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ETHICS AND AESTHETICS:
BORIS LURIE’S RAILROAD COLLAGE
AND REPRESENTING THE HOLOCAUST

MA Dissertation at the Courtauld Institute of Art, London 2005

By BEATRICE HOWELL

Introduction

In 1963 the Russian born, American-based artist Boris Lurie produced Railroad Collage, a mixed media collage juxtaposing an enlarged copy of the iconic Liberation photograph from the concentration camps of Nazi Germany with the symbol of 1950s America, the pin-up girl. It is immediately shocking. It is not just the act of seeing photos that have become cultural markers in the context of soft pornography; it is as much the juxtaposition of emaciated, brutalised bodies, piled haphazardly, alongside the voluptuous and tantalising curves of the woman’s bottom.
The image interacts pressingly with considerations of the representation of the Holocaust: should artists represent it, or is it something too terrible? Can it even be imagined, and hence represented? How to avoid issues of insensitivity, voyeurism, even sadism in its representation? Yet it also relates to a more personal coming to terms with the Holocaust. For having been confined in the Riga ghetto, Lurie spent four years in Nazi concentration camps as prisoner 95966, in Buchenwald from 1944 until the war’s end. What does this knowledge bring to the image? Does it make it more acceptable? Where does it situate the viewer? How does it relate to preconceptions of ‘survivor art’? Yet Lurie was not only a survivor, and his art should not only be seen in these terms. For together with Stanley Fisher and Sam Goodman, he was a founding member of the movement NO!art. As the name suggests, this was a highly politicised movement, polemical both in terms of contemporary society and the art world. How does Lurie’s use of Holocaust imagery relate to this?
This dissertation falls into three chapters. The first sets out issues surrounding the representation of the Holocaust: the questions of ethics and aesthetics considering in particular issues of language and the Sublime. The second begins by looking very briefly at issues of survivorship, and the questions trauma and Infory entail. It will then turn to the work of another survivor, Zoran Music, as offering a very different and ‘appropriate’ approach to representing the Holocaust. It will look particularly at Lurie’s use of documentary photography in the context of the expectations of Infory, ‘postInfory’ and remembrance. The final Chapter explores more closely the juxtaposition of images of the Holocaust and pin-up girl in relation to sex and death. It will consider issues of voyeurism and transgression, before situating the image in the context of Lurie’s NO!art movement; its relationship to the historical background of the avant-garde, as well as to the contemporary context of Abstract Expressionism and Pop art. Issues of consumerism and exploitation invoke the ‘Americanisation’ of the Holocaust, an idea that will lead to my conclusion of the interaction of the transgressive and shocking with the society it is trying to change.

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