By Anya Ulinich
What are we looking at when we look at drawings?
The art critic John Berger said that drawing was like discovery. “Each mark you make on paper is a stepping stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river.” In other words, drawing is a close reading of reality – external or internal, present or remembered.
I was thinking of this when I went to see “Rendering Witness: Holocaust-Era Art as Testimony” at the Museum of Jewish Heritage, a show of 21 small works most of which are drawings, and most of which were made by Jews imprisoned by the Nazis – either during their imprisonment, or shortly after liberation. I asked the exhibit’s curator, Michael Morris, what made him decide to put together an art show in the context of a history museum. He said that art reveals history differently from other artifacts. Most photographs of the Holocaust were made by Nazis and their collaborators, reducing the prisoners to a collective. In conveying the perspectives of individual survivors, the drawings reassert their humanity.
Offering a platform solely to survivors and excluding artifacts made by the perpetrators certainly seems like a righteous curatorial move, and here, it has resulted in a small yet powerful show. The drawings, most made clandestinely, vary in quality, style and intent. Some are made by professional artists, some by self-taught ones, and two are made by a child. But all of them certainly transcend documentation, conveying a remarkable diversity of artistic voices.