Mapping after the Holocaust: The "Atlases" of Adrienne Rich and Gerhard Richter

By Jacobs, Joshua S. | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1999 | Go to article overview

Mapping after the Holocaust: The "Atlases" of Adrienne Rich and Gerhard Richter


Jacobs, Joshua S., Mosaic (Winnipeg)


In their representations of the Holocaust, Adrienne Rich and Gerhard Richter conjoin various artistic media to place its "unspeakable" history within an encyclopedic vision of contemporary culture. Focusing on the concept of "witnessing," this essay explores how their respective strategies reflect different attitudes about the ethics of such depictions.

Theodor Adorno's dictum that "to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric" (34) stands as a kind of shorthand rendering of the discourse that has arisen around representation of the Holocaust in art. In Adorno's formulation, poetry exemplifies a cultural tradition which can no longer claim a discrete place from which to comment on a barbaric society. This disruption of culture's ability to distance itself from present history is most pointed with regard to the Holocaust, which Jean-Francois Lyotard has described as "not synthesizable" within aesthetic conventions (26). Those who would attempt to render the events of the Holocaust, therefore, face what has come to be regarded as a mainly ethical problem: like the Other that Emmanuel Levinas describes, the Holocaust's absolute alterity compels an ethically absolute responsibility to make faithful attempts at testimony, which will never approach true knowledge of their subject. Yet aesthetic and generic choices must be part of this process, even in the most rig orous attempts at representing lives led during, and ended by, the Holocaust. We might then ask whether this ethical rigor demands that we overlook the unavoidable mediations of art, or if the tensions between artist, viewer, and subject that are inherent in generic conventions can be valuable tools in rendering that which is unrepresentable.

Two contemporary "mappings" of post-World War II life demonstrate that these ethical questions regarding the art of the Holocaust and the attempt to place it within a cultural context seem to require ranging over a broad historical terrain, and crossing between visual and written genres. The American poet Adrienne Rich, in her 1991 volume An Atlas of the Difficult World, presents encompassing surveys of contemporary life in North America, Europe, and Israel, with a focus on how the century's violence and disruption has shaped communal relations within these places. Atlas reflects the broad ethical concerns, and the influence of such nonliterary forms as maps and photographs, that characterize Rich's writing since the 1980s. Up to a point, the ethical and political scrutiny that Rich gives her subjects seems absent in the German artist Gerhard Richter's Atlas, a large-scale evolving assemblage of photos and other images. Richter began collecting amateur snapshots, news photos, and cultural images in 1962, and has used them since then as occasional models for his photo-realistic paintings; the Atlas has also been displayed in its own right since 1972, with its most recent North American installation at the Dia Center for the Arts in New York in 1995-96. Yet despite the divergent methods of their projects, both Rich and Richter connect the Holo-caust to seemingly unrelated aspects of culture and both call for reader/viewer response through their focus on the visceral imagery of concentration camp victims.

In this essay I wish to explore the way that Rich and Richter's "atlases" challenge the perceived limits of Holocaust representation through their strategies of crossing generic boundaries. After discussing the artists' different understandings of their ethical responsibilities to their subjects, I will focus on each work's central juxtaposition of concentration camp victims' bodies with other images. I will argue that both Rich and Richter use visual parallels to connect the Holocaust to aspects of the contemporary world, while simultaneously using generic and historical differences to reconfirm the Holocaust's alterity to their audiences. By examining the particular boundaries between genres and historical events which these works cross in evoking the Holocaust, I will then suggest that the ethical substance of these connections differs in proportion to Rich and Richter's ability to imagine community among people of radically different experiences. …

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