Manfred Bockelmann, Drawing Against Oblivion, Leopold Museum, Vienna
Manfred Bockelmann, Drawing Against Oblivion, Leopold Museum, Vienna

MANFRED BOCKELMANN - Drawing Against Oblivion.

The special exhibition Drawing Against Oblivion shows large-format portraits,all of them done in charcoal, of children and youths who fell victim to the Nazis’ reign of  terror. With these, artist Manfred Bockelmann seeks to create “signposts against forgetting.” He desires to “give faces to at least a few names and numbers, lifting afew individuals out of the anonymity of statistics.”“With the means of his art,” writes Heiner Hammerschlag, “he brings victims out ofthe darkness of repression and back into the light, visualising for us the monstrosity oflegalised crime in a subtle way.  Manfred Bockelmann: “I do not show martyrs, heaps of corpses or defiled creatureswhose faces are marred by hunger, illness and exhaustion, who have already been robbedof their individuality.  I show individuals whose martyrdom still lies before them.

The portraited children and youths are of ages between two and 16, and they fell victim to the Nazis’ reign of terror at the Am Spiegelgrund children’s clinic in Vienna and in the concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Hartheim and Theresienstadt, as well as in other locations. These young people were murdered between 1941 and 1945 because they were Jews, Slavs or “Gypsies,” because their parents opposed the regime, or because they suffered from physical or mental ailments. According to the insane, institutionalized racism of the Third Reich, they were “vermin” who had to be exterminated in order to ensure the supposed “purity of German blood”.  Bockelmann’s portraits were done based on mug shots taken by the authorities responsibleat the time—the Gestapo, the SS, physicians—following these young people’s deportation to hospitals and camps. They wear the notorious, broadly striped prisoner’s uniform, and their heads have been shaved. At the collection camps, others—mainly members of the Romani and Sinti peoples—were summoned by the authorities to be photographed. These photos show them wearing their best clothes, desiring to makea good impression; they do not yet know what will be done to them, but even so, all oftheir faces clearly display their fear and insecurity.  The portraits show handsome, young fellow human beings. It is particularly in such picturesof those considered “impure” back then that one sees pure humanity. The artist’s intention of drawing “lest they be forgotten” is directed not only toward these very special young people, who have names and biographies, but furthermore aims to be a reminder of the value of human empathy, and to have viewers become aware of theirown mutual kinship—not just as regards the past, but also now, in the present.

The gazes of the young people in these portraits evoke a sort of sympathetic resonance in the viewer, a sort of kinship or even identity that forms the basis of every humanist system of ethics. The photographs of the Nazi authorities were meant to show“the Other”, to shed light on “the Other”. Bockelmann’s charcoal drawings, on the otherhand, imply that which is the same in both the depicted and the viewer, forming a society of human beings which must be given due care. Oneself-in-the-Other, or the-Otherin-Oneself—the Other is in reality the “non-Other”. To take part, to take an interest, to not look away, to identify oneself therewith—that is the message, here. To be sure, it is heartbreaking: one feels at a loss for words and would prefer not to look. Yet through doing so, these same young people, whose lives were taken away, are in a certain sense brought back to life.The archaic, broken-textured coal, guided by the artist’s hand works in its own way against the cold and stability of the officials’ camera lenses, against the entire murderous arrangement that tolerated no contradiction. The seriousness of this topic canont be done justice by accepting and taking up the creaturely, the fragile and the vulnerable, that which is especially needy, not hiding but rather positively confirming it.“To leave oneself standing as something incomplete” was the ultimate humanistic credo of an Austrian author who, earlier in his life, had also been infected by the Nazi ideology of the pure and strong. The young people on the portraits literally did have no other choice than to “leave standing that which was incomplete”. And even so, we see precisely here, made clear via the artistic transformation of Bockelmann’s charcoal drawings, something that is deeply consummate and complete.

Curator: Diethard Leopold

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Museumsplatz 1
MuseumsQuartier
Vienna
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Austria
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