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Judy Chicago’s Holocaust Project

Although the artist Judy Chicago descends directly from 23 generations of rabbis (including the renowned 18th-century Vilna Gaon), she was raised in virtual ignorance of her people’s culture, history and language. While the slaughter of six million Jews was taking place in Europe, Chicago’s family celebrated Christmas in America, exchanging gifts in the midst of “raucous, festive parties.”

Not until Chicago was 45 did she confront her own ignorance of both the Holocaust and of Judaism. That Christmas (1984), Chicago heard a poem by Harvey Mudd, a non-Jew, about the Holocaust. Stunned that a Gentile cared enough about the mass destruction of the Jews to actually write about it, Chicago felt shamed into her own awakening and compelled her to begin, along with her husband, photographer Donald Woodman, The Holocaust Project, an art installation that took six exhausting years to complete.

In historical scope, physical construction and personal vulnerability, the work is unlike any other art that Chicago has undertaken to date. Accompanying the exhibit (like Chicago’s famous Dinner Party) is an unconventional text which includes photographs of the camps, preliminary sketches and fold-out color reproductions of the final work. Through journal entries, Chicago describes her personal quest towards reclaiming her identity as a Jew, as well as the artistic process involved in creating such a difficult exhibit.

While some of the writing is uninspired and lacks emotional depth, the color reproductions of the art are the exact opposite. Chicago’s description of her severe emotional depression (arising from her immersion in the Holocaust material for the first time) lacks literary power. In one offensive entry (photo included) Chicago describes putting herself in the ovens of Auschwitz as if she were stepping into a new ride at a theme park. Unlike an astute cultural anthropologist studying her own people (like the renowned Number Our Days by Barbara Myerhoff), Chicago shows little respect for Jewish observances that she dislikes or finds anti-feminist. The journal—as opposed to the accompanying artwork—is, in the end, too much of everything and not enough of any one thing: the reader is privy to the problems of silk screening, combining oil painting with photography, how to make stained glass; the author’s search for her Jewish identity; the uncovering of historical Holocaust information; and a travelogue of Germany, Poland, France, Russia and Israel.

What is significant about the journal, however, is the inclusion of the historical connections Chicago makes between women’s oppression and Jewish oppression. She links the burning of witches with the burning of Jews. She reaches for an understanding of genocide that places the Holocaust in a global context. While wrestling with the capitalistic objectification of animals and human beings, she finds similarities between the use of African-Americans as slaves on U.S. plantations and the use of Jews and other political prisoners as slaves in the work camps set up by Nazis in Eastern Europe.

Most compelling are the questions Chicago faces as an artist concerning the politics of representation: Can the Holocaust be artistically interpreted in any other form than photo-documentation? Will any rendering trivialize or romanticize individual suffering? How can one depict the Holocaust as the intentional genocide of Jews without denying the other victims: Communists, Gypsies, Gays and Lesbians [the latter two categories capitalized to assert their status as “nations”].

Chicago does not seek to answer any of her own questions. Instead, through the art itself, she tries to illustrate all the victims while retaining a place for Jewish specificity in the overall design of the installation. Throughout the creation of the exhibit, Chicago worries that the images she’s uncovering are too horrific to translate into art; and once translated; she’s afraid that the audience will look away. Perhaps, though, it is Chicago herself who looks away from the images she wants so badly to create.

In the panel Double Jeopardy, the painted figures of human beings are plump and do not jibe with corresponding journal entries and photographs depicting starvation and humiliation, overworked and tortured bodies. And in the panels Pink Triangles/Torture, about gays and lesbians, the images are surreal; bodies are shaped in a pink triangle surrounded by beds of pansies that Chicago discovered were actually planted at the camps by gay men.

In representing atrocities, Chicago is faced with the challenge of the literal image versus the risk of the non-literal. Chicago is at her innovative best in a new style—combining photography, sprayed acrylic, and oil painting applied to a surface called photolinen. In one of the most terrifying panels (Banality of Evil/Struthof), Chicago paints Nazis—drinking beer and celebrating at a countryside pub right outside the camps—on to a photograph of people being herded into the gas chambers to die. In another photo-painting (Banality of Evil/Then and Now), Chicago juxtaposes a Nazi family playing in the front yard of their cottage, smoke rising from burning ovens in the background, against a white American family living in suburbia, barbecuing in their front yard as a nuclear power plant stands poised in the background.

Two serious questions remain unanswered in relation to the execution of The Holocaust Project. One, involving the ethics of collaborative work, follows Chicago from installation (The Dinner Party and The Birth Project) to installation. Many women, and a few men, donate hours, weeks, even years of their time and talent to assist Chicago in the construction of her artwork.

Expert weavers took almost the entire six years to complete the woven panels of The Holocaust Project. Chicago admits that no one is paid, but she offers no explanation for how so many people can afford to work for free. She does say that she and her husband work without a salary, and that all funding comes from private sources. But we never know how much things cost or where, exactly, the money comes from. Furthermore, Chicago and Woodman travelled to Israel and Eastern Europe on private donations, while none of her volunteers were invited along.

Chicago’s unwillingness to wrestle directly with fundamental questions of privilege inherent in undertaking such a comprehensive and time-consuming art installation as The Holocaust Project contrasts sharply with her otherwise meticulous approach to her work.

Finally, the last panel. Rainbow Shabbat, a 54-inch by six-foot stained glass, captures both Chicago’s strengths and weaknesses. The panel, a painting of a traditional Sabbath meal, shows Arabs, Jews, Vietnamese, Africans and Anglos sitting with their arms around each other, heads turned towards the head of the table where an Orthodox Jewish woman lights the candles. At the other end of the table, the woman’s husband says kiddush, the prayer over wine.

The diners are bathed in a rainbow of stained glass, as though the meal occurs in a grand, medieval cathedral. Is this “dinner party” a failure of imagination, or a romantic, glossy version of Chicago’s worldview?

By ending the exhibit with a “Family of Man”-type portrait (complete with husband, wife and multicultural, ecumenical progeny), the viewer is forced to wonder if Chicago’s solution to intentional mass extermination of Jews, Gypsies, Homosexuals and Communists is the recreation of the nuclear family. The Rainbow Shabbat makes no sense as the final Holocaust panel.

Clearly, Chicago was afraid to close without a “happy ending.” Ultimately Chicago’s fear of leaving the viewer with an ambiguous, unresolved image weakens the overall power the The Holocaust Project.

Jyl Lynn Felman, an attorney and short story writer, lectures widely on racism, antisemitism and homophobia. Most recently she is the author of Hot Chicken Wings, a collection of Jewish short fiction, which was a 1993 Lambda Literary Finalist.