Entertainment & Arts

Art and suffering unite in Geneva

Felix Nussbaum, Der Flüchtling (1) (Europäische Vision) [The Refugee 1] [Vision of Europe], 1939 Image copyright Publicity
Image caption The Refugee was painted by Felix Nussbaum in 1939, when the artist, who was Jewish, had already been forced to flee Nazi Germany - he later died in Auschwitz along with his whole family

A groundbreaking exhibition is currently under way at the Red Cross Museum in Geneva, designed to show the relationship of artists to suffering.

The exhibition, called All Too Human features works which, often graphically, illustrate the suffering humans have inflicted on one another over the last 100 years.

Starting with Otto Dix's harrowing black and white etchings of life in the World War One trenches, to stark photomontages of the 21st Century conflict in Iraq, the exhibition is the result of a collaboration between the Red Cross Museum and Geneva's Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Mamco.

For Red Cross Museum Director Roger Mayou the partnership is entirely fitting for Geneva, which is home to all the major United Nations aid agencies, and to the International Committee of the Red Cross. The city is also the birthplace of the Geneva Conventions.

"Suffering inflicted by human beings intentionally to other human beings is a theme we could share," he explains.

"In dark situations of humanity some people look away, and some people… get involved.

"This is the case for humanitarian workers, they take action, and this is the case for artists… they testify to these difficult situations.

"That's what we wanted to show in this exhibition."

Some of the artists on show used their work to express their outrage at the repression and violence taking place around them.

Image copyright Marc Gentinetta
Image caption Nikolai Getman's series were born of the suffering to which he and others were subjected under Stalin's regime

Pablo Picasso's Weeping Woman testifies to his anger at the horror being inflicted on his fellow countrymen and women during the Spanish Civil War.

Others works are more personal, depicting the artist's own individual experience of suffering.

A series of paintings by the Ukrainian artist Nikolai Getman shows life in Stalin's gulags, where Getman himself was imprisoned for eight years. The works, though painted in the 1950s, were only discovered in 1993, and their inclusion in the All too Human exhibition marks the first time they have been shown in Europe.

Getman has been called the "Solzhenitsyn of art" for his works, which remain among the very few visual depictions of life in Soviet prison camps.

Image copyright Rémi Villaggi
Image caption Darkytown Rebellion by Kara Walker is a projection piece in an exhibition that does not confine itself to one kind of medium

A rarely shown painting by the German artist Felix Nussbaum is also included. Called The Refugee (Vision of Europe) it was painted in 1939, when the artist, who was Jewish, had already been forced to flee Nazi Germany.

After years in exile in France and Belgium, Nussbaum was eventually captured, and he died in Auschwitz in 1944, along with his entire family.

Some of the more modern works are not paintings, but video installations, such as Lida Abdul's White House, a visualisation of the destruction in her native Afghanistan, in which a woman picks through piles of bricks and rubble, painting any remaining intact walls white.

Image copyright Peter Schibli
Image caption Pablo Picasso painted several versions of Weeping Woman, modelled on the artist's lover Dora Maar

The exhibition has been attracting large numbers of visitors, but All too Human is not an easy experience. Some of the works on show are so graphic, the temptation is to look away. It is not an exhibition suitable for children, and some of the pieces depict such gross acts of violence that they cannot be shown in the media.

Mr Mayou admits it is difficult viewing. "But we are a museum dealing with difficult situations… and these are great works of art: great in the way they are done, and great in the way they testify to very important events in humanity.

"It is important to remember these events, and to remember them in another way than through documentary photography for example."

Joyful Art?

Mr Mayou's colleague, Christian Barnard, who is director of Geneva's Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Mamco, is uncomfortable with the suggestion that art is a medium which must be beautiful, and inspire only positive emotions such as joy.

"If you look at the art of the 20th Century, with Matisse or Mondrian, you might think at first the Nazis, or Soviet totalitarianism, or two world wars - you might think none of that ever happened because none of it appears in their work.

"And in a way I find that rather worrying. That is why I believe this exhibition is so positive, because it proves that throughout the last 100 years there were great artists who never looked away from the dark heart of the 20th and early 21st Centuries, and by that I mean violence."

Image copyright Luise Heuter
Image caption Thomas Schutte explores the ambivalence, falsehood and depravity of modern society by portraying men with grotesque and caricatured faces

And both Mr Mayou and Mr Barnard point out that Western, Christian art has been dominated by violence for many hundreds of years. "It's martyrs, and crucifixions," says Mr Barnard. "The idea that art should mirror an easy life, historically that's not accurate."

"Art is not 'le dimanche de la vie [a walk in the park]'," he smiles.

Certainly no one visiting All too Human will leave with that impression. The images are not easy to forget, nevertheless they are testimony to the great strength of human creativity even in the midst of appalling suffering and cruelty.

The exhibition's organisers hope visitors will find that strength uplifting. But they also hope, says Mr Barnard, that they will reflect on why the title All Too Human was chosen.

"With this exhibition we want to confront people with the worst that is within all of us: we should never forget what we are capable of."

All Too Human is on at the Red Cross Museum in Geneva until 4 January 2014.

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