I recently wrote about Czech painter Josef Čapek who died in 1945 - only a few days before the prisoners of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp were freed by the Allied Armies. The Imperial War Museum holds an important collection of works by British artists who were witnesses of the liberation. They all responded to the overwhelmingly distressing scenes there with images that sought to convey detail and narrative.
"The Camp is large 12 sq miles and divided into compounds like chicken runs with huts bare of any furniture or conveniences. The huts normally accommodate 50 but as many as 400 were put in." (Leslie Cole)
Leslie Cole, The Compound for Women, 1945
Leslie Cole (1910-1977) was born in Swindon. He trained as an artist at the Royal College of Art in London and became a teacher at Hull College of Art in 1937. Cole wrote to the War Artists Advisory Committee (WAAC) in 1940 asking for work as a war artist, but he was turned down. At this time, Cole also joined the RAF only to be discharged on health grounds soon after. Determined to be a witness to the unfolding events, he approached the WAAC again, sending pieces of completed work reflecting the war situation in Hull and his home town of Swindon. Eventually, Cole became a salaried war artist with an honorary commission as a captain in the Royal Marines.
Leslie Cole, Sick Woman and the Hooded Men of Belsen, 1945
Cole travelled widely, recording the aftermath of the war in Malta, Greece, Germany and the Far East. Cole's work consistently addressed the suffering of human beings, and in three oil paintings he bears witness to conditions in Belsen at liberation. Cole did not return to Britain until the spring of 1946, having witnessed the horrors of Belsen concentration camp as well as Japanese prisoner of war camps in Singapore. Cole was married to Barbara Price, a former friend of Dylan Thomas and the star witness in what one newspaper called "the trial of the century", in which "the Prostitutes' Padre" Harold Davidson, Rector of Stiffkey, was accused of immorality.
Leslie Cole, One of the Death Pits, Belsen SS guards collecting bodies, 1945
"The shock of Belsen was never to be forgotten. First of all was the ghastly smell of typhus. The simply ghastly sight of skeleton bodies just flung out of the huts." (Doris Zinkeisen)
Doris Zinkeisen, Human Laundry (Belsen), 1945
Doris Zinkeisen (1898-1991) was born in Rosneath, Argyll, Scotland. Together with her sister Anna she studied at the Royal Academy Schools in London. She was a well-known society painter and exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. She also designed costumes and stage sets for the theatre throughout her career. During the Second World War, she joined the St John Ambulance Brigade and in 1944 was commissioned by the Red Cross to paint the work of doctors and nurses in north-west Europe. Zinkeisen arrived at Belsen in April 1945, just after the liberation. You can see more of her work at ArtInconnu.
Doris Zinkeisen, Belsen, April 1945
"I drew the dead and scarcely living people when Belsen concentration camp was overrun, and I witnessed at first hand all the other appalling horrors of war. To me, any attempt to explain in words the overall influence of this experience on my work appears to weaken what I endeavour to say in my painting or sculpture. It means so very much." (Eric Taylor)
Eric Taylor, A Living Skeleton at Belsen Concentration Camp, 1945
Eric Taylor (1909-1999) was born in London. He trained at the Royal College of Art and the Central School of Art, and at the outbreak of war he was already an established painter and printmaker. In 1939, he enlisted to serve with the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers. He took part in the 1944 Normandy landings and crossed the Rhine into Germany. He was among the first liberators to arrive at Belsen. His drawings from 1944 and 1945 document the wreckage left behind by the war; these images of the aftermath of liberation culminated in the drawings he made at Belsen. Human degradation on such a scale was difficult to portray, and Taylor's most potent images focus on single figures.
Eric Taylor, A Young Boy from Belsen Concentration Camp, 1945
"I made a drawing of a girl aged 22, and in return I offered her a cigarette. She took it and ate it whilst I was fumbling with my matches to give her a light. Conditions such as these are beyond anyone's power to explain away." (Edgar Ainsworth)
Edgar Ainsworth, Wera Berger aged 13 after a year in Ravensbrück (near Belsen), 1945
Edgar Ainsworth (1906-1975) was the Art Editor for Picture Post magazine. Ainsworth visited Bergen-Belsen three times in the months after it was liberated and recorded in his drawings and photographies the changes he saw among the people he met there. In September of 1945, Ainsworth published a number of his drawings in Picture Post along with an article that gave his witness account of life in the liberated camp. This articl was written in response to the ongoing Belsen Trials and to combat the sentiments of scepticism and indifference he had observed among some members of the general public.