In 2019, Days of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holocaust will be observed from Sunday, April 28 through Sunday, May 5. This annual 8-day period is designated by the US Congress for commemorations and educational programs to remember and draw lessons from the Holocaust.
Teachers who include the topic of the Holocaust in their curriculum have a large and growing collection of literature at their disposal. There are well-known titles dealing with Holocaust themes appropriate for various grade levels, keeping in mind that literature for younger students deals with themes such as, Who is my neighbor?, not extermination camps.
Introducing visual resources into the classroom is more problematic. Historic photographs can be inappropriate for most groups of students. Teachers must be particularly careful when presenting disturbing images to students, who are essentially a captive audience.
In this post, I would like to present a suggestion for using visual material that may be appropriate for most secondary students. I will be referencing materials from A Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust. This is a resource we created at FCIT in the mid-1990s in response to a state mandate for Holocaust education in Florida.
Twenty-three years ago, the Teacher’s Guide website was considered an award-winning model of what educational websites could accomplish, but 23 in Internet years makes it about 483 years old in people years. Regrettably, some parts of the site are no longer usable due to changing web standards, but there are still many sections that provide resources a teacher can use in Holocaust education, including the section of several thousand photographs. A few hundred are historic photos, but most are photos I took of various Holocaust sites and memorials around Europe.
The Teacher’s Guide includes well over a thousand photos of various memorials. If you scroll down to the end of this post, you will see all of the memorials listed.
So, what can a teacher do with this collection of memorial photographs?
Obviously, one approach would be to use them as a springboard for an art project in which the students were asked to design their own memorial—either one directly related to remembering Holocaust victims or one centered on one of the “lessons of the Holocaust.”
A different approach would be for the students to select one of the many memorials documented in the photo collection and to write a critical essay about the piece. Thirty years ago, I was a middle school art teacher. Each quarter, I had my sixth and seventh-grade students write an essay about a given artwork. Now, some of you may be shaking your heads in disbelief, but when I broke the task down and spread out the writing over nine weeks in spare moments around studio work, the results were impressive. Students ended up with a three- to five-page, printed art criticism essay that they were generally quite proud of. Since they used the very basic computers we had available at the time, they often had little sense of how much they had written until the end of the quarter when we printed their work out. I can still remember how excited many were when they saw how much they had written. For many, it was the most they had ever written on a single topic.
So how did I make that writing magic happen?
Steps in Art Criticism
A generally-acepted approach to art criticism is to break the task up into four steps:
1. Description. In the description phase, have the students describe what they see on the surface. What do they see? At this point, they are basically listing off the details. Are there people? How many? How are they dressed? Are they carrying anything? Are there other objects? What is the size of the work? What does it appear to be made of?
Often I would suggest to students that they should pretend they are describing what the artwork looks like to someone over the telephone. Their job is to communicate exactly how the artwork appears. At first, students will write just one or two sentences and then claim there’s nothing else to see. It may take some prompting before they realize that they have missed many, many details. Once the logjam breaks, they can find lots of details they hadn’t noticed at first. The role of the teacher then becomes to make sure the students don’t jump ahead and begin interpreting what they are describing. A simple, “Ah, that’s a great insight, but save it for the interpretation section” may be required.
2. Analysis. In the analysis section, students describe what I used to call “the invisible stuff.” They are no longer looking at the items, but rather how the items are arranged or organized. If the student noticed that there were four people when writing the description section, now the question is about the arrangement of those people. Are they close together or separated? Do they form flowing, curved lines, or do they form jagged, angular lines? Is there anything interesting happening with scale between the figures and other elements of the memorial? How about repetition? Contrast? Rhythm? Color schemes? What has the artist emphasized? Is there a dominant element? Are there subordinate elements? Is the composition balanced or is it intentionally unbalanced? Is there a sense of movement in the work? How has the artist used negative space? Has the artist used variety? Is the composition unified or is it splitting apart? If students have been previously exposed to the principles of design in their art classes, this section will be much easier than it sounds.
3. Interpretation. At last! Students will enjoy getting to this section where they finally get to express what they think the artist was trying to say. Most of the students will have already stumbled upon their interpretation as they were working on the first two steps. At this point, the teacher may choose to fund the discussion by introducing additional information about the particular setting or the Holocaust in general. The teacher may also choose to allow the students to consult other resources to assist with a context for their interpretation. For instance, it might be very helpful to students to have reference to the marking system for identifying prisoners.
4. Judgment. First and foremost, always emphasize that judgment is not about deciding whether the memorial (or any artwork) is “good” or “bad.” Judgment is about whether the artwork is successful. The students have already decided what they believe the artist’s intention was when they wrote the interpretation section. Now they need to decide whether the work succeeds or not. At this point, it’s necessary to bring in some basic aesthetic theories. There are many aesthetic theories, but they generally shake out into three groups: imitationalism, formalism, and expressionism. Students should make their judgments from the aesthetic theory or theories most appropriate to the specific work they are reviewing.
Imitationalism says a work is successful if it does a good job imitating exactly what the subject matter would look like. One could say that a highly accurate sculpture of a particular rescuer was successful because it looked very much like the person represented. Sometimes, students assume that imitationalism is the only theory by which to judge art. Looking at Holocaust memorial art would be a good experience to broaden their horizons, since very little of it is strictly imitational.
Formalism says that an artwork is successful based on the arrangement of the elements according to the principles of design. If using this theory, students will look back at what they discovered in the analysis section of their criticism.
Expressionism says an artwork is successful if it arouses an emotional response in the viewer. The emotion doesn’t have to be a happy one. Many memorials will engender a response of sorrow, anger, pity, empathy, or sadness.
Click any of the thumbnails below to view photo galleries of Holocaust memorials available in the Teacher’s Guide to the Holocaust.