chess

 

Dec 2000 Journal

previous article:Two centuries of family history
next article:Newsround

The Judenplatz Memorial

Vienna is an arch-conservative city in matters of art as Mozart, Mahler, Klimt and others found out to their cost. Even so, a century ago the Sezession group of painters coined the slogan Der Zeit ihre Kunst (every age has an art appropriate to it) which one cannot quarrel with. The Romanesque harked back across the barbarian void to Roman civilisation. The Gothic age built heavenward-soaring structures which articulated Faith. The Renaissance shifted the focus from the linear to the circular – the circle being seen as the symbol of perfection. Futurism claimed to be the art form of the machine age. And what is the art appropriate to the Age of Genocide? Certainly nothing literal or figurative along the lines of Alfred Hrdlicka’s ‘Monument to the Victims of War and Fascism’ at the Albertina in Vienna. Here the sculpture of the pavement-scrubbing Jew has been known to serve as a seat for sightseers to rest their feet on and munch sandwiches.

The work of Daniel Libeskind and Rachel Whiteread exists in a different dimension. Libeskind designs buildings (like the Nussbaum Museum in Osnabrück) with jagged asymmetrical design and tapering corridors that lead nowhere. Rachel Whiteread has been described as “giving substance to the intangible, the air-filled spaces underneath or inside objects”. She first shot to prominence with her inside-out house in Bethnal Green. Shortly afterwards she received the commission for designing Vienna’s Holocaust Memorial (a project suggested by Simon Wiesenthal and implemented by the Socialist municipality). Last month, after five years’ delay, the memorial was unveiled. It is a concrete single-storey windowless building with a sealed pair of doors at one end. The walls are covered from top to bottom with row upon row of books made of pale concrete. From a distance the books are barely visible and the Silent Library appears to be made of a series of slabs. The bottom slabs are inscribed with the names of all the labour and death camps to which Austria’s 65,000 Holocaust victims were sent.

Vienna’s Inner City is still largely residential and the Judenplatz is no exception. It is a safe bet that the square’s inhabitants who live in four-storey houses with imposing baroque facades – Mozart composed Cosi Fan Tutte at No 244 – are put out of countenance by the featureless bunker-like structure permanently in their field of vision. “What”, one can imagine them asking in the plangent whine of the Viennese, “has Mozart got to do with Minsk?” What indeed? The conjoining of beauty to horror was a characteristic hallmark of the Third Reich. And just as the Austrians wholeheartedly joined in all other aspects of Nazism – unless they themselves took the lead, as they did in Jew-baiting – so they did in this. In Germany Buchenwald concentration camp almost bordered Weimar, the city of Goethe whose favourite beech tree allegedly formed the central point of the camp. In Austria Mauthausen, a place of even greater horror, existed in close proximity to Melk monastery whose baroque splendours remain engraved on every visitor’s retina.

Simon Wiesenthal said of the memorial “It shouldn’t be beautiful – it must hurt!” The Viennese, while undoubtedly agreeing that it isn’t beautiful, take strong exception to being hurt. Back in London three days after the unveiling, Rachel Whiteread testified to that sad truth when she told The Observer:  “I felt quite frightened being there many times. I felt I had become a target. All the anger became directed at my memorial.”  In other words the country is still in denial. Varying the old adage Austria Erit Im Orbe Ultima I fear that the Austrians will be the last to take the axe to the frozen sea within themselves.

previous article:Two centuries of family history
next article:Newsround