1945, in my father’s hand. The majority of the inmates at the Ohrdruf camp were Polish and Russian forced laborers and prisoners of war. My father’s infantry unit had participated in the liberation, the first for the U.S. army, and these pictures were taken in the hours and days after that event. As an officer fluent in German (the language he had studied for his scientific education), he had also been involved in administering the postwar occupation. My father, a scientist but also a skillful raconteur, was fond of telling war stories, especially after he retired. He had been awarded a silver star at Omaha beach, and as a forward observer in the Battle of the Bulge he had many narrow escapes. But in all my years of growing up I do not remember him mentioning the liberation of Ohrdruf. What story could frame such a sight?
Most of these pictures had probably been sent to my mother, who at the time was in nurse training school in London. On the back of one image of prone corpses in flimsy civilian clothes he had written: “Some of the Polish slave labor, too weak & starved to travel so the Germans shot them down. Ohrdruf concentration camp near Gotha, Germany.” Another noted “Polish slaves shot when the Germans tried to flee.” And on yet another: “More murders. I’m not sending you the worst ones. These are bad enough. That’s all I need to remind me what I fight for.” Strewn bodies, some in stripes, others in plain rags; the back read: “German ‘Kultur’. These people were too weak to be evacuated so the Germans shot them and let them lie there & die. We came about 4 hours too late to save them—if they could be saved.” In one picture a line of men and women in civilian clothes-coats and shoes—were looking down at a neat row of naked, emaciated bodies. As an occupying officer my father had conducted a forced tour, showing townspeople what they had turned their backs on. Who had arranged these corpses? In one picture, a long file of white body bags or sheets laid out on the ground near some shrubs. To my surprise, given how the Holocaust had been taught to me, nowhere in my father’s notes were the victims called Jews. Just “slave laborers” “prisoners” or “Poles.” “Bodies of Polish slaves laid out for burial.” The most affecting of all was a close-up of twisted, gaunt bodies in rags, clearly fallen in this random pattern, in some cases atop each other. “This speaks for itself. Nothing I could add would be more eloquent.”
So I felt compelled, on visiting Poland, to see for myself the most notorious of the death camps. It was already in my psyche; it was not just other people’s history.
School groups gather at the entrance to Oświęcim, as it is known in Poland.
I had come to honor and acknowledge, but not to learn. I thought I knew what I would see there. I was prepared.
We follow the swabbed concrete stairs of the main building to the exhibit halls.
Passport photos on the walls, taken on arrival; incriminating ledgers lying open on tables. Nothing from the horrific liberation portfolio. None of the images I had seen in my father’s desk. Austere understatement seems the museum’s governing principle.
But the mounds undo me. For these I am not prepared.
I’d seen them in pictures online, of course. But here are the things themselves—everyday belongings confiscated, sorted: shoes, utensils, eyeglasses, clothing and other items, the material proof, in deep, theatrically lit casements. No wall labels, no words. Quantities beyond counting, of what is undeniably real, even behind glass. This installation, I know, is about facts, about evidence, about encountering history; designed to bear witness and to warn.
Yet as my imagination presses against these windows, new, surreal landscapes are forming there.
Heaps of utensils for reuse or to be melted down. The tarnished forks and spoons, the painted metal cups and pitchers and plates with their chipped folk decals in dots or florals; bought from tinkers, carried to this journey’s end.
But as these things are calling out their histories, they are also composing into something else, beautiful, color balanced, but unrecognizable. What a thing to notice! Is my eye defensively seeking aesthetic order, even imposing it on the material chaos? Aesthetics had no place here. Or had the archivist been ahead of me, defying the abyss by arranging this landscape in strategic rhythms of red and blue, to brighten the monochrome? In a second case, the combs, some with broken teeth, and shaving brushes, shoe brushes, hair brushes—made from boar’s hair?—form a dreamlike world of gentle creatures.
In another display, seized baggage piled high. Yet it seems to have clustered as if in families, or paired off like lovers, as if each piece longed to be storied. As if. Why is my mind going there, before these irrefutable things? At the next window, not a landscape but an ocean of hair, with floating tresses—here and there a snake-like braid glides over payots. Dioramas. There is a case of shoes, singles, lost to their partners, spilling out on to the window ledge, an old boot cradling a baby slipper. Not the facts, but my fancy make me queasy.
I’d seen German painters’ responses to the Holocaust: Anselm Keifer’s horizonless vistas, Gerhardt Richter’s scraped colors. These made sense. The world abstracted, composed, to make a point. Pattern and design flattening the chaos of the actual world, or reversing its terrible logic.
But at Birkenau my imagination feels misplaced; aimless and helpless.
A display of prosthetics and artificial limbs, like a department store window with manikins, wall-long as well as wall-high, and many feet deep. Testimony to the body’s fragility, and the human will to stay in motion. Wooden arms and legs, crutches, canes (one looked like a pogo stick), hooks, hinges, braces, corsets with grooves, nails, stays, fasteners, buttons, ribs of bone; slings and yokes, wood and metal and cloth, and girdles like medieval armor; along the casings, intricate designs of holes, punched in metal or leather to let the harnessed human breathe. These things had been taken from broken bodies—some broken in the ordinary hazards of life, others in the previous war—to be laid on injured German soldiers, or melted down for weapons wounding others on the Eastern front. The crutches and corsets cast shadows on the back of the case. Here too, I felt the curator ahead of me, animating the objects, transfiguring the mass. Shapes of brass and wood I turned into an orchestra at rest.
I thought uneasily of Wallace Stevens’ “Connoisseur of Chaos.” Was I a “Connoisseur of Chaos”?
A.….. A violent order is a disorder; and B.….. A great disorder is an order. These Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)
On our way back to Warsaw from Cracow our driver Kacper wonders, would we like to make a short stop—only about twenty minutes out of the way—no extra charge—to Częstochowa, the holiest place in Poland. Organized religion has never had a hold on me, but Catholicism is inextricable from Poland. The Church has been an anchor through periods when the country existed only in memory and imagination, and it played a crucial role of resistance in the Soviet period. Częstochowa is the site of Poland’s “Black Madonna.” It hangs in the monastery of Jasna Góra (Luminous Mountain), which had been attacked by the Swedes in the 17th century, though one hundred monks and nobles had managed to hold off the army of 4,000 for 40 days. Kacper comes here whenever he can; he brings his family at least twice a year. He had spent many pre-Brexit years working in the UK, but he comes from the Polish countryside to the east. He has none of the cosmopolitan tastes of the university and business people we had met in Warsaw. Listening to our driver, I begin to understand the faultlines of Polish politics. We had not thought to bother with Częstochowa, though the site lures millions of pilgrims annually. Tired and shaken as we were from the previous day’s tour of Auschwitz, we cannot deny him.
We follow Kacper as he ascends the hundred plus steps to a sprawling plaza and a complex of chapels, bell towers, exhibition halls around a central cathedral. He fills us in on the legend of the Black Madonna, the “queen and protectress of Poland,” as she is called in the national epic, Pan Tadeuz. Tartar invaders lodged arrows in her neck and struck her with swords, which accounts for the slashes on her face to which the tiny Christ child is pointing. She was blackened, it is said, by the invaders’ fires, and the centuries of devotional candles smoking up the altar and leaving a palimpsest of soot. Clearly she has absorbed the darkness from many centuries of Polish history. We make our way through the aisle with the long line to the altar. The black Madonna is not just a protectress of Catholic Poles. She is also a healer, perhaps because of her wounds, which suggest her capacity for empathy and resilience. Thus thousands of the afflicted—the blind, the crippled, the diseased—and their families travel here every year to pray for recovery. There are many petitioners bent at the pews this day.
The icon and its legend do not hold much of a spell over me. It all seems more like superstition than mysticism. But an uncanny sight throws me back to the upheavals of the previous day.
Hanging all around the altar, and indeed throughout the church, are elaborate displays giving proof of holy interventions: crutches, canes, braces, slings that had been cast off, hundreds of them. But not thrown in a heap as at Birkenau; instead these articles are arranged in a reverential order, in ceiling high arcs ornamented with silver and gold pins and pendants, heart shaped pillows, chalices. The owners of the crutches and canes had been miraculously healed and had thrown off their shackles. Now the supports themselves seem risen, like choirs of angels, a visual hosanna. Of course it is coincidence, this odd resonance with the exhibition at Oświęcim. What, if anything, to make of it? There is no simple connection; more like a collision of histories, Catholic and Jewish, that Poland tries to keep separate. (In the official account, Poland was about suffering and faith, and could not also be about complicity.) I can’t draw any conclusions. Yet privately I associate the two sites, find the meaning not in history but in my imagination. Again “The Connoisseur of Chaos” comes to mind:
The squirming facts exceed the squamous mind, If one may say so. And yet relation appears, A small relation expanding like the shade Of a cloud on sand, a shape on the side of a hill.
Birkenau, the dark pit, bears witness to human life devalued and destroyed; Jasna Góra, the luminous mountain, celebrates human life healed and restored. On this day, even to this nonbeliever, the walls of the shrine seem to promise a resurrection, as if broken humanity could be redeemed from its terrible history.
That history, with its “squirming facts,” returns to mind soon enough, however, and it conflicts with this scene of healing and holiness. On the way back in the car, I keep thinking about why the name Częstochowa rings a bell. I repeat it inwardly until it comes to me as we reach the outskirts of Warsaw: Art Spiegelman’s ground breaking Auschwitz narrative, Maus, one of the first to use comics to portray historical trauma. Turning dehumanizing Nazi imagery on its head, the artist represents Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles (some helping, most betraying their neighbors) as pigs. The intriguing formal design and abstraction of the figures in graphic narrative allows us to look at horrific, brutal events without turning away. The book is based on family history. Częstochowa was the home of Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, the hero of Book I. “The Shiek” (after a Valentino film), as Vladek described himself in his early years, had spent his caddish youth here, amidst 45,000 others of his kind.
Our last day in Warsaw before heading home. A visit to the Zachęta National Gallery of Modern Art. Here one gets a sense of the new Poland—innovative, outward looking, ready to address the world. The current exhibition, “Podrżóznicy” “Travellers,” has convened a number of Central and Eastern European artists around themes of postwar mobility and control. It looks back at the communist ban on travel, and forward to the present crisis of mass migration. The Kracinsky government has been refusing to cooperate with the EU in accepting refugees from the Middle East and Africa, and it is hard not to see this exhibit as a critique of that policy. The galleries ask us to reflect: Travel: a human condition, a yearning, a prohibition, a right, a choice, a threat, a problem? Can art transport us? Or is it inevitably coopted by power? An image of a Haitian village. A photo of a Roma boy on a train, playing an accordion. An archive about the 1961 MoMA show “Fifteen Polish Painters” which had been funded by the CIA. A hilarious mockumentary called “Return to Adriaport” about elites who found a way to vacation by the sea without crossing Czech borders. It is all a bit miscellaneous, but the artists are guides. My imagination has a place here; politics, religion, art, are in their right alignment, I think. I am a traveler, after all, a privileged one, primed for reminders of my traveler’s gaze.
The word “installation” has a precise meaning in an art gallery, signaling an orientation: aesthetics can awaken reflection without determining a course. Here one can be perplexed; one can ponder, one can muse; one’s thoughts can wander out to the world in all its great disorder and come back to the ordered object in endless dialectic. I think again of Stevens: The mind has added nothing to human nature. It is a violence from within that protects us from a violence without. It is the imagination pressing back against the pressure of reality. It seems, in the last analysis, to have something to do with our self-preservation.
A room of the gallery with nothing but suitcases. Not tossed into a pile as I’d seen in Birkenau, but arranged by the artist in a staggered phalanx. In this work the fronts and backs of the cases had been cut out, leaving only the spinal frames, so that they were a beautiful assembly of grids, windows rather than containers. “Loaded” is the title of the piece. Ironies and paradoxes swarm around the image but do not sting.
But the installation in the last room leaves me more exposed. Ambiguity does not seem adequate. Here the object is another heap, with many variations of one kind of item—footwear again—but now pressed together and starched into a vague, aspirational shape. Shoes point in all directions; sneakers, laces hanging limp, thongs, clogs, sandals, none very sturdy, none designed for long journeys, made of canvas, plastic, vinyl, rubber, wood, straw, flimsy leather, their tongues panting, their soles turning in or facing out. An agglomerated mound, but again, it seems to me, things discreetly juxtaposed, not to deny chaos, but to enhance pathos. And the mass of detritus has an outline, a purpose. “Borka [the Barge]” by the Kosovar-Albanian artist Sislej Xhafa. It is a small boat, I see now, such as might carry a dozen people, though there must be at least a thousand shoes pressed together. Art was not a safe harbor. The prow is tipped up in a point, as if buffeted by invisible waves, in the otherwise still and empty space of the white walled gallery. A laconic label explains: shoes collected on the beaches of Lampedusa. There seems to be some color coordination, despite the deliberate impression of rubbish. This gray mass of tattered objects is inflected with lemon yellow here, baby pink there, an orange and blue pattern, and the photojournalist’s inescapable, urgent pop-out red.
What have I learned in these walks through history, religion, and art? Some things about Poland, I suppose, a unique version of tensions in many parts of the world between nationalism and cosmopolitanism, tradition and modernity, historical trauma and regeneration. “(Pages of illustrations.)” More fundamentally, some things about myself as a beholder: that when my imagination presses back, as Stevens says, against the pressure of reality, it does not always bring relief; that my desire for order and beauty may be stronger than my desire for truth; that I want them to be one desire, and that sometimes, with the help of art, they are. That I will never really be prepared for what I see.