'Face to Face. Art in Auschwitz': Exhibition Review

I was delighted to be invited to attend the official opening of the temporary exhibition 'Face to Face. Art in Auschwitz' at a branch of the National Museum in Krakow on 6 July 2017. The opening took place a day after the closure of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum's conference, 'Awareness-Responsibility-Future', and in the evening of a thought-provoking day I spent alone in the Museum (which I also hope to write about before too long, thesis permitting...!). The exhibition is truly unique; never before has such a large collection of artwork made by prisoners in the Auschwitz complex - almost 200 pieces - been put on display for a public audience. It was co-curated by the National Museum and the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in recognition of the latter's 70th anniversary.

There is really only one word that can adequately describe my impressions of this exhibition: Wow.

The original 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate on display in the exhibition

The different rooms of the exhibition are organised thematically. Categories include artwork commissioned by the Nazis; prisoner portraits; prisoners' hopes and dreams; and a small room wholly dedicated to The Sketchbook from Auschwitz. The rooms that display the reality of camp life are painted black, whilst those containing images of hope or fantasy are brightly lit. Every artwork - from the smallest drawing hurriedly sketched on a scrap of paper, to the huge canvases made to order by the SS - is framed individually and often accompanied by a quote from a survivor of the camp, relevant to the scenes or thoughts expressed in the piece.

Whilst viewing the exhibition, I experienced a number of moments that literally took my breath away. The moment that immediately comes to mind is walking into the room about camp life and being confronted by the original 'Arbeit Macht Frei' gate that was once in Auschwitz I. This gate has been painstakingly restored after being stolen and cut into three pieces in 2009; a replica now greets Museum visitors, whilst the original is kept in the Conservation Department. The way the gate has been positioned in the room - and, of course, its immense historical significance - sent a chill down my spine. Those who might question its placement in the exhibition should remember that the gate was made by prisoners - the upside-down 'B' in 'Arbeit' is thought to have been a subtle act of resistance.
I was also incredibly moved by the artworks made by prisoners to escape the realities of camp life. Beautiful landscapes, flowers and scenes of home line the walls, all painted or sketched from memory. Those of us who were not there cannot begin to imagine the dark, muddy, industrial landscape of Auschwitz, let alone where so many prisoners found the motivation and courage to create artwork to recall life beyond the barbed wire.

'Roses' by Joseph Sapcaru, created in Auschwitz-Monowitz, 1944

'Face to Face. Art in Auschwitz' is both breathtaking and heartbreaking. It serves to rehumanise the prisoners of the Auschwitz camp complex and gives us an insight into their thoughts and hopes, despite living in utterly horrific conditions. The curators of this exhibition are to be congratulated. If you find yourself in Krakow before 20 September, I urge you to visit.

Exhibition Information
Location: The Szołayski House, Plac Szczepański 9, 31-011 Krakow
Open: 7 July - 20 September 2017
Admission: Free

Please visit the National Museum in Krakow website for more information.