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Book Review: “A Hero’s Many Faces: Raoul Wallenberg in Contemporary Monuments”

"A Hero's Many Faces: Raoul Wallenberg in Contemporary Monuments" by Tanja Schult

Raoul Wallenber expert, Susanne Berger, on the art historian’s view of the Holocaust hero.

Of the numerous Wallenberg books and publications released since the 1980’s, this one stands apart. It is to my mind the first substantive study of Swedish diplomat Raoul G. Wallenberg outside of the regular Holocaust Studies/World War II canon.

The young Swede has been accorded world wide acclaim as a hero of the Holocaust after traveling to war torn Hungary in 1944 to render aid to one of the last surviving Jewish communities in Europe. In the chaotic six months after the Fascist takeover in October 1944,  he played a crucial role in saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews from the horrors of Nazi persecution.

At first glance one might be sceptical about what an academic study by a trained art historian of all currently realized Wallenberg monuments – more than thirty in all –  has to offer the more general reader. As it turns out, the offering is a rich one. Thoroughly researched, well written and generously illustrated, the text will undoubtedly remain a standard work on the topic for years to come.

“Truth lies in the eyes of the beholder” could be the underlying theme of the book, with Schult adeptly showing how the different perspectives with which historians, researchers and the public have approached both the person of Raoul Wallenberg and his story, over the years, find direct reflection in the sculptures and monuments that have been erected in his honor.

Schult, currently a researcher at Stockholm Univiersity, provides a thorough background of Raoul Wallenberg the man as well as the special circumstances of his work in Budapest and his subsequent disappearance in Soviet captivity.

While Schult’s study uses the Wallenberg case in the first instance to address the specific rendering of “personal monuments”, it is in fact very much a comprehensive sociological examination of the hero figure through art. As she states in the introduction, Schult is not so much interested in the distinction between “low” and “high” art, rather than in how art forms and reflects ideas. Schult explores the varying approaches to and perception of the hero  (Wallenberg) in chapters like “The hero as a man of action”, “The hero as victim”, “The hero as troublemaker”.  In doing so, a complex and yet more complete portrait of Raoul Wallenberg emerges than has been available before.

Schult stays in control of her subject and guides the reader through the often difficult world of art evaluation and appreciation with a sure hand.  The book is accessible to general audiences, yet there is rich material to mine for the professional art historian, teachers, Holocaust experts and other specialists.

Her review of one of the most controversial sculptures is especially instructive. When Kirsten Ortwed’s monument, Hommage à Raoul Wallenberg, was first unveiled in 2001, the reviews were, mildly put, not kind. Reactions ranged from raised eyebrows to open scorn, some secretly (and others not so secretly) whispering that the installation in central Stockholm reminded them more of animal droppings than of a monument suited to honor one of Sweden’s most important post-war figures. I freely confess that I am one of the people who have stood in the exhibition space unable to find any emotional or intellectual connection to  the work.

To Schult’s great credit she is able to take the reader behind the scenes and into the mind of the artist she covers. In doing so she manages to shed light on the thought processes that informed the creation of Ortwed’s monument, illuminating its rather intriguing conceptual history. Having read her analysis, I have come away with a new respect for both the artist and her work. I still cannot say that I “like” Ortwed’s sculpture, but I have certainly gained a measure of appreciation of it.

And ultimately, that is the mark of a great book –  that it stimulates and surprises. “A Hero’s Many Faces” does both in generous measure. One drawback: The hardback edition is expensive, but a much more affordable paperback version will soon be available.

“A Hero’s Many Faces: Raoul Wallenberg in Contemporary Monuments” by Tanja Schult, Phd.
Series: The Holocaust and its Contexts
Palgrave 2009/2011
ISBN 978-0-23-22386-8 (Hardback)
428 p.,  illustrated, [Full catalogue of all Wallenberg monuments currently in existence]

About Susanne Berger

For six years Susanne Berger served as a consultant to the Swedish-Russian Working Group on the Fate of Raoul Wallenberg. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C. Her research addresses the wider political and economic aspects of Wallenberg’s humanitarian mission to Budapest, as well as their associated effects on the investigation of his disappearance.

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