On 14 Prozna Street in Warsaw, Poland, a place that is located in the heart of what once was the Jewish ghetto about 70 years ago; there is a diminutive statue of Nazi Party founder, Adolph Hitler, “kneeling in prayer.” Shocking as it may sound, the new exhibition by Italian artist, Maurizio Cattelan, is called “Amen” and has hit a deep nerve amongst the Jewish community in Poland as well as with Jewish and Catholic organizations around the world that regard the exhibit as extremely offensive. The figure of Hitler praying is called “Him”.
Born in Italy, but now living in New York, Cattelan, 52, is a sculptor who is known for work that has been described as controversial. One of his sculptures, known as “La Nona Ora” (“The Ninth Hour”) depicts the late Pope John Paul II being struck down by a meteorite.
Last month, the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, featured Cattelan’s new exhibition. The majority of his works are displayed inside the museum, which is located in a different part of Warsaw, however, the small “praying Hitler” has been situated in the middle of the legendary Jewish ghetto.
On its website, The Center for Contemporary Art describes Cattelan’s exhibition: “In a Warsaw ravaged by the cataclysmic 20th century, Maurizio Cattelan’s works take on a particular dimension; they become an artistic commentary on the Catholic credo. What, in fact, does love thy enemy mean? What does forgive those who trespass against us mean? Evoking the traumas of history, they deal with memory and forgetfulness, good and evil.”
Both Jews and Christians alike have been irate over Cattelan’s decision to place the Hitler figure in the former Jewish ghetto. Having made the decision to convene a debate on the polemical issue, Human Docs, the organizers of an international film festival being held in Poland and a group that asserts their dedication to human rights have framed the discussion as: “What’s Hitler up to in Poland? The moral impact of provocation in art.”
In a statement released by the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, they said the display represents a “tasteless misuse of art.” Efraim Zuroff, the center’s Israel director, referred to the statue as “a senseless provocation which insults the memory of the Nazis’ victims.” In the summer of 1942, about 300,000 Jews were deported from Warsaw to the Nazi death camp Treblinka.
Since Cattelan made the decision to the place the sculpture in one of the most evocative places for Jews in Poland, historians and artists have been grappling with the moral dilemma of whether the figure represents a legitimate art exhibit or an offensive provocation. While there are countless ways to interpret the meaning of a work of alleged art, many say that upon viewing this object, it elicits feelings of ambivalence. Some say that the kneeling statue appears to vulnerable and amorphous. Others say that the “hero” is the paradigm of pure evil; while others have weighed in by opining that the sight of Hitler kneeling in prayer triggers a sense of sympathy in the heart of the viewer.
Fearing the reaction it would generate, in the days following the placement of the Hitler figure on Prozna Street in Warsaw, someone covered the sculpture’s face and hands in an attempt to obscure its identity. Indicative of the powerful emotions the figure has raised is that, despite there being no public access to the exhibit, the museum’s management has mounted 24-hour security around it.
“Cattelan is a provocateur, to some extent, but he is definitely not a blasphemer. He is one of a few artists who have won fame not because of their artistic activity, but because of scandal caused by politicians,” said Maria Poprzecka, an art historian. “In the exhibition ‘Amen’ he is trying to deal with such subjects as suffering, martyrdom and death. That’s the reason his other works present a crucified woman and a wounded horse,” she added
Arousing a palpable curiosity amongst the general public, the controversial exhibit has attracted hundreds of people who arrive daily to look though the gate at the praying figure. Two women, aged 81, read about the exhibit in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza and came to see it with their own eyes. “We want to believe that the statue is intended to show Hitler repenting or apologizing for his evil actions,” they said. Another passerby wondered: “Why did the artists decide to put a praying child here? Is he praying for those who lived here? It must be a Christian, because Jews do not pray on their knees.” When she heard that the “child” was in fact Hitler, she said angrily: “Hitler did not have the right to ask for forgiveness.”
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