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Art and Genocide: Musings After a Trip to the MFA

When I began having a conversation with one of my internship supervisors about art, I was not expecting to leave our discussion contemplating the links between genocide and art. My supervisor, an author of multiple Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) resources who is heavily involved in the teaching of genocide through FHAO’s lens, transitioned from talking about famous impressionists to a particular group of exhibitions at the MFA: “Memory Unearthed: The Lodz Ghetto Photographs of Henryk Ross” and “‘I must tell you what I saw:’ Objects of witness and resistance.” FHAO partnered with the MFA to create both exhibits, which focus on the Holocaust and other genocides throughout history.


Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

The FHAO interns were scheduled to go visit both exhibits and my supervisor wanted to give me some background information on both. I learned from him that Raphael Lemkin created one of the first scholarly and legal definition of genocide. However, though I usually think of mass murder when hearing the word “genocide,” my supervisor taught me that Lemkin’s definition actually focuses more on the intention to destroy a culture or a group. Mass murder is certainly one means of accomplishing this, but Lemkin’s definition broadened my understanding of how genocides are carried out. Under such a definition, the destruction of objects, language, or any other component of a culture’s identity can be categorized as a genocide.[1][2]


Raphael Lemkin.

In “Memory Unearthed,” the exhibition focused on Henryk Ross, a Jewish photographer in the Lodz Ghetto in Poland, who secretly captured images of the horrors of the ghetto as well as the daily lives of its inhabitants. The Nazis appointed Ross to document the efficiency of Jewish workers in the ghetto and to take identification photos of each resident. However, Ross was able to use extra film for his unofficial documentation of life in the ghetto. Fearing deportation to one of the death camps, Ross buried his photographs towards the end of the war but survived to retrieve them.[3] After the war, the photographs would be used as evidence in the Eichmann trial.[4]

Lodz Ghetto

Lodz Ghetto Entrance. Sign reads: “Jewish Residential Area – Entry Forbidden”


Henryk Ross Testifying at the Eichmann Trial










The first exhibition, “Memory Unearthed,” was a fascinating example of how objects are used to remember historical events. Ross’ official documentation of efficient labor and his photographs of identification depicted a completely different reality of life in the Lodz Ghetto. Though one purpose of the ghetto was to displace a group and suppress its culture, Nazi documentation of the Lodz ghetto focused on presenting an image of healthy productivity. On the other hand, Ross’ unofficial photographs detailed awful living conditions, deportations, attempts to destroy culture, and everyday examples of Jewish culture. “Memory Unearthed” presented an instance of two competing historical narratives which illustrated the ghetto in completely different ways. Though historical hindsight today gives individuals the luxury to say that Ross’ evidence emerged as “victorious” over the Nazis’, it’s easy to forget the contentious space in which both narratives competed for supremacy in the 1930s and 1940s. For Ross and other Jews during the Holocaust, there was no certainty that evidence of their experience would be recognized in history. Their lives hung in the balance as they faced of the destruction of their people and there was no guarantee that Ross’ secret documentation would see the light of day. His evidence balanced delicately on one side of the scale while the other side was weighed down by Nazi propaganda, which threatened the existence and memory of Jewish culture. Historians don’t like to play the hypothetical game but there are multiple instances in history where had one narrative “won” over the other, the sources documenting a historical moment may have led to a different or incomplete understanding of the event. Ultimately, the exhibit forced me to think about the different ways in which current events are portrayed and how history will present the interaction between those different perspectives.

HR Photo

Henryk Ross Photograph in Lodz Ghetto

“‘I must tell you what I saw:’ Objects of witness and resistance” exhibited a small group of objects that the curator believed represented different instances of genocide and the destruction of culture in history.[5] I don’t want to spoil the exhibition and outline every single object that the curator chose; rather, I want to focus on one piece that caught my interest – J. M. W. Turner’s The Slave Ship (1840). The painting depicts a blazing and explosive sky above furious waves that rock a slave ship in the horizon. What intrigued me most about this work was the way it’s remembered and discussed. My supervisor explained to me that Turner’s piece is hailed as a classic example of a painting from the Romantic era. Further, many art history scholars focus on the work’s aesthetic and analyze it through the lens of the “sublime” – another term in art which seeks to measure aesthetic quality in paintings.[6] I was surprised that some art history scholars overlooked the historical significance of the title of the painting as well as the ship it depicts. The Middle Passage is an example of mass displacement, dehumanization, objectification, and destruction of peoples and culture.

Slave Ship

Turner – The Slave Ship

I think that the curator’s choice to include the piece in the exhibit is excellent because it depicts genocide according to Lemkin’s definition in two ways. First, Turner literally paints a slave ship, which represents the suffering of the people who traveled on the Middle Passage. Secondly, as a British male living during the period of the British Empire, Turner either directly or indirectly benefited from trade along the Middle Passage. Turner’s position as a beneficiary painting the destruction of culture silences the voices of those who endured the Middle Passage. As a result, I would argue that The Slave Ship simultaneously illustrates the destruction of culture while being itself an example of such destruction.

I highly recommend both exhibitions to any visitor of the MFA. Until next week…

[1] Oxford English Dictionary, “Genocide,” citing Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe ix, 79.

[2] Diane F. Orentlicher (2001), Crimes of War: A–Z Guide: Genocide, The Crimes of War Education Project, archived from the original on 26 September 2008

[3] http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/memory-unearthed

[4] https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=10005179&MediaId=4975

[5] http://www.mfa.org/exhibitions/i-must-tell-you-what-i-saw

[6] Marjorie Hope Nicolson, “Sublime in External Nature,” Dictionary of the History of Ideas, New York, 1974.

Image Sources:

Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: https://imboston.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/mfa-boston-strong-1300×796.jpg

Raphael Lemkin: http://dukemagazine.duke.edu/sites/default/files/pri_img/The%20Man%20Who%20Criminalized%20Genocide/Raphael-Lemkin.jpg

Henryk Ross at Eichmann’s Trial: https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/media_ph.php?ModuleId=10005179&MediaId=4975

Lodz Ghetto: https://www.ushmm.org/lcmedia/photo/lc/image/07/07065.jpg

Ross Lodz Ghetto Photograph: http://www.k2films.cz/data/fotogalerie/Filmy%20-%20Baluty%20-%20Henryk%20Ross/ghetto_jmenem_baluty_henryk_ross_01.jpg

Turner’s The Slave Shiphttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Slave_Ship#/media/File:Slave-ship.jpg




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