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Terrible beauty or tangible prayer?

22 March 2019

Charles Pickstone continues our exploration of the art of the Fall, through Six Prayers by Anni Albers

Stephen Chung/Alamy Live News

Visitors view Six Prayers (1966-67) by Anni Albers during its recent exhibition at Tate Modern

Visitors view Six Prayers (1966-67) by Anni Albers during its recent exhibition at Tate Modern

Often the children went alone, or held the hands of strangers. Sometimes parents saw their children pass and did not dare call out their names. And they went, of course, not for anything they had done or said. But because their parents existed before them.

(George Steiner, “A kind of survivor”, from Language and Silence, 1979)

HERE in Lewisham, Holocaust Memorial Day is a significant event. The borough commissions a theatre company to work with primary schools on researching and improvising short dramas loosely inspired by the theme, which are performed to a large crowd in the Broadway Theatre, Catford: Lewisham’s civic theatre.

There, David (a minister and cantor at Catford and Bromley Synagogue), Shakeel (our local imam), and I (as Vicar), with other faith and civic leaders, light candles for the six million who died in the Nazi camps, and for all subsequent victims of genocide. The schoolteachers use the event to teach tolerance, citizenship, and mutual respect.

Admirable as this may seem, there is another view. Some would argue that to turn the Holocaust into a teaching aid is a potentially blasphemous assimilation of the unique horror of Auschwitz into a larger picture. The Holocaust can be seen only as a singularity: something so totally “other” that it cannot be subsumed into a general narrative about human beings. One “final solution” is enough. (See, for example, James Young, At Memory’s Edge, Yale, 2000.) To this dilemma we shall shortly return.

IN 1965, the German-American textile artist Anni Albers was commissioned by the Jewish Museum of New York to create a memorial to the six million. From the mid-1950s onwards, Albers had received several commissions for synagogue ark- coverings and screens, but this was to be her most ambitious project.

The piece, Six Prayers, consists of six woven linen panels, each about six foot high by 18 inches wide, hung side by side. The predominant colours are beige, grey, brown, and black, shot through with silver. Six Prayers formed the centrepiece and highlight of the recent Albers exhibition at Tate Modern, beautifully hung against a dark blue background, where it stood in quiet witness to the boundlessly dreadful hell endured by six million sons and daughters of Abraham.

Viewed close up, however, the panels are anything but quiet. Broken lines of black and silver thread duet across each panel in strange rhythms. Almost like writing in some unknown script, they have a hieroglyphic quality. Albers was fascinated by different scripts and character languages, visiting Mexico, Cuba, Chile, and Peru, and bringing back woven samples.

Her earlier ark-curtains used similar motifs to hint at the handwritten scrolls that they concealed, and here, too, there is a sense of God’s word — broken, yet persistent — running through the fragmentary events of history. Albers said of the work: “I used the threads themselves as a sculptor or painter uses his medium to produce a scriptural effect which would bring to mind sacred texts.”

The “scriptural effect” of the cursive black and silver threads on these subtly variegated woven pillars is highly charged. They bring the panels alive: the silver threads catch the light, sparkling, as the viewer moves to engage with them. They call out in continual movement, like the ritual prayers and reading of the scriptures that they symbolise; or perhaps like the voices of the dead, calling out to be remembered.

And yet, are these abstract panels too beautiful? A viewer who knew nothing of their purpose could easily fail to pick up the tragic events that give this work its terrible resonance. Do they aestheticise the Holocaust, “squeezing pleasure” (in James Young’s words) from it, in a way that Young suggests would be an extension of the crime?

Or, worse, do they offer a false redemption, which might seem to mitigate the unredeemable? Is their abstraction appropriate understatement of unrepresentable horror by an artist whose figurative imagination is frozen — or simply tasteful decoration?

Clever hanging and lighting uses the great wall of the gallery against which they are placed to impart a sense of numinous awe, so that these frail panels glow with dark light; but does the beauty of the artwork point to a sort of general beneficence in creation, aestheticising away the great gash of evil that runs through everything? Do their ritual forms occlude the horror, and enable the viewer passively to observe that which should never be depicted — and certainly not as an art object? An art of the Fall is surely a contradiction.


THIS is a powerful argument. Yet two points might be made. One is evident in the very title of the piece. If these hangings are indeed prayers, they are no longer simply art objects, but a call — an invitation to the viewer — to active involvement. Whether or not their call to prayer is accepted, the viewer is necessarily implicated (from the Latin for “enfolded”) in the work and its subject.

Indeed, for many viewers, their first encounter with this work — especially in the context of an exhibition concerned with the relationship between craft and artistic modernism — came as a shock: that, amid the modernist hygiene of one of the most areligious places in the world, at the heart of the passionate secularity of Tate Modern, there should be enshrined a piece of genuinely religious art. How could one pray here, in this place void of religious symbols or support?

Yet — perhaps despite the artist’s intentions (she was Jewish by birth, rather than by practice) — the voice of her work filled the space with its urgent pleading. Those who heard it responded instinctively to the ritual call to prayer echoed in the canting of the hieroglyphs and the plangent yearning of the linen cloths, and turned from being passive observers in an art gallery into active participants, drawn into the negative sublime of the Holocaust. Who knows how many found themselves reaching out to offer their own half-conscious prayer, to link the living and the dead?

SECOND, the feminist Jewish theologian Melissa Raphael (herself the daughter of an artist), in her remarkable book Judaism and the Visual Image: A Jewish theology of art, argues that, because God discloses himself in history, revelation for Jews is an inherently aesthetic category. Art, therefore, can echo God’s self-disclosure. But, more than that, Raphael suggests that good art about the Holocaust “takes the holocaustal bodies from the pit of genocidal erasure and forgetting” back “into the congregation of Israel”.

Perhaps, then, these broken threads and hieroglyphs are reweaving the social fabric of Judaism that was torn apart by the Holocaust. Here, in the context of these emblems of Jewish ritual and prayer, the stripped, naked bodies of those who died, for whom “the house of civilisation provided no shelter” (Steiner), are reclothed; woven back into the mantle of ordinary domesticity so cruelly denied them; “restored into the Sinaitic assembly whose microcosm is the Jewish family”.

If so, this sublime textile might well evoke from the viewer a participation in the redemptive possibility of art. “The bone’s prayer to Death its God” (as Eliot puts it) is not the final word; the art of the Fall becomes morally possible.

AS CHRISTIANS — children of a different culture and spirituality — our eyes are trained from our earliest days to see God’s revelation of himself in the abject sublime of the crucifixion. For us, the very material nakedness of blood and water flowing from the wounded side is perhaps the primary disclosure of God’s incarnate love.

But — although we might use different language to describe the fabric of these shimmering linen panels that somehow incarnate the Word of God, and, through their very materiality, evoke compassion and intercession, our consciousness of evil, and our hope of future redemption — we, too, can respond, not with saccharine consolation, but in humble prayer for those who came out of great tribulation.

It is to be hoped that Six Prayers, this great testament of intercession, evokes from its viewers a passionate desire for justice in our own time — a resurrection that even a children’s performance in the Broadway Theatre, Catford, may somehow validate.

Canon Charles Pickstone is Vicar of St Laurence’s, Catford, in the diocese of Southwark.

Our Lent series is based on a series of talks being given at St John the Baptist, Catford.


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