A black bench in a small enclave greets me at the entrance of the exhibition of Holocaust graphic art at the Holocaust Memorial, Paris. This bench is surrounded by an enlarged panel image depicting three-tiered wooden bunk-beds in Auschwitz, an extract from Michel Kichka’s graphic novel Second Generation: What I Did Not Tell My Father.
Kichka records his visit to the concentration camp with his survivor father and, like the artist, when I sit on this bench, I’m immersed immediately into Holocaust memories that are not my own.
Entering the Holocaust Memorial, I have a not-dissimilar experience. Engraved on walls are the names of 76,000 French Jews murdered by the Nazis and Vichy government. I catch sight of a Sarah Litmann, born in 1907. It’s a reminder of the very small acts of providence, and a sea that separated my family and I from a similar fate.
And yet, where, outside the gallery space, women victims are remembered equally alongside men, the same is not true inside the exhibition. It is apt that Kichka’s introductory panel included only a father and son.
Kichka’s immersive drawing is an imaginative introduction to a well-organised and fascinating exhibition that also suffers from disappointing curation. The walls are densely packed with beautifully drawn and painted original comics, including the sharp and bright colours of the cover of Edmond-François Calvo’s 1944 satirical La Bête est Morte produced during the war, in which cruelty and torture is portrayed in the form of cartoon animals.
Stephen Desberg and Will Maltaite’s The 27th Letter (1990), is a story of a child in 1930s Germany who grew up in a brothel. I’m struck by the skilful rendition of a snowstorm painted in dashes and marks, and the exquisite details of a yellow dress. I appreciate the craftsmanship of the artists, but I’m hampered by my GCSE French.Last year, when my touring show Graphic Details: Confessional Comics by Jewish Women opened in the NegevMuseum of Art, I learnt the effort, expense and rewards of translating comics pages for a new audience. It’s a shame this hasn’t been done in Paris.
Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer-winning Maus (1986), a son’s recording of his father’s Holocaust experiences — again, where animals replace humans — was rightly well-represented in the exhibition, as it is a touchstone in comics history. However, feminist historian Federica K Clementi noted that Maus nurses a “black hole” formed from women’s graphic and textual marginality. Spiegelman’s mother Anya commits suicide and doubly loses her voice within the Maus narrative when her husband burns her Holocaust diaries. Lamentably, the curators of this exhibition perpetuate this black hole in Holocaust comics, over-emphasising the contributions of Will Eisner’s The Plot and A Life Force and Joe Kubert’s Yossel: April 19 1943, while ignoring female creators. Hirst Rosenthal’s 12-page watercolour booklet, Mickey Mouse at Camp Gurs (1942), opens the exhibition, but where was Charlotte Salomon’s Life? or Theatre? (1941-43) a text/image/opera bildungsroman?
Both Rosenthal and Salomon were interned in Gurs and produced artworks that survived the war, whilst the artists themselves died at Auschwitz.
Johanna Schipper is one of the very few woman artists in the exhibition. Her comic, Le printemps refleurira (2010), focuses on a character, Principius, inspired by the artist’s father’s mixed parentage. His father was an Orthodox Sephardi Jew and a painter, and his mother, Johanna Egelberta Kuiper, a Dutch Protestant theologist, a member of the resistance, and Righteous Gentile. Schipper’s comics pages use gouache in a style inspired by Degenerate Art and the work of German surrealist Edgar Ende to depict a society of “spirituality and spiritism, going back to nature, searching for the new man and purity — all preparation for the rise of the Nazi ideology.”
The world of French comics has long been dogged by sexism, most recently the debacle of the 2016 all-male line-up for the Grand Prix at Angoulême, arguably Europe’s most prestigious comics award. But I still left the exhibition in Paris surprised that such an imbalanced exhibition could co-exist in a museum with a condolence book celebrating the life of Holocaust survivor and public servant Simone Veil.
I wondered what Veil, president of both the European Parliament and the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah, would have made of the systematic overlooking of women’s experiences and creative response to the Holocaust, in a museum she actively supported during her lifetime.
Shoah et Bande Dessinée is at the Memorial de la Shoah, Paris until October 30
Sarah Lightman is an artist, curator and author