In the summer of 1944, a camera was smuggled out of Auschwitz. Inside it was a roll of film with four images from the gas chambers at Birkenau, taken by members of the Jewish Sonderkommando. These photos were distributed worldwide by the Polish resistance. Two of them appear to have been taken in quick succession, discreetly, from within a shadowed doorframe. The other pair, one of which is blurred, appear to have been shot at the hip from a distance. The photos show Jewish women stripping before the gas chamber, and dead bodies waiting to be incinerated. White smoke billows as other bodies burn.
In 2014, the German painter Gerhard Richter sought to make a statement on the Holocaust. He copied these stark black-and-white images onto four monumental canvases, first in pencil, then in oil. And then he began to cover them. Over several weeks, he applied layer after layer of paint, first in muted silvers and greys, then reds and greens and purples and blacks, often pushing it across the surface with a squeegee to create ripples and chasms of paint. Two of the paintings are mostly gray, white, and red; the others have large areas of pulsating green. He called the group his Birkenau paintings.
This polyptych came to New York City in March 2020 for a career retrospective at the Met Breuer. Because of the pandemic, the show had to close after just one week. So I saw Richter’s paintings for the first time on a computer screen, where they lost their particularity, their colors washed out and their scale uncertain. I scrolled through them quickly.
In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” Walter Benjamin writes that a key development of mass entertainment is a loss of a context. The physical object loses its particular circumstances when it is reproduced as image, especially in a medium like film. Viewing a work of art, which used to require traveling to its location, looking, noticing, and thinking, is transformed into a totally passive form of consumption. “The public is an examiner,” Benjamin writes, “but an absent-minded one.”
The internet has made this problem worse. Today one can scroll through dozens of paintings in the time it takes the eye to return to a painting from its placard in a gallery. So, too, with images that record atrocities. Throughout the long summer of 2020, the internet was full of arguments about Richter’s paintings, with well-known critics and anonymous commentators both finding ways to make the paintings and the deaths they commemorated all about themselves. A prominent Atlantic writer took the occasion to claim that America was “nearly as bad as Nazi Germany,” while someone on Twitter insisted that Americans should learn about the atrocities committed by Americans, not those committed against “Beckies” like Anne Frank. Never mind that the people who were gassed, shot, beaten, and worked to death at camps like Auschwitz-Birkenau were 6 million individual humans, each with his or her own desires, grudges, hopes, pleasures—each unique and irreplaceable. In our digital life, even suffering can be contextualized out of existence.