World War II: Reverberations

By Hadler, Mona; Marter, Joan | Art Journal, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

World War II: Reverberations

Hadler, Mona, Marter, Joan, Art Journal

The 1994 fifty-year anniversary of the D day invasion of Normandy, the success of the controversial 1993 film Schindler's List, and the 1993 opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., are all clear indications that World War II still remains in the public eye. Indeed, the recent major changes in geopolitical boundaries in Europe and the atrocities in the name of "ethnic cleansing" point to the continued relevance of concerns addressed by postwar artists.

These artists' pages address the ongoing significance of World War II in recent decades and demonstrate the challenge each sculptor faces in producing a response commensurate with the enormity of the issues. Just as the artists discussed elsewhere in this journal wrestled with the viability of abstraction or realism for a world in conflict, the sculptors in the artists pages employ vastly different modes of expression. In recent years installations have become ubiquitous, and new questions of site specificity and reception have arisen. The relative effectiveness of abstraction, realism, assemblage, or installation is not the issue, however, but rather the ongoing engagement with this critical material.

Five of the artists included here--Peter Grippe, Wladyslaw Hasior, Gerda Meyer Bernstein, Sol LeWitt, and Francesc Torres--still grapple with issues pertaining to World War II. To avoid being arbitrarily limited to the Second World War, however, we have expanded our scope to present a range of sculptors' reactions to other wars. With this in mind, Vietnam veteran David Smith's response to the Vietnam WAR is included as well as Sonia Amirian Balassanian's to the conflicts in the Middle East. Grippe, too, describes how it was the atrocities of the Vietnam War that turned him to focus on Hiroshima, and Bernstein and Torres create many works that respond passionately to continuing global injustices.

Both the American artist Grippe and the Polish artist Hasior utilize an expressionist surface popular in both postwar Europe and America. Beginning in 1944 Grippe worked in the lost-wax technique, creating complex pieces similar to the convoluted forms of other New York School sculptors working in direct metal. Grippe's bronze sculpture Hibakusha is one of thirty pieces begun in 1965 on the theme of the survivors of Hiroshima.(1) The title is a Japanese word meaning an "explosion-affected" person, and the pieces of rubble on the head of the figure are meant to be both "realistic and symbolic." He writes:

They best can be understood we think of flying debris at the moment of an explosion when objects and human beings meet in concussion. The objects flying in space become part of the sculptural form. Symbolically they state man being reduced to a mere cast-off object...a discarded part of the debris. He is no more/no less important than the expendable ready-made he has become in a society that is indifferent to humanity.

Fire is a key element in Hasior's art. His Niobe I features lighted candles in the torso of the truncated figure. Hasior's assemblage, an example of the reflowering of Polish sculpture after the demise of Socialist Realism, was affected by the spiritual values of folk culture popular in the art school in the mountain town of Zakopane, where a museum uniquely devoted to his work exists today. Hasior later utilized fire dramatically in several monuments to the victims of World War II. He poured fuel into body cavities in these works and lit it. The vivid baroque effects that resulted gave the impression of its victims being consumed in flames. Unlike the New York School sculptors, Hasior, in an interview, eschewed the Promethean aspects of fire and, in an ironic twist, repeated a popular Polish childhood warning about playing with fire:

It is true--I once ran "across the burning meadows of blood" [quotation from a poem written during World War II by Krzsztof Kamil Bactynski] but it is not true that this experience is the sole explanation for the frequent presence of fire in my works. …

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