On November 5, Paris’ Musée d’Art Moderne opened a solo exhibition of photographs entitled “Gaza,” by German war photographer Kai Wiedenhöfer. The show is sponsored by the Fondation Carmignac Gestion, the art funding branch of a Paris-based international investment and management company that has been working with the Museum for years, and also funded in part the current Basquiat exhibition. In the month since its opening, “Gaza” has been met with substantial protest for its confrontational images and politics, and provoked questions about the role of sponsors in exhibition programming in France, and elsewhere.
Wiedenhöfer was the winner of Carmignac’s annual prize for photography, which awards a solo show at the museum. The sponsorship agreement ostensibly allows the firm to put up any show they please, unimpeded by the museum. The theme, “Gaza,” had been picked by the foundation. And the exhibit includes frontal photographs of wounded men, women and children sitting mainly in their homes or just outside them, revealing to the photographer their amputated limbs. There is a tense ambiguity in these photographs between the placid décor, stone-faced sitters and what the way the women accept to lift their dresses to show their wounds. One woman appears fully veiled.
The intimacy revealed to the photojournalist is, of course, a troubling one in this social context. Other photographs feature destroyed buildings, all the result of the 2008 Israeli attack, “Cast Lead.”
The show lists only the name of the artist, with a short biography; a timeline of the recent history of the Gaza Strip is posted at the entrance with some details of the sitters annotated beneath their portraits.
A declaration of intention came in a speech given by the president of Carmignac Gestion, Edouard Carmignac, on the night of the opening: “It is not because the horrific reality of concentration camps took place in our continent, that we should accept, 60 years later, a real internment camp for Palestinians, at the doorstep of Israel.”
In France, some observers have read parallels in Carmignac’s terms to those used by Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during the Durban II conference in Geneva in 2009, when he charged the West with dispossessing the Palestinians and with allowing the creation of the state of Israel “on the pretext of Jewish suffering from World War II.” His led to a walk-out by Western diplomats. At the time, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Ahmadinejad’s speech an “intolerable appeal for racist hatred.”
Since the day of the opening, many Jewish organizations have protested. A pinnacle came last weekend, when a group of 30 Parisian youths with motorcycle helmets said to be from the Jewish Defense League marched into into the museum. Barred from entering and instead, covered the entrance of the Musée with stickers saying, “anti-Zionism=political anti-Semitism.” This led to the closing of the establishment for most of the weekend. This was reported at length on the numerous France-Palestine friendship websites.
Protests have involved Wiedenhöfer and Carmignac’s stances, and also the inferred official political support by a public institution.
“We were surprised to see such a show in a place like the Musée d’Art Moderne. 85 photos of Gaza victims and destructions, lacking any form of explanation,” says Marc Knobel, a researcher at the CRIF (Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France, the leading representational Jewish body of France), who were amongst the first to protest through an official press release. “We don’t deny that the Cast Lead operation has caused victims– as wars always do. Civilians are the victims, on every side. But we felt the show was unilateral. It was a shockingly simplistic depiction of an extremely complex conflict, with no geopolitical contextualization, no mention of the harm the Hamas has caused, or the Israeli side of things.”
He continued, “We are not accusing anyone of anti-Semitism, but we thought the parallel between the Holocaust and Gaza was vile and erroneous.”
“An important thing to point out is that this show isn’t part of museum’s official program,” says museum director Fabrice Hergott. “It is an agreement we had with Carmignac Gestion, whose funding has allowed us to put up large exhibitions” adding that “we couldn’t intervene, but if we had been in charge, we would have put many more texts and explanations.”
This show doesn’t aim blame anyone, said Hergott; it shows the horrors of war: “Look at the works of Goya or Picasso, the result of wars upon cities and human beings has been a frequent theme in history of art.”
Wiedenhöfer is a war photographer who situates himself in the tradition of inter-World War German photography, such as August Sander (1876-1964): “He too shocked people in his time,” Hergott said. Sander is remembered for his stark, powerful portraits of everyday Germans. The Nazis rejected his work.
“War produces monsters, beings deformed by violence,” said Hergott. “Realize you are looking people who continue to be alive.”
Asked about Mr Carmignac’s speech, Hergott said, “That solely concerns Mr Carmignac and no one else.”
As for Wiedenhöfer, he says he “wanted to show daily suffering of people. This isn’t about the specificity of this conflict, but rather, a metaphor of war.”
In 1937, Guernica was shown in the Spanish Pavilion during Paris’ Exposition Universelle. It had been commissioned by the fledgling Republican government in the midst of the Civil War when Fascist forces bombed the country. The artwork is now commonly read as representative of the plight of Picassos’s countrymen and later became a universal image, much like Goya’s paintings were grounded in the brutal reality of the Napoleonic wars.
Wiedenhöfer’s work, in the midst of acute Israel-Palestinian strife can hardly be termed metaphoric. As a journalist, he faces questions of specificity, encountered through the enduring problematic of the photographic gaze.