By the time Zoran Mušič was working on his series in the 1970s, a shift in societal norms had taken place. Mušič was an artist who had a direct experience of what life was like in a concentration camp as he was deported to Dachau from Trieste in 1944, after being suspected of being a resistance sympathiser. During the two years he was interned at Dachau, a concentration camp that was initially opened to hold political prisoners, Mušič drew around 200 drawings of what he witnessed, of which approximately 35 drawings survived, hidden in the armaments plant where he worked as a slave labourer. These drawings, depicting scenes related to the Holocaust, such as cremation ovens, endless piles of corpses and hanged men, would return as the inspiration behind the series Nous ne sommes pas les derniers (Fig. 1 – 12). Mušič completed it between 1970 and 1990, which became one of the most recognizable works of his oeuvre.
Fig. 1 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 113,5 x 146 cm, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.
Fig. 2 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 145 x 114
cm, artist’s collection.
Fig. 3 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 200 x 267 cm, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid.
Fig. 4 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 89 x 116 cm, National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design, Oslo.
Fig. 5 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 65.x x 50 cm, Musée des beaux-arts de Dijon, Dijon.
Fig. 6 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 112 x 145 cm, Patti Birch Trust Collection.
Fig. 7 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1971. Acrylic on canvas, 114 x 146
cm, Artist’s studio.
Fig. 8 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 80 x 130 cm, unknown location.
Fig. 9 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 61 x 64 cm, Patti Birch Trust Collection.
Fig. 10 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1971. Acrylic on canvas, 115.6 x
147.3 cm, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Fig. 11 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 65 x 92 cm, Galeria Marc Domènech, Barcelona.
Fig. 12 Zoran Mušič, Nous ne sommes pas les derniers, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 116 x 149 cm, unknown location.
Sociologist J.C. Alexander defines this shift in the interpretation of the Holocaust as ‘post-holocaust morality’, as the dominant narrative of the Holocaust which cast Nazi Germany as apocalyptic evil, and the USA, France and Britain as the purifying heroic carriers of good started to shift. The symbolism of radical evil was no longer exclusive to the Nazis. Instead, it encompassed those that had represented the heroic carriers of the good: The Western powers. The progressive narrative was turned into a tragic one as the focus of the metanarrative moved from the construction of a new moral order, led by the forces of good and which would lead to the destruction of the forces of evil, towards the transformation of the mass killings of the Jews into a bridge metaphor for man’s inhumanity to man. What was a highly particularized instance of war-related atrocities resulting in the killing of millions of people had now been transformed into the blueprint of the universal symbol of human suffering.
This happened against the backdrop of Adolph Eichmann’s capture in 1960, trial and hanging in 1962, a high-ranking Nazi official who played a pivotal role in the ‘Final Solution’. His trial in Jerusalem received extensive media coverage, being the first of its kind in history to be completely televised. The crimes that Eichmann was charged with were not solely those committed against Jewish people – they included the expulsion and persecution of Poles and Slovenes, as well as deportation and murder of gipsies and other minorities amongst others. The German American philosopher Hannah Arendt’s controversial theory regarding the banality of evil was in line with the new direction that the contemporary narrative regarding the Holocaust had taken. The perpetrators who had once embodied the symbol of supreme, unimaginable evil, were de-particularised as the Eichmann trial exposed what evil truly looked like: it was ‘everyman’, rather than something monstrous.
The first work discussed (Fig. 1) is currently in the collection of Centre Georges Pompidou, in Paris. It depicts four emaciated bodies stretched across the canvas, set against an abstracted background that makes them seem as if they are floating. This painting reflects the universalizing aspect of the contemporary narrative of the Holocaust through its depiction of the figures represented, as there are no markers that give away any clues with regards to who they are. There is no sense of individuality in socio-cultural terms: no signs that divulge their religion, nationality or ethnicity. This acts as an iconic reference as they could be a symbol of every person killed during the Holocaust, regardless of their socio-cultural identity. The figures are simplified to the point where some of their body parts become hardly recognizable as they verge on abstraction, such as the middle section of the painting where the skeletal bodies intertwine (Fig. 1) and it is hard to discern between the second figure from the second figure from the first and the third one. Through the anonymization of the figures, Mušič reflects the values that underscore the tragic narrative characterising the period when these works were executed: the victims of the Holocaust have become the universal symbol for the victims of systematic, organised violence enacted against those whose lives do not fit the dominant discourse’s mould for what is it to be human.
Another work from this series from 1970 (Fig. 2) that remained in the artist’s collection shows the same universalizing element but to a greater extent: here, the bodies have been deconstructed and piled on top of each other. The piles of dead bodies that are merely inferred in Fig. 1 are now accentuated as they rise a lot higher, made up of human bones scattered at the top, rather than whole bodies, in a depiction that is even more anonymized than Fig. 1 because the viewer can only get snippets of body parts. If the first work discussed (Fig. 1) is focused on the eyes, mouths and genitals which add an expressionistic dimension to the bodies and makes them seem alive, there is none of that in Fig. 2 as the distance between the viewer and the pile of bodies increases. In both of these, the contact with the spectator is sharp: there is no escape from what is revealed before the viewer’s eyes, as the focus remains on the decomposing, living-dead bodies. It is through this anonymization and portrayal of masses of corpses that Mušič expresses the idea of everyman as a perpetual victim that is at the heart of the universalized metanarrative of the Holocaust. Amishai-Maisels places Mušič’s series within the broader context of camp survivors’ responses to their experiences in the concentration camp, as a warning to humanity to repent and reform. This interpretation is accurate, as Mušič’s work fits in with this broader genre of Holocaust testimony occupying a moral function in humanity’s consciousness.
By the late 1970s and into the 1980s, a new generation of historians started to question the dominant narrative of the post-war years, and the dominant historical narrative of countries like France, Switzerland and Austria shifted. They had come out the war purified and occupying the position of victims or neutral bystanders. This revisional period showed that France had actually collaborated with the occupiers and had their governmental anti- Semitic measures put in place, Switzerland had exchanged Nazi-plundered gold for unmarked one during the war and Austria stood behind their ex-president who had an association with Hitler’s regime during the war. With this news came the realisation that defeating Nazi evil did not bring about the redemption it hoped for – this is a realisation that is reflected in Mušič’s words:
‘Things like those that we, in Dachau, thought could never happen again, are happening now. The horrible is innate in man, and not only in a society that may be regarded as aberrant, and I am conscious of the duty to proclaim that fact.’
This is an important aspect of Mušič’s series as it reflects a dimension of the contemporary sanctioned metanarrative regarding the Holocaust: the de-particularization of evil. In Mušič’s work, evil takes what we could call in Peircean semiotic terms the form of the index. Much like a scar that marks one’s body, the evil depicted in Mušič’s series is not directly represented, but rather inferred through those that it marks: the countless bodies that are depicted in his works (Fig. 1-12). They are depicted naked, but their nudity does not resemble the male nude that one might find in art history as a heroic figure (Fig. 2-4, 7-11). Instead, their nudity is that of a stripped body, whose protruding ribs (Fig. 1 and 4), open mouths (Fig. 4, 8 and 9) and elongated limbs (Fig. 2, 3 and 7) place them somewhere between life and death.
Whilst in Chagall’s painting discussed in the previous chapter evil is explicitly embodied by the figure of the Nazi soldier, Mušič’s depiction of evil is much more elusive because it is not limited to one figure. In all 13 paintings from the Nous ne sommes pas les derniers series (Fig. 1-12) discussed in this study, evil is omnipresent, omnipotent and uncontainable, reflecting its universalization within society. What was once understood as radical evil – meaning that its moral content could be understood and discussed rationally within a legal framework, had now been given a sacred-evil dimension, a sociological term for evil that goes beyond its legal implication and is closer to a mystical understanding. Whatever this evil touches is polluted as it is not containable and it transcends all borders, liable and liquid. This evil was at the centre of the tragic narrative which characterised the period when Mušič started working on his Nous ne sommes pas les derniers series.Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Art, Becoming Universal