A Monstrous Nudity: Reflections of Nazism, Concentration Camp Imagery and Obscene Figures in Contemporary Art

by Nathan Réra

translated by Jessica Moore

Originally published in French in HISTOIRE DE L’ART N°76 2015/1 as "Une monstrueuse nudité: Reflets du nazisme, imagerie des « camps » et figures de l’obscène dans l’art contemporain."

“Humanity lifted its dress and showed itself to me in all its monstrous nudity as if I were a skillful pupil worthy of her.”
Alfred de Musset, Lorenzaccio, Act III, scene 3 (1834), translated by Eric Bentley.

Art after 1945 became the mirror of extremes: it reflected the world’s upheavals and the emergence of new forms of violence, while simultaneously celebrating the breakdown of taboos related to sex and death. The link between art and transgression is not a modern phenomenon, far from it; and yet, as Gil Bartholeyns, Pierre-Olivier Dittmar and Vincent Jolivet state in the conclusion of their essential analysis of medieval images, “the field of transgression in art seems to have only grown larger over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries.” During the pivotal period of the 1960s and 1970s, transgressive forms of a new genre appeared: in part, in the obscene figures that began to be represented, moving towards an “extreme of contemporary art”; but also in the figuration of pure evil – Nazism and its corollaries – which artists attempted to respond to formally, replaying contemporary disasters on paper, on film or even on their own bodies.

Sometimes it happens that these two types of antagonistic images appear together, to the point of subjecting the viewer to a veritable ordeal of looking – a trial comparable to that which Alex undergoes in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). In the film, Alex’s eyelids are held open by a device worthy of the Inquisition and he is forced to watch a succession of pornographic images, images of Nazi propaganda and probably, as Michel Chion suggests, “images from the death camps.” Beneath the double effect of a serum injected into his veins and eye drops that dilate his pupils, the erotic pleasure that Alex feels is progressively replaced by an unshakeable nausea. This analogy between the genitals and the eyeball, presented in a negative sense, recalls Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, or Susan Sontag’s later theories on the photographic image: “All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic. But images of the repulsive can also allure.”

The simultaneous invocation of Nazism, mass death and pornographic imagery multiplies this malaise tenfold. In the era of porn studies, we are less interested in the question of genre than in the process of superposition, which some artists use – placing an “erotico-pornographic” fantasy over images of Nazism. What is the intended effect of the combined display of images of death and sex, in the context of genocide? Is the “transgression” or “subversion” argument, often put forward by critics or by the artists themselves to legitimize such work, simply a pretext? What discourse about history and memory shapes these representations? And, since not everything is equal, how do we distinguish between an image that is inappropriate or ethically questionable and one that causes us to reflect? These “new images” have also appeared in a context where the use of the term “pornography” has largely exceeded its original definition. From an ethical perspective, pornography today is “associated with obscenity [...] and belongs to a certain category: the unrepresentable. [...] Pornography becomes the synonym for that which is morally forbidden and its representation – a transgression.” Examining this shift in meaning requires us to take a detour through cinema, where a new ethic of images was shaped, before taking an interdisciplinary look at contemporary creation in its most varied and litigious forms.

History Stripped Down

We had barely emerged from the “negative epiphany” of the concentration camps and the nuclear carnage of Hiroshima and Nagasaki when artists began creating radical forms upon the ruins of chaos. In “Ordre sauvage” [Savage Order], Laurence Bertrand Dorléac shows us how the consciousness of pure evil brings about a new, staggering, self-destructive relationship to the body. Gutai, Fluxus and Viennese Actionism: all the leading figures of these avant-garde movements incarnate disaster in their very flesh, as though chemical and technological horror “had to be replayed, in as raw a manner as possible, in order to finally be thinkable.” Bodily excretions – blood, feces, saliva, sweat, sperm – shatter and replace traditional mediums. With each happening, the leaders of Viennese Actionism (Günther Brus, Hermann Nitsch, Rudolf Schwartzkogler and Otto Muehl) push the threshold of the tolerable further back. Muehl in particular seems to attempt to exorcise his own past as a soldier in the Wehrmacht, on the pretext of defending against amnesia in his Austrian compatriots. The artist evokes his memories of the front – a pile of soldiers’ bodies covered in snow; bodies buried in mud, crushed by the caterpillar tracks of tanks – and says that these moments constituted his “first real material actions.” His cathartic performances, intimately anchored in the experience of destruction, are also a defiance of morals: animal blood mixes with the urine and excrement of the participants, who read pornographic texts or act out sadomasochistic practices when they are not engaging in non-simulated sexual acts. A denunciation of Nazism? For Jean Clair, transgression is not what Viennese Actionism – and Muehl in particular – is preoccupied with, but rather “the pleasure of evil, this perpetual remembering of a primitive scene in the light of a capital sin [...] This is beyond values of good and evil. Or rather, everything happens as though evil didn’t exist.”

The clash between the different forms of violence in the Actionists’ rituals reaches another sort of climax in Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom ((Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma, 1975) by Pier Paolo Pasolini. The Sadean world is transposed to Northern Italy – under German occupation and governed by the Republic of Salò (1943-1945). The film shows the abuse endured by young men and women, imprisoned in a castle near Lake Garda by four notable fascists. The huis-clos is perfect for the expression of totalitarian ideology, illustrated by the pleasure the torturers take from these bodies that are penetrated, violently sodomized and animalized – to the point of being forced, in a sequence at the borderline of the “unrepresentable,” to ingest their own excrement. With this, Salò – which Hervé Joubert-Laurencin sees as, more than being simply a film, “an object of contemporary art, exceeding the limits of cinema” – joins a long history of scatology in art, which Jean Clair traces back at least as far as Dada and the surrealists. In the art of today, excremental is often synonymous with profane: we might think of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary (1996), painted in elephant dung; of the real pigs which Wim Delvoye – who became widely known for his turd machine, Cloaca (2000) – tattooed with pious images over and over again; or of Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ (1987) – a photograph of a crucifix immersed in the urine and blood of the artist. In Salò, in contrast, the allusion to defecation is not (only) aimed at religious transgression: the repulsive taste of shit mixes with the rank stench of fascism, a combination that the Viennese Actionists were exploring in the same period. Salò depicts a cesspool in which all orifices, under to the reign of the anal, give off the stink of an unnatural society and its monstrous eroticism. In this world that is not so distant from the one painted by Jérôme Bosch, the torturers treat their victims like little piles of shit – “Dreck” – as the Nazis said, to describe the bodies of Jewish people pulled from the gas chambers.

The Other “Pornography”: The Invention of an Ethics of the Image

Although Salò did unleash the censor’s wrath, the film scene at the time was being shaken by other polemics. In addition to the debates caused by the emergence of the porn industry, there was a comeback of erotic Nazi imagery in the cinéma d’auteur [Auteur Theory in film]. In a landmark essay, Saul Friedländer showed how a “fascination with Nazism” calcified in the early 1970s, which he identifies as: “an aesthetic tremor, conjured by the opposition between the harmony of kitsch and the constant evocation of themes of death and destruction; a desire, stemming from both the eroticization of power and domination and from the simultaneous representation of Nazism as the site of all release (of evil thoughts), the site of all transgressions.” The historian presents a panorama, which has also been called “a vast pornographic output centered on Nazism,” stretching from Luchino Visconti’s Damnés (La Caduta degli dei, 1969) to Rainer W. Fassbinder’s Lili Marleen (1981), by way of Louis Malle’s Lacombe Lucien (1974) or Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (Il Portiere di notte, 1974). This last film, which tells the story of an impossible attraction tinged with sadomasochism between a Nazi torturer (Dirk Bogarde) and his former Jewish victim (Charlotte Rampling), was labeled “artistic pornography” by critic Serge Daney.

While Daney sees pornographic intentions in The Night Porter, this is less because of the film’s sexual aspects – which are consensual enough, light years from the extremism of Salò (which he defended, in fact) – and more for its questionable aesthetic – or “kitsch,” as Friedländer would likely write. Here, the critic follows in the footsteps of Jacques Rivette who spoke out thirty years earlier in the Cahiers du cinéma against Gillo Pontecorvo’s film Kapo (1960), which he accused of having tried to recreate the experience of the concentration camps: “for so many reasons, all quite easy to understand, total realism -- or what serves as realism in cinema -- is impossible here; every effort in this direction is necessarily unachieved (“that is, immoral”), every attempt at reenactment or pathetic and grotesque make-up, every traditional approach to "spectacle" partakes in voyeurism and pornography.” Although Kapo didn’t have anything erotic about it, properly speaking, it was the aesthetic that, in the critic’s opinion, flirted with “obscenity”: in choosing to use a tracking shot to film Terese’s (Emmanuelle Riva) suicide, electrocuted after throwing herself against the camp’s barbed wire fence, the director was stepping over into “abjection” and, in fact, the tracking shot would be considered “a question of morality” from then on.

During the same period, Jean-Luc Godard, to whom we owe this compelling phrase, had expressed his own unease about Alain Resnais’ use of images of extreme horror in Night and Fog (1956) and Hiroshima mon amour (1959): “The trouble [...] with showing horror scenes is that they automatically go beyond what you mean to say – the audience is shocked by the images, somewhat in the same way as by pornographic images.” Although he was fundamentally quite close to a Claude Lanzmannian ethical position, Godard ended up taking the opposite side: rather than doing without archival images – which Lanzmann does in Shoah (1985) – he would employ them continuously within a centrifugal montage. In his Histoire(s) du cinéma [Hi/stories of Film] (1988-1998), Godard returned several times to a collision between images from Nazi camps and pornographic images. For example, a cross-fade links a photograph of deportees taken in May 1945 at Ebensee, a subcamp of Mauthausen, to a close-up from an early twentieth century porn film. Elsewhere, the director shows an image of the terrifyingly emaciated body of a dead concentration camp prisoner, likely being dragged towards a mass grave, immediately after an excerpt from a porn film featuring partners engaged in a threesome.

It might be tempting to see this heterodox montage as simply provocative and tasteless, and it wouldn’t be the first time Godard did something controversial. But this troubling juxtaposition of images of the camps and pornographic images is not aimed at assimilation, as Georges Didi-Huberman asserts: “If death is placed in a montage with sex, it is not to debase death, quite the contrary; nor is it to necrotize sex. It so happens that in the camps the same German word sonder (special) designated both death (as in Sonderbehandlung, which referred to the “special treatment” of gassing) and sex (as in Sonderbau, which referred to the brothel). A montage can attempt to take this into account.” But beyond this lexical subtlety, it’s important to examine the context in which these images were first received. Ophir Levy revealed that the bodies filmed by the Allies during the opening of the western camps, shown in cinema newsreels in the spring of 1945, were “the very first images of bodies that were entirely naked,” shown publicly and on a large scale on movie screens. If, as Levy points out, “the cinematographic epiphany of nudity happens as the polar opposite of eroticism,” it’s clearly in a Bataillean optic that Godard links the specter of the camps to pornographic imagery, bringing together his definition of obscenity and the horror of the rotting corpse.

Fascination or Transgression?

Godard’s “transgressive montage” was foreshadowed, forty years earlier, by Boris Lurie’s (equally transgressive) collages. Born in Leningrad (Saint Petersburg) in 1924 to an upper class Jewish family, Lurie, who showed a precocious artistic talent, was captured by the Nazis during the 1941 invasion of Russia and deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp. He survived four years there, along with his father, but his sister, mother and grandmother were all killed by the Nazis. At the end of the war, the young man immigrated to the United States. After producing nearly a hundred drawings and a few paintings inspired by his memories of the Riga ghetto (which he calls “private paintings”), he founded the No!art movement in 1960, along with Sam Goodman and Stanley Fisher. This avant-garde group appeared in reaction to abstract expressionism, neo-Dada and Pop Art. Its precepts were summed up by Lurie during the “Involvement Show” at the March Gallery (New York) in 1961: “In a time of wars and extermination, aesthetic exercises and decorative patterns are not enough.” Faced with the political disengagement of some popular artists of the time, Lurie underlined the necessity of resituating the creative act in the heart of the real – independent of consumer logic, art became a powerful protest tool. Brian O’Doherty reminds us how Lurie, Fisher and Goodman’s position foretold the radicalism of the avant-garde movements to come, even so far as the actions that would flaunt the rules of good taste – such as the exhibition “No Sculptures/Shit Show” (1964), including sculptures that resembled piles of excrement.

In America, Lurie’s work remained mostly little known, despite the support of certain key figures – such as Gertrude Stein (same name as the famous American author, who was also an art collector), who showed his pieces in a New York gallery. In the late 1950s and the early 1960s, Lurie echoed and radicalized the politico-aesthetic approach of the German Dadaists (Grosz, Hausmann and Heartfield) who used collage and photomontage for their resolutely caustic aims: he began to incorporate images of Nazi atrocities into his works. The choice is deliberately transgressive: the artist creates tension by combining this searing imagery with pictures from popular culture, which are often erotic or pornographic. In a collage entitled Saturation Painting (Buchenwald) (1959-1964), a newspaper cutting with a photograph by Margaret Bourke-White is surrounded by little vignettes showing a half-naked playmate in raunchy poses. Another piece from the same period, Railroad Collage (Railroad to America) (1959-1963), links the “memory of the camps” with erotic imagery (fig. 3). A shot of a pin-up girl from behind, suggestively lowering her panties, partially covers a larger image of dozens of bodies from the concentration camps piled on the back of a truck.

Lurie’s works are mentioned in the exhibition catalogue for Mirroring Evil – Nazi Imagery, Recent Art, shown at the Jewish Museum in New York in 2002. This exhibition gathered together controversial artists who were known for their ambiguous relationship to the “memory of the camps.” Mirroring Evil included the inevitable series LEGO Concentration Camp Set (1996) by Polish artist Zbigniew Libera; Alan Schechner’s photographic manipulations – including a snapshot by Margaret Bourke-White into which the artist has inserted himself, among a group of concentration camp prisoners, wearing striped pyjamas and brandishing a can of Coca-Cola (It’s the Real Thing. Self-Portrait at Buchenwald, 1993); the Zyklon B. boxes stamped with the Tiffany & Co., Hermès and Chanel logos by Tom Sachs (Giftgas Giftset, 1998); and three collages by Elke Krystufek (Economical Love, 1998). This last series was made by the Austrian artist in response to an installation by Piotr Uklanski, The Nazis (1998), which was also shown in Mirroring Evil – a frieze of portraits of famous actors who had portrayed Nazis in the movies. On each collage, Krystufek glues images from Uklanski’s installation to drawn or photographed self-portraits, in which she is naked, genitals exposed, scrutinizing the viewer through a camera lens. This is one way of turning voyeuristic urges back towards the self – like one of the criminals in Salò, who, at the end of the film, turns around the binoculars that he’d used to enjoy torture scenes – while also denouncing the chauvinistic eroticization that Uklanski’s work emblemizes. Transgression, or just bad taste? The ambiguousness of the work is coated with a layer of pseudo-moralistic varnish, though it’s actually just the next step in the exhibitionist one-upmanship typical of this artist.

Lurie’s swift response – completed just fifteen years after the opening of the Nazi camps, without any commercial or media agenda – is a long way from the deftly orchestrated scandal of the Mirroring Evil exhibition, which caused significant waves in the American press. As John Wronoski points out, Lurie’s most radical collages (such as Railroad to America) have not been shown in official exhibitions, but have instead remained in the margins of the art market. He speculates on the scandal these sorts of images would have caused at the time, and which would most certainly have ruined the artist’s career. Let us note that during the same period, in 1966, Gerhard Richter and Konrad Lueg talked about organizing an exhibit at the Niepel Gallery in Düsseldorf with the provocative title: “Sex and Extermination.” The two painters eventually renounced their plan, “believing that the attempt to juxtapose pornographic images and images from the concentration camps was sure to be a failure.” Thus, although Richter seemed to be aware of the impossibility of this artistic transgression – he later destroyed a portrait of Hitler from 1962, judged to be “too dramatic” – Lurie rejected traditional aesthetics as a whole to assert a radical and aggressive form of art, which he emphasizes as Jewish, and directs against American imperialism, capitalism, anti-Semitism and sexism. The subtext of Lurie’s collages is also a principle inherent to pornography: it “turns the body into a consumer object.” He couldn’t imagine that, decades later, Nazi imagery would also sell, and would lead to another form of “obscenity.”

Today, echoes of Nazism continue to ripple through the artistic scene, but they belong confusedly to an internationalization of the “duty to remember.” When Polish videographer Artur Zmijewski films a group of naked men and women playing tag on the former site of a gas chamber (Berek, 1999), or when he persuades an Auschwitz survivor to redo the partially erased tattoo on his forearm (80064, 2004), it clearly falls under the guise of provoking a reflection on “memory” and “forgetting”; similarly, when Maurizio Cattelan creates a sculpture of Hitler that resembles a schoolboy kneeling with hands clasped as though in prayer (Him, 2001), this is also to question “the negative part of ourselves, the possibility of evil” at the same time as “the other part, that can be in opposition to evil.” But confronting one’s “dark side” has a price tag: collector François Pinault spent the modest sum of 10 million Euros to acquire this highly prized piece. Signs of evil have finally become diluted into the commercial ideology of contemporary art: they are no more than a reminiscence – ahistorical and disembodied – of a traumatic past. Necessary transgression thus makes way for a fascination with Nazi iconography, which is recovered, recycled and sanctified within the pantheon of artistic creation.

Experiencing the Limits

Within contemporary artistic production, divided between renunciation of seeing and hypervisibility, Jérôme Zonder’s body of work – made up entirely of drawings – presents a gripping alternative. The artist has been constructing a vertiginous mental architecture for several years now, which he transcribes onto paper in every shade of gray – in pencil, charcoal or graphite. Zonder’s world is a labyrinth in which images of our culture (which are also the images of our barbarism, as Walter Benjamin would say) are spread out, as in a large fresco: Mickey brushes shoulders with the ghosts from Marcel Carné’s Children of Paradise (1945), reincarnated as “Children of Salò”; a swastika appears on the arm of a pubescent boy torn between his video game and his Kalashnikov; and, of course, gore and hardcore images invade historical ones (of Nazi camps, the atomic bomb and the Tutsi genocide). Zonder’s work could be read as a drawn transposition of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas, an unfinished project of iconographic collecting that consisted in revealing a phenomenon of the survival of forms, from Antiquity to the Renaissance. Georges Didi-Huberman wrote that we would be justified in considering it as a tool to collect or “sample, through interspersed images, the great chaos of history.” Zonder renders all the facets of this great chaos, from the most noble to the most vile, with a graphic virtuosity that rivals Jean-Olivier Hucleux. His drawings often spill off the page, overflowing, pouring onto the walls and the ceilings of exhibition spaces.

Zonder exercises this formal mastery without ever being limited by what is considered taboo. At La Maison Rouge, for his first monographic exhibition (Fatum, 2015), the artist laid out a troubling pathway through the maze of the museum, beginning with a series of drawings of children’s games (fig. 4), replete with references to popular culture (mangas, horror films, products from our consumer society, neo-Nazi symbols), and leading to tactile reinterpretations of the images of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Sonderkommando (the series Chairs grises, 2013-2014), drawn by finger with graphite powder. These images, which carry very clear connotations, gave rise to a violent intellectual argument that I will refrain from delving into here. I will simply point out that Zonder was conscious of this polemic and that it was a big part of his desire to confront these images, which he’d been aware of for more than a decade. This transgressive desire, which the artist imagines as a response to the Lanzmannian “unrepresentable,” does not stem from a desire to subvert simply in order to subvert. Zonder’s work questions “the undiscoverable limit of drawing.” He had been searching for several years for a way to appropriate these images, through trial and error, making several sketches, all of which, according to him, were failures: “each time, the image I produced was ‘pornographic,’” he says. In the end, it was through the body, by physically going to Buchenwald, that he was able to approach the space of the page. No more intermediary between him and the paper: he drew with his finger, completely immersed in archival images, recreating a staggering tête-à-tête with horror (fig. 5).

Zonder takes a risk where Richter, once again, preferred avoidance. The German artist planned for a time to do a painting from one of the images of the Sonderkommando which he had pinned to his wall, but later renounced the idea, saying it was a problem of format: “The image has such a strong impact because it’s a small, framed photograph. I couldn’t add anything to it. If I made a painting that was too big, it would probably be to its detriment.” Zonder responds to the impossibility of painting with the possibility of drawing: “When I finally decided to confront this, it was for reasons that are inherent to drawing itself, that flow from a biological fact: the human body is a group of atoms. The Holocaust and Hiroshima symbolize the total destruction of humanity: this brings us to bodies reduced to nothing, decomposed atom by atom. The potentiality of drawing to embody this physical reality seemed to me to be far more pertinent and appropriate than painting. Drawing had to coincide with history.”

The pathway through the Fatum exhibit, which links these historical images to gore and pornographic imagery, is set up like a transgressive montage: Zonder overturns the normative hierarchy of images to disturb our relationship to the world, and to generate contaminations from one image to another. As Philippe Dagen expressed in Le Monde, some viewers will feel discomfort about the promiscuous effect of placing icons of horror in such close proximity to images considered “obscene.” Still, it’s important to point out that unlike the artists whose work was shown at Mirroring Evil, Zonder is not trying to equalize these images. In the spirit of a Grosz or a Goya, the illustrator conceives of his art as a “warning device.” In his anachronistic montages, in which images of cruelty echo each other through the centuries, it is possible to read concern for a world eaten from the inside by signs of evil, condemned to its own purulence. It is not, then, as Baptiste Brun rightly said, a matter of “provocation, and even less of unconscious naiveté. It is a matter of resistance.” For this reason, the lesson that Zonder takes from history is necessarily actualized in our media-heavy present. In several of his drawings, children busy with morbid games replay images seen on TV, in particular during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In response we see portraits where other children clap their hands to their faces, as though to protect themselves against televisual horror, this “pornography of war” at the heart of media images.

War Porn (2015): this, precisely, is the title of German photographer Christoph Bangert’s last work. An explicit, intimidating title, reeking of sulphur. What “pornography” is he talking about here? Certainly not the pornography of sex. The book is a compilation of unbearable images taken in conflict or disaster zones (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine and Indonesia). Unpublishable images, according to the reporter (fig. 6). War Porn is an intriguing object in appearance, with a deliberately unfinished, austere binding and no cover: the title, whose typeface recalls an old typewriter, is printed on bare cardboard (fig. 7). The small format merges the model of great contemporary books of photojournalism – The Silence (1994) and The Graves (1998) by Gilles Peress, or Winterreise (2000) by Luc Delahaye – with the more conceptual aspect of artists’ books. The photographer’s unusual choice of publishing a work with pages that are partially uncut is reminiscent of Christian Boltanski’s Scratch (2002), a book composed of scratch-it pages – the fine silver coating must be scratched off in order to reveal images of corpses. In both cases, the reader finds himself face to face with his or her own voyeurism. The responsibility of seeing belongs to each person, the responsibility of scratching the images, of cutting the interstices, or, on the contrary, of abstaining. “For me, anyone who scratches is guilty,” Boltanski tells us. Bangert’s process is more subtle. Beyond any moral judgment, the photographer engages in an open reflection on the mechanism of self-censure that, in this age of extreme media righteousness and reactionism, persuades us to close our eyes before human abomination: “Our brains try to protect us by preventing us from seeing. We’re scared to risk being scared. We’re worried that the act of seeing might be morally condemnable, abusive or even voyeuristic.”

Here, Bangert is in alignment with Paolini, Lurie, Godard and Zonder: we must show horror, look it in the face, brave the terrifying eye of the Gorgon, like Perseus with his shield of polished bronze. And yet, this perilous experience of seeing, from which no one escapes unscathed, leads us necessarily back to the root of evil. In a chilling epilogue, Bangert reveals – with family photographs to support the disclosure – that his grandfather, Adolf Bangert, was a Nazi officer who worked as a doctor in the Wehrmacht (fig. 8). “My first memories of war are my grandfather’s war stories. They were glamorous, and made him and his comrades out to be heroes. It sounded like a fun, epic adventure. He only talked about his horse. [...] My grandfather was a Nazi. A fervent supporter until the day he died.” All the complexity of War Porn lies in this jump cut between images of contemporary brutality and images of a criminal past. The conclusion Bangert comes to, a radical one, is in alignment with Zonder’s graphic statement: while the entertainment world, saturated with ultra-violence, simulates a reality that is larger than life, the media finds excuses to not show images of actual horror. Gilles Mayné expresses the paradox of the media system, which “limits itself to presenting the same type of ‘volatile’ and deleterious images over and over in which everything that is truly disturbing is, if not suppressed, emptied of its content, or at least reduced to so little that the ‘televisual’ shelling cuts viewers off more and more from a tangible reality, all the while setting up – and this is more serious – the conditions for an aetheticization of obscenity.” Lifting humanity’s dress to show us its “monstrous nudity”: this is, from now on, the photographer’s credo. To see, in order to refuse being blinded. To see, in order to thwart the “pornography” of images.

And yet War Porn only resolves part of the problem – the questions it raises don’t evoke a categorical response. To see or not to see horror? Everything depends, definitively, on the nature and the use of the images, as well as the intentions of their authors – the extreme representations that we have explored has amply demonstrated this. A photograph by a reporter in Syria, taken to give visibility to an obscured event, is radically different from a decapitation scene filmed by Salafist jihadists in the same place and broadcast on the Internet to provoke fear in the Western world. So it is also the conditions under which the images are shown – I cannot stress more the decisive importance of this – that will determine the choice (or the refusal) to look horror in the face, whether it’s associated with “obscene” imagery or not. To banish static thinking, to experience the ethics of seeing – while maintaining a (precarious) equilibrium between vision and blindness: this is the grueling exercise that viewers – and, even more so, the historian of images – are asked to carry out, such that they do not succumb to either the seductive and corruptive grasp of images of horror, nor to the curse of the “unrepresentable.”


The author wishes to thank Christoph Bangert, Eva Hober, Chris Shultz (Boris Lurie Art Foundation) and Jérôme Zonder for allowing the reproduction of the images featured in this article, as well as Pierre Wat and Ophir Levy for their insightful remarks. 

NATHAN Réra is a lecturer in contemporary art history at The University of Poitiers, and a Research Affiliate at CRIHAM. His writings examine the artistic and documentary forms that address the memory of genocides, as well as the study of relationships between art disciplines. In 2014, he published a reviewed and expanded version of his doctoral thesis:  Rwanda, entre crise morale et malaise esthétique. Les médias, la photographie et le cinéma à l’épreuve du génocide des Tutsi (1994-2014) [Rwanda: Between Moral Crisis and Aesthetic Malaise. The Tutsi Genocide in the Media, Photography and Film (1994-2014)].

1 G. Bartholeyns, P.-O. Dittmar, V. Jolivet, Image et transgression au Moyen Âge [Image and Transgression in the Middle Ages], Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 2008, p. 176.

2 Let us note, as these three authors have, the nuance between the noun “transgression” and the adjective “transgressive”: “The distinction between that which is a transgression and that which is transgressive is important. We cannot confound the forbidden with the shocking: that which shocks is not always forbidden (or even negative) and that which is forbidden doesn’t necessarily shock. The forbidden is such because of commonly held values, but these values coincide more or less with individual values” (ibid., p. 14).

3 This expression is borrowed from D. Baqué, Mauvais genre(s). Érotisme, pornographie, art contemporain [Wrong Kind/Genres. Eroticism, Pornography and Contemporary Art], Paris, Éditions du Regard, 2002.

4 M. Chion, Stanley Kubrick : l’humain, ni plus ni moins [Stanley Kubrick: The Human Being, No More, No Less], Paris, Cahiers du cinéma, 2005, p. 307.

5 Bataille, Georges (1977). Story of the Eye. New York: Urizen Books.

6 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others. New York: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, 126.

7 Cf. F. Vörös (dir.), Cultures pornographiques. Anthologie des porn studies [Pornographic Cultures. An Anthology of Porn Studies], Paris, Éditions Amsterdam, 2015.

8 Since the space of this paper doesn’t allow for a full exploration of the intricacies of defining the terms “eroticism” and “pornography,” I would refer the reader to J. Maisonneuve, “Quelques soucis de définition,” [“A Few Problems of Definition”] in Connexions, 2007, 87, p. 13-17, as well as to the works of P. Baudry, La Pornographie et ses images [Pornography and its Images], Paris, Armand Colin / Masson, 1997, p. 41-42, 145-146, and of E. Bayon, Le Cinéma obscène [Obscene Cinema], Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007.

9 A. Germa, F. Bas, “ ‘Montrez ce sexe que l’on ne saurait voir’: le cinéma français à l’épreuve du sexe (1992-2002)” [“ ‘Show Me the Sex That I Must Not See’: Sex in French Film (1992-2002),” Le Temps des médias, 2003, 1, p. 99.

10 Susan Sontag, On Photography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

11 L. Bertrand Dorléac, L’Ordre sauvage. Violence, dépense et sacré dans l’art des années

1950-1960 [Violence, Expenditure and the Sacred in Art from 1950-1960], Paris, Gallimard, 2004, p. 57.

12 O. Muehl, Sortir du bourbier [Out of the Quagmire], Dijon, Les Presses du réel, 2001, p. 123 (Nuremberg, 1977).

13 Muehl sexually abused young girls between the ages of twelve and sixteen within the small community of which he’d made himself the guru. He was sentenced to prison for pedophilia in 1991.

14 J. Clair, De Immundo. Apophatisme et apocatastase dans l’art d’aujourd’hui [De Immundo. Apophatism and Apocatastasis in the Art of Today], Paris, Galilée, 2004, p. 67.

15 A. Habib, “Salo et La Grande bouffe. Remarques sur une ‘réception impossible’” [“Salo and The Big Feast. Remarks on an ‘impossible reception’”], Hors champs, January 4, 2001 [online]. 16 H. Joubert-Laurencin, Salò ou les 120 journées de Sodome de Pier Paolo Pasolini [Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom by Pier Paolo Pasolini], Chatou, Les Éditions de la Transparence, 2012, p. 28.

17 Clair, De Immundo, p. 33.

18 “My God! Why have you abandoned us?” screams one of the victims, immersed in a tub of excrement.

19 Pasolini obviously knew of the Viennese Actionists’ performances to have been able to make the Italian version of Dusan Makavejev’s Sweet Movie (1974) – one of the most harrowing scenes is the “eating-swallowing-vomiting-scatology scene played by Muehl and his group from the Therapie-Komune” (Joubert-Laurencin, Salò ou les 120 journées de Sodome, p. 39). Also shown in this film are the unbearable images of the Katyn mass graves. 20 In his earlier film, Pigsty (Porcile, 1969), Pasolini told the story of a young man – whose father is no other than Hitler’s grimacing spitting image – and his zoophilic passion for pigs.

21 The first hardcore projections happened in the United States towards the end of the 1960s, while the Hays Code collapsed. Despite multiple lawsuits, Gérard Damiano’s Deep Throat (1972) brought in nearly 12 million dollars in revenue. In France, the X-rating law was passed on October 31st 1975, even as films such as Norbert Terry’s Emmanuelle (1974) or Hommes entre eux [Men Between Themselves] (1976), the first homosexual French hardcore film, appeared onscreen. Cf. J. Zimmer (dir.), Le Cinéma X, Paris, La Musardine, 2012.

22 S. Friedländer, Reflets du nazisme [Reflections of Nazism], Paris, Éditions du Seuil, 1982, p. 16.* The translator wishes to note that this citation is taken partly from Thomas Weyr’s 1982 translation of S. Friendländer, but not entirely, since Weyr’s translation abridged and changed the original significantly.

23 Ibid. T. Weyr’s translation, p. 74. On the subject of the eroticization of Nazism, see also M. Prazan, “Barbarie et antijudaïsme. Du massacre de Lod aux connexions pornographiques,” [“Barbarism and Antisemitism. From the Lod Airport Massacre to Pornographic Connections”] Pardès, 2005, 38, p. 49-64; O. Levy, “Fantasmes sur grand écran” [Fantasies on the Big Screen], L’Histoire, Spetember 2014, 403, p. 54-55.

24 S. Daney, “Le travelling de Kapo” [“The Tracking Shot in Kapo”], Trafic, automne 1992, 4, p. 11.

25 The theme of (sexual) passion between a Nazi officer and a young Jewish woman would be explored elsewhere – and in a more convincing manner – by Paul Verhoeven in Black Book (Zwartboek, 2006). Cf. N. Réra, Au jardin des délices. Entretiens avec Paul Verhoeven [In the Garden of Earthly Delights. Interviews with Paul Verhoeven], Pertuis, Rouge Profond, 2010, p. 137-175.

26 For more about this text and its impact on critical thinking, see in particular A. de Baecque, “Le cas Kapo. ‘De l’abjection,’ ou comment Jacques Rivette forge une morale de la représentation des camps de la mort” [“The case of Kapo. ‘On Abjection,’ or how Jacques Rivette forges a morality of representation of death camps”], in Revue d’Histoire de la Shoah [The History of the Holocaust Review], “Les écrans de la Shoah. La Shoah au regard du cinéma” [“The Holocaust’s Screens. The Holocaust Through the Cinematic Lens”], July – December 2011, 195, p. 211-238; S. Bou, “Premiers regards sur la scène des camps” [“First Glimpses of the Camps”], Revue d’Histoire de la Shoah, op. cit., p. 255-293.

27 Jacques Rivette, On Abjection, translated by David Phelps with the assistance of Jeremi Szaniawski.

28 “Hiroshima, notre amour” [“Hiroshima, Our Love”], Cahiers du cinéma, July 1959, 97, p. 11.

29 This reversal would lead to a famous brawl between the two directors, over hypothetical images of gas chambers filmed by the Nazis: while Lanzmann said he wanted to destroy them, Godard boasted that, with the help of a “good investigative journalist,” he would find them one day.

30 On this subject, see O. Levy, “Se payer de mots ? Godard, l’histoire, les ‘camps’” [“Empty Talk? Godard, History and the ‘Camps’”], Critique, March 2015, 814, p. 165-177.

31 Images in Spite of All, Georges Didi-Huberman trans. Shane B. Lillis, University of Chicago Press: 2008.

32 O. Levy, Les Images clandestines. De la sédimentation d’un imaginaire des “camps”et de son empreinte fossile sur le cinéma français et américain (des années 1960 à nos jours) [Clandestine Images. From the Sedimentation of a Fantasy of the “Camps” and its Fossil Imprint on French and American Film (from 1960 to today)], doctoral thesis supervised by Sylvie Lindeperg, Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne, 2013, p. 236.

33 Ibid.

34 G. Bataille, L’Érotisme [Eroticism], Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 2011, p. 58-66 (1957).

35 I’m referring here to the concept developed by Bartholeyns, Dittmar and Jolivet in Image et transgression au Moyen Âge [Image and Transgression in the Middle Ages], p. 127-150.

36 W. Jung, introduction to the catalogue KZ – Kampf – Kunst. Boris Lurie: NO!art, Cologne, NS-Dokumentationszentrum der Stadt Köln/ NO!art Publishing, 2014, p. 7.

37 B. Lurie, “Involvement Show Statement (1961),” in B. Lurie and S. Krim, NO!art: Pin-ups, Excrement, Protest, Jew-art, Berlin/ Cologne, Edition Hundertmark, 1988, p. 39.

38 Cf. J. Wronoski, H. Hatry, C. Schultz et al., Boris Lurie. No!, New York, Boris Lurie Art

Foundation/Chelsea Art Museum, 2011.

39 B. O’Doherty, “Introduction,” in B. Lurie and S. Krim, NO!art, p. 17.

40 N. L. Kleeblatt (dir.), Mirroring Evil: Nazi Imagery/Recent Art, New Brunswick/New Jersey/ London, Rutgers University Press/ The Jewish Museum, 2002.

41 During a conference at the Université Paris IV, Paul Bernard- Nouraud gave an intelligent reading of Libera’s aim. He pointed out that the Polish artist was arrested in the early 1980s “for printing clandestine papers and producing drawings that were judged to be pornographic” (P. Bernard-Nouraud, “L’oeuvre de Zbignew Libera et l’obsession de l’imagerie nazie” [“Zbignew Libera’s Work and the Obsession with Nazi Imagery”] February 6, 2015).

42 Cf. C. Schmid, “Shocking the Audience, Shocking the Artist: Aesthetic Affinities to the Avant-Garde in Elke Krystufek’s Work,” in R. Halle and R. Steingröver, After the Avant-Garde. Contemporary German and Austrian Experimental Film, New York, Camden House, 2008.

43 J. Wronoski, “Boris Lurie : A Life in the Camps,” in KZ – Kampf – Kunst. Boris Lurie: NO! art, p. 220.

44 A. Dickson, “Chronologie” [Chronology], in M. Godfrey and N. Serota (dir.), Gerhard Richter. Panorama, Paris, Éditions du Centre Georges Pompidou, 2012, p. 284 (Tate Publishing, 2011).

45 Bayon, Le Cinéma obscène [Obscene Cinema], p. 55.

46 Charged with violating the dignity of Holocaust victims, the video was removed from the exhibition Side by Side. Poland – Germany. A 1000 Years of Art and History at the Martin-Gropius Bau in Berlin (2011).

47 On the subject of this video, see Levy’s insightful analysis in Les Images clandestines [Clandestine Images], p. 490-491.

48 M. Cattelan and C. Grenier, Le Saut dans le vide [The Leap into the Void], Paris, Seuil, 2011, p. 75.

49 See, on this subject, N. Heinich, Le Paradigme de l’art contemporain. Structures d’une révolution artistique [The Paradigm of Contemporary Art. Structures of an Artistic Revolution], Paris, Gallimard, 2014.

50 Paul McCarthy, who Zonder cites explicitly in a series of drawings inspired by his performances (Les Fruits de McCarthy [The Fruits of McCarthy]), becomes one of his models: in his photo series Documents, presented in the exhibition Au-delà du spectacle [Beyond the Show] (2000) at the Centre Georges Pompidou, the American artist mixed images of Nazi Germany and Walt Disney characters, “turning utopias into terrifying acts of savagery, whose successive masks would be Hitler and Disneyland” (Baqué, Mauvais genre(s), p. 82).

51 G. Didi-Huberman, “Échantillonner le chaos. Aby Warburg et l’atlas photographique de la Grande Guerre” [“Sampling Chaos. Aby Warburg and the Photographic Atlas of World War I”], Études photographiques [Photography Studies], 27, May 2011, published online November 18,

2011. URL: http://etudesphotographiques.revues.org/3173.

52 Cf. G. Wajcman, “De la croyance photographique” [“On Photographic Belief”], Les Temps modernes [Modern Times], March-April-May 2001, 613, p. 47-83; Didi-Huberman, Images malgré tout [Images Above All]; S. Lindeperg, Nuit et Brouillard. Un film dans l’histoire [Night and Fog. A Film in History], Paris, Odile Jacob, 2007, p. 109-113.

53 The showing of Zonder’s drawings preceded the projection of László Nemes’s film, Son of Saul (Saul Fia), which won the Grand Prix at Cannes 2015. In a searing immersion in the world of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz-Birkenau, one sequence in the film shows the moment when Greek Jew Alex takes clandestine shots at the edge of a pile of bodies. This episode had already been represented, very differently in terms of narrative and form, by Polish director Wanda Jakubowska in La Fin de notre monde [The End of Our World] (Koniec naszego swiata, 1964).

54 Bismuth, “Jérôme Zonder ou la mort à crédit” [Jérôme Zonder or Death on Credit], in Jérôme Zonder, Paris, Galerie Eva Hober, 2013, p. 28.

55 N. Réra, “Faire corps avec l’histoire. Dialogue avec Jérôme Zonder” [“Becoming One with History. A Dialogue with Jérôme Zonder”], in Jérôme Zonder. Fatum, Lyon/Paris, Fage éditions/La Maison rouge, 2015, p. 39.

56 G. Richter, N. Serota, “Je n’ai rien à dire et je le dis” [“I Have Nothing to Say and I’ll Say It”], in Panorama, p. 25.

57 Ibid. p. 38.

58 P. Dagen, “Jérôme Zonder sème l’effroi à la Maison Rouge” [Jérôme Zonder Sews Fear at the Maison Rouge”], Le Monde, 14 mars 2015, p. 14.

59 B. Brun, “Au palais des haches. Le labyrinthe de Jérôme Zonder” [“In the Palace of Axes. Jérôme Zonder’s Labyrinth”], in Jérôme Zonder. Fatum, p. 30.

60 Unpublished interview with the author, Paris, January 29, 2009.

61 C. Bangert, War Porn, Berlin, Kehrer, 2015, p. 170-173 (*in French – the translator was unable to find the original to cite from, so this is a translation of a translation).

62 Bangert, War Porn, p. 170-173 (*see above).

63 On this subject, see C. Bangert, “Réveillez-vous !” [“Wake Up!”], remarks gathered by M. Boussion, 6Mois, Spring-Summer 2015, p. 130-140.

64 G. Mayné, Pornographie, violence obscène, érotisme [Pornography, Obscene Violence, and Eroticism], Paris, Descartes & Cie, 2001, p. 58.