By Winnie Bos
As the years pass by, more and more survivors of the Shoah are no longer around to share with us their experiences and emotions. These survivors and active members of society are now slipping away as a source of information. We cannot stress it enough, we need to remember. Remembrance out of fear of repetition, but also to cherish, respect and learn from these individuals. Maurice Halbwachs explains that the viva voce spreading of information is essential to something called ‘communicative memory’. This is why the passing away of these first hand encounters of surviving the Shoah would result in the diluting and fading of how we remember this part of history. Many institutions and individuals are now attempting to capture these memories, to create a fixed point we can reference when commemorating history. Communicative memory only lasts about three to four generations, while fixed points of reference can become ‘islands of time’ and transcend much longer periods. Jan Assman refers to this as ‘crystallized memory’. Herlinde Koelbl and Klaas Berghout are two examples of individual initiatives to capture the life of significant Jewish members of society and to have their existence transcend the mere oral commemoration.
Berghout finds inspiration in the portraits of Koelbl, and Koelbl has engaged in in depth interviews and photographic portraits of these Jewish people who migrated before the occurrence of the Shoah. It is essential to note that they both focus on the lives after the Shoah, the identity of the individuals and what their existence meant to the world. Rabbi Roberto Della Rocca once said to reporter Livia Albeck-Ripka: “In every time and every occasion people speak only about the Shoah, so it’s very important to show people that Jewish culture and life is not just suffering.”(Albeck-Ripka, 2016) Koelbl has profoundly captured the individual achievements and characteristics of these celebrated Jewish personalities by taking intimate photographic portraits and engaging in penetrating interviews. What Koelbl achieves with her work is the capturing, by interviews and portraits, the stories and memories of these people. This continuation of the string of words which holds together the memory of the Shoah is then once more interpreted by painter Klaas Berghout. His portraits are based on Koelbls photographs, in which he captures the spirit and the identity of these Jews. He returns to a pre-verbal attempt in capturing not just the horrors of the Shoah, but the prevalence of these people. Berghouts method of depiction can provoke some questions of relevance when considering Halbwachs and Assmanns ideas on memory. I will elaborate on these problematic aspects and relate them to Berghouts portraits. During this process I will investigate how the preverbal work of Klaas Berghout contributes to the commemoration of Jewish individuals that fled Germany before the Shoah.
The Complications of memory according to Halbwachs and Assmann
In recalling events of the past, we don’t have as much control over our dear memories as we’d like to think. Memories feel like they’re our own, individual images of the past. A private part of us. Yet, it is often argued that our memories are very much manipulated by the world around us. Two visions that both interpret this influence differently are Halbwachs and Assmann. The French philosopher and sociologist Halbwachs believes an individual’s memory is activated and changed by social influence, which result in a situation where we have little control over our memory. He argues that reconstructing an image of the past comes with implications that manipulate the memory. First of all, memories are activated when they’re recalled by your direct family members, friends, or any other person, who then continues to aid us in forming the memory. Secondly, one’s perspective at the time the memory took place is different from the perspective at the time of the recalling. We adapt our memories to our current perspectives, and the perspectives of people aiding us. Besides this framework created by people around us, we repeat the memories in different periods in our lives over and over with different frameworks every time. This repetition of changing bits and pieces results in dilution of the memory. These multiple factors that blur our view of the past are reasons we have difficulty reproducing the actual past occurrences. For example, Koelbl’s interviewees are made to recollect memories in an environment which Koelbl has created. Unavoidably, the questions Koelbl asks will manipulate the answers the participants will give. The interviewee will change the memory (unwillingly) as the framework is so much different from when the memory was initially created.
German professor Assmann explicates that these complications are characteristics of “communicative memory”. An example would be your grandma telling you a story about eating tulip bulbs to survive the cold winter after the Netherlands were liberated by the English. Besides the deficiency of the spoken word, the temporality of its reach is problematic. The impression your grandma’s story left on you doesn’t ensure that you pass on this memory onto another generation. Even though communicative memory is a valid description of oral history its existence is merely 3 to 4 generations and doesn’t supply a ‘fixed horizon’ that will remain when time passes. The additional concept that Assmann provides is ‘cultural memory’ which does employ these fixed points in culture by crystallizing a collective experience into figures of memory (like art, postage stamps, and customs). He articulates certain characteristics of cultural memory. One is how the shared knowledge in cultural memory creates the feeling of unity in a group, either by belonging, or not belonging to certain aspects. This belonging brings with it the obligation to adhere to the system of norms and values this group supports. Knowing that, cultural memory provides a framework for a person’s behaviour unlike Halbwachs’ theory where a group manipulates memory and not the other way around. This sense of belonging is the foundation of someone’s identity. One can pick and choose (to a certain extend) from these guidelines and shape your person. Secondly, these immovable figures of memory that can be used for reference are, indeed, still, but when referred to they are regardless subject to interpretation. It is inevitable that someone from a different time period will attach their own perspective to these objects and change the meaning inherently. Unmistakably, this is similar to Halbwachs’ description of how contemporary context changes an individual’s memory, just as the archive of cultural memory is subjectivised by contemporary context. This can be seen in Berghouts interpretation of Koelbl’s work. It can be considered to be a rendition within a contemporary framework. Another characteristic of cultural memory is the division of distributors and non-distributors. There is a dependence on specialized formulators that do contribute to cultural memory. Not everyone’s actions are immortalized in cultural memory, unlike communicative memory where anyone can participate and does so in their everyday life. This is exemplified in artists like Berghout. His work isn’t accessible to everyone it might be related to and it only captures the lives of certain Jewish people.
The portraits of Klaas Berghout
Taking into account the dilution that adheres to remembering as described by Halbwachs and Assmann, Berghouts depiction of these people couldn’t be quite accurate. As Koelbl sat down to interview these Jewish individuals she captured the stories that left their mouths by putting them onto paper. This means that instead of remaining for 3-4 generations, as Halbwachs predicts, this verbal message transcends this period. The memory and identity of these individuals can now be recollected by other people. Halbwachs explains that by repeating a story the true message gets blurred more and more through every interpretation. As the interviewees attempt to remember, they forget bits and pieces because a lot of time has already passed. The recollection of the Jews in the interviews is one recollection, translated onto paper by Koelbl, and then again interpreted by Berghout into a preverbal memorial. In addition, the observer of Berghouts work is left to fill in themselves the meaning of the portrait, creating even more room for misunderstanding or dilution. If we follow the lines of this logic, the work of Berghout wouldn’t be of any value in telling the story of these individuals. There are too many steps in between the original memory and its rendition which allow for the essence to be diluted. Regardless, it has happened more than once that people enter Berghout’s Atelier in Zwolle and burst into tears when confronted with the 2 meter and 42 centimetre high works. The impression it leaves is undeniable and this lies in the vagueness it embodies.
Klaas Berghout managed to capture in his portraits his interpretation of the identity of some 50 Jewish individuals. These individuals are the last generation that left Germany before the Shoah took place, and have become very influential in the world. Amongst the portraits are Sir Karl Popper (Philosopher), Norbert Elias (sociologist), and Gitta Alpar (opera singer). These portraits are inspired by the work of Herlinde Koelbl. Unlike Berghout, Koelbl has been capturing the spirit of these individuals through in depth interviews. In addition to these interviews, she took photographs of the people she interviewed to accompany the stories of the interviews in her book. These photographic portraits were the inspiration for Berghouts work. Based on the impression Koelbls pictures left, he rendered his own interpretation of who these people were with chalk, water and papyrus. The result of which is the overwhelming experience of standing face to face with 242 centimetre of confrontation with the portraits. Berghout is aware that there is no sense in replicating exactly the work of Koelbl in any way. His work can’t be considered to be an imitation of Koelbl’s portraits. Their genesis doesn’t lie with words, but in the absence of words, and the resulting incapability of description. An absence of words which stems from the different realities in which we live. Halbwachs describes the reality in which the memory was created, and a different reality when the memory is recollected. Not only are we different people in these realities as we have changed, but the world around has changed as well. Different frameworks are applied in these different situations which means that we can’t properly put into words what is was like to live in this reality. This is mostly the case in extreme situations like the Shoah. When we use the word hunger, it can’t even come close to capturing what hunger meant during the Shoah. In this case, it isn’t about the Shoah, but about the influential Jews that lived beyond the Shoah. But the problem of depiction with incompetent words remains. The void of description left by the lack of words necessitates other forms of expression like that of Berghout to bridge this disconnection. The absence of words can be considered vague, but this abstract aspect is required to describe events of the past. The period that is attempted to describe is foreign to contemporary people, therefore it needs a way of transmitting other than words, a method which allows more interpretations.
It seems like Berghouts work itself is understanding of and dismissing the inadequacy of its message. There is a reflection on the shaping and building of an individual identity in Berghouts work which is also perfectly applicable to the shaping of a crystallized memory. After the colours are picked and chalk are crushed they are applied to the wooden or papyrus screen only to be meticulously removed soon after. Through the repetition of this method of erasing and rebuilding with the chalk, a face starts to appear in the dust that remains. This laborious act is rewarded with the sense of movement showing on the screen. This continuous working of the surface leaves scratches and lines which carve into the face that appears through these touches. A figure becomes distinct, someone is being depicted, but It creates the illusion that there is no finalized end product. The chalk creates a thin layer on the canvas resembling the fragile texture of dust. Gazing upon it for too long and it feels like the visage will disintegrate before your own eyes and reveal another layer that is hidden behind the first. Layers, movement, and fragility characterize the work of Berghout and this isn’t accidental. An identity, like that of these Jewish individuals, can be described by the same terms. The individual depicted can’t be captured in one final essence of being. People aren’t born as the person they will be when they’re 80 years old. There is growth, change, influences, living environments and much more which changes an identity. It is about becoming more than it is about being. The rugged look of the portraits support this idea of identity as a construction. There is a certain unity that connects these portraits in the way that the earthy texture and colours are the foundation of each portrait. They all arise from some collective primitive clay or mud in their genesis, but their eventual lives are their own creation. This is why the portraits are hauntingly beautiful together but also stand individually. These individuals share the history of the Jewish, it is something heavy (and beautiful) they all carried with them and you can tell in these portraits. But their stature and importance also emits from the work. Amongst this dust that that they share as their heritage they stand as individuals.
The same proves to be true for collective memory. Artefacts and art can shape an identity or a culture and educate people about history. Yet, it is required to keep adapting to contemporary frameworks or the message will be lost. Being rigid and fixed results in the mistranslation of different realities. Like the portraits, they are fragile and brittle. Literal translations in itself don’t exists and wouldn’t be capable to adapt to new constructs. This is why preverbal art that is open to interpretation can leave people with a feeling and an understanding of what happened better than words can. Rationally, this can result in the loss of facts. Even when you look at the faces in the portraits you can see distortion. The proportions of the face and how the eyes line up are a bit awkward in some of Berghout’s portraits. With the changes over time, the recollection takes the shape of a dreamlike puzzle where pieces and aspects are put together but it doesn’t quite fit anymore. Regardless, the picture it reveals will tell the story in a more convincing way.
I want to conclude with a quote by sociologist Norbert Elias, who was one of the Jews interviewed by Koelbl. He said: “Humankind is in essence a symbolic creature whose societies depend upon symbols in order to sustain collective communication, identification and orientation” (Carrier, p.17) This is an important reflection on the necessity of art and shared norms an values in society, but more importantly on the role of symbolism. Finding ways to remember proves to be very difficult. Nevertheless, as more and more years pass, resorting to preverbal and symbolic ways of commemoration is quintessential. The words used by Anne Frank to describe her life can’t be understood by someone that hasn’t endured the same thing. The words have changed their meaning. Yet we strive to connect the two different realities, the one of the past and the current one. In order to do this we have to step away from words and resort to preverbal, abstract, symbolic works, like that of Klaas Berghout. It captures the fragility and temporarily of collective memory. It shows in its essence that neither identity nor the capturing of a memory is about a final product. It’s not about being, it’s about becoming and continuation. As a person adapts to its surroundings, so should commemorative art adapt to the contemporary framework.