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Nazi Imagery Stirs Controversy at NY Jewish Museum - 2002-03-22

One of the most controversial art exhibitions in the United States in years has opened at the Jewish Museum in New York. The exhibition Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery - Recent Art centers on conceptual interpretations of the Holocaust by young artists. The debate over the exhibition began months before its March 17 opening.

The Mirroring Evil exhibition opens with one of its most eye-catching works - a room containing more than 120 photographs of Nazi soldiers. On closer inspection, the viewer notices that these are publicity photographs of actors, such as Yul Bryner and Frank Sinatra, who have played Nazis in movies. Does the artwork itself glamorize Nazism?

Or, as Rabbi Michael Berenbaum suggests, does the work call attention to a society that is guilty of glamorizing evil?

"You cannot walk out of here without saying, 'Hey, what is it about our culture that makes all of these very handsome, very virile, very interesting looking, very diverse men hulks?' It says something about our culture," he said.

Artist Rudolf Herz has covered the walls of another room with black-and-white head shots of Adolf Hitler and avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp. The link between the two? Mr. Hertz says it is impossible to think about twentieth century modern art without considering Duchamp, whom he calls its primary symbol, and Hitler, its greatest enemy.

"This was the most brutal action against modernism in the 20th century," he said. "There were a lot of pictures in German museums in the 1930s, which were kicked out, and many modern artists were depressed [oppressed] and killed."

But for Menachem Rosensaft, the son of two concentration camp survivors, intellectual or artistic explanations are minor considerations compared to the glorification of evil that he sees in the exhibition. Mr. Rosensaft is particularly offended by one of the most controversial works on exhibit - six busts on stark white pedestals of Joseph Mengele, the Nazi doctor who sent thousands of concentration camp inmates to their deaths.

"My mother spent more than 15 months at Auschwitz. During that time, Mengele physically beat her on two separate occasions for having done something that displeased him, and Mengele personally sent my mother's sister into the gas chamber," he said. "That means that the individual who brutalized my mother and who murdered my aunt is now placed on a pedestal, not just one, but six pedestals, at the Jewish Museum."

A section of the exhibition that has caused a particular stir links the Holocaust with material culture - the image of an artist holding a can of Coca-Cola superimposed over a photograph of concentration camp victims; three canisters of poison gas wrapped in designer paper. Artist Tom Sachs has constructed a model of a death camp from a Prada hatbox. In a recent interview, Mr. Sachs is quoted as saying: "I am using the iconography of the Holocaust to bring attention to fashion. Fashion, like fascism, is about loss of identity." Menachem Rosensaft finds the comment outrageous.

"To exploit the death of millions and the instruments of death in order to make an infantile point, equating fashion with mass murder and with the ideology of mass murder is a trivialization of the Holocaust," he said.

Mr. Rosensaft says Mirroring Evil would have been denounced as anti-Semitic, if a museum other than the Jewish Museum had staged it. But others, like Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, praise the museum's decision to undertake such a controversial exhibition.

"I am incredibly proud that a Jewish institution can have the courage to take responsibility for contributing to the future of Jewish memory," he said. "That is critical."

Rabbi Hirschfield says the exhibition has revealed differences in the way older and younger Jewish generations perceive the Holocaust.

"When any one historic event is owned by one generation or one religious or ethnic community, the memory of that event dies with that generation," he said. "We are precisely at that point right now. We are the generation that will live as adults, without the presence of any survivors."

What has been lost to much of the public in all of the furor is critical appraisal of the exhibition. Perhaps this is best for the Jewish Museum, as the reviews have been less than glowing. Several major New York art critics have suggested the exhibition is long on shock value, but short on new creative insights.