Visual art created during the Holocaust encompasses a broad range of subjects, media, context, and circumstances. While some of the most famous artistic productions emerged from the Theresienstadt ghetto, these drawings are far from the only visual representations of the Holocaust. Indeed, visual responses were created by adults and children, in ghettos and in hiding, and in some cases, by concentration camp inmates and partisans fighting in the forests of Eastern Europe. Like the writers featured here, some artists were professionally trained, while others were amateurs depicting the conditions and circumstances before them for the first time. Artistic responses also depended upon a number of crucial factors: the availability of resources (paper, drawing implements, etc.), the time required to create these types of responses, and in some cases, the support of ghetto or camp personnel. Visual responses could also hold considerable risk; indeed, for artists who starkly depicted ghetto or concentration camp conditions, incidents of mass violence, and other atrocities, visual works provided a record of events and contexts not meant to be publicized. This raises further questions about the dissemination of such artwork. Who, for example, was the intended audience for any given piece of art? Did the artists intend to use his or her piece as a way to record and therefore disseminate the degradation of their experiences as they were occurring? Or were these artistic works instead meant for those "inside" the same conditions? Were they sent in letters or other correspondence, or did they instead appear in private diaries, intended for an audience of one? The intent of these artists impacts their final product, as well as the way in which we think of that product.
As with any artistic response, our impetus may be to lionize these artists and their works as acts of resistance. For some, this may well have been the case. For others, visual art was simply a familiar way in which to record their experiences, perhaps with an eye towards the future, and perhaps not. Alexander Bogen, artist and resistance fighter, contrasted the sketches that he created as a partisan with the type of art he engaged in during the prewar and postwar period in an interview in June 1979:
This I tell you, this is a different thing. An immediate reaction without time to think, no time to organize your vision, your style or composition. This was a reaction, this art. It is different than being in a studio where you have time to think about style and about expression and about color. This is a different thing. In the circumstances of the Holocaust when you are creative, face to face with the cruel thing against you, it is immediate reaction.1
Bogen's assessment suggests that we may need to judge the value of a work of art and assess its quality by different standards if it serves more of a documentary than aesthetic function. While many surviving pieces are aesthetically basic, however, sophisticated pieces also exist. With Bogen, who was a trained artist in Vilna prior to the war, even seemingly quick sketches reflect familiar images, poses, and sensibilities from classical European artistic traditions. Thus, to analyze wartime artwork, we must take into consideration not only the circumstances of the artist and the work, but also the tradition, training (or lack thereof), and both formal and informal education of each artist, and the impact of these influences on their work.
Holocaust art falls into several key categories, as articulated by historian Sybil Milton:2
Portraitures: This category might include a variety of portraits, from family members, to self portraits, to portraits of ghetto or camp leadership, or even "commissioned" or forced portraits of camp commandants and the like. These pieces often built upon preexisting European traditions and conventions of portraits and figures. Alexander Bogen's work falls into this general category.
Spaces/Landscapes: Particularly common in ghetto artwork, this category could capture both the internal landscape of a camp or ghetto, or images of the outside world around it. Images of the countryside surrounding a concentration camp often fall into this category. Some of these pieces could reflect a certain bucolic beauty that often contrasted with the harsh conditions in which their creators resided.
Documentary/Evidentiary Art: This category was aimed outward rather than inward, and aimed to serve as evidence of atrocities as they were occurring. Here, the goal was accuracy over artifice.
Caricatures: While far less common than other forms of visual art, caricatures capture the humor that some artists and writers found in their plight.
Abstracts: Abstract pieces that were more impressionistic in nature were in the minority (perhaps for some of the reasons that Bogen indicates in his 1979 interview), although nevertheless present.
For each of these types of pieces, however, a lingering question remains: how "Jewish" are these responses? What might set "Jewish artwork" of the Holocaust apart from other representations? In the postwar period, to be sure, Jewish iconography and other visual markers are often present—if not at the forefront—of certain artistic depictions. The artwork of Samuel Bak, featured in galleries across the United States and around the world, is one example. But how "Jewish" are the caricatures of young Lutek Orenbach? Are Alexander Bogen's portraits of soldiers any different than those of a non-Jewish artist? What makes a "Jewish response" in the realm of visual art—is the affiliation of (or persecution of) the artist enough? While we have taken an expansive view of what Jewish art might look like during this period, a critical analysis of what makes an artistic response Jewish necessarily arises whenever we examine these types of sources as a group.