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Swedish artist’s use of stolen Holocaust ashes called ‘barbaric’

People take part in ceremonies marking the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp in front of the Majdanek memorial, in Majdanek southeastern Poland, July 23, 2004.

CZAREK SOKOLOWSKI/AP

A respected Swedish artist has sparked a storm of criticism by creating paintings using ashes stolen from a concentration camp memorial.

CM von Hausswolff is a major name in Swedish art. He has represented the country at the Venice Biennale and has a decades-long career as a visual artist, composer and curator.

His latest work, though, appears to have alienated even some within the art world.

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In a statement posted by the gallery, Mr. von Hausswolff says he took the ashes during a 1989 visit to Majdanek, a Nazi concentration camp that is now a memorial in Poland. The material was "too heavily loaded" to use until recently, he admits. But he argues that the water-and-ash images he eventually created seemed to have the "souls" of victims who had been "tortured, tormented and murdered."

The work is on display at the Martin Bryder Gallery, in the southern community of Lund, until next weekend.

Although transgressive art has a long history – including Andres Serrano's photo of a crucifix submerged in his urine, Rick Gibson's earrings made of fetuses, for which he was convicted in Britain of outraging public decency, and Chris Ofili's dung-spattered Madonna – many are saying Mr. von Hausswolff went too far.

According to the BBC, the camp museum called the theft an "unimaginably barbaric act."

Writing in the Swedish paper Sydsvenskan, Tor Billgren noted that the exhibit seemed to ignore the cultural shift around attitudes towards objects taken from "exotic" places and put on display. He also questioned how the artist could have ignored the Swedish importance of not disturbing the dead but concluded that he meant well. And the rest of the exhibition got a positive review.

When "not clouded by naivety and poor judgement," Mr. Billgren writes, Mr. von Hausswolff "offers exciting an alternative strategies" for remembering history's horrors.

Writing for the same paper, Saloman Schulman had a more personal take, calling it "repulsive" and saying he would "never" visit the gallery to see this exhibition. "Who knows, some of the ashes might come from some of my relatives?" he wrote.

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The gallery owner, Mr. Bryden, is said to have relatives who were persecuted by the Nazis. He has kept a low profile but reportedly told the Polish News Agency that critics might have a different view if they saw the exhibition.

Majdanek was a camp on the outskirts of Lublin, in Nazi-occupied Poland. It was originally planned as a holding centre for prisoners of war but became a forced labour camp and was used at times for extermination. Among the inmates was Vladek Spiegelman, whose story forms the basis of the Pulitzer-winning graphic novel Maus, by his son, Art Spiegelman.

The camp, whose population fluctuated, held a total of about 300,000 people between 1941 and 1944. About 79,000 were killed there, three-quarters of them Polish Jews.

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About the Author

Oliver Moore joined the Globe and Mail's web newsroom in 2000 as an editor and then moved into reporting. A native Torontonian, he served four years as Atlantic Bureau Chief and has worked also in Afghanistan, Grenada, France, Spain and the United States. More

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