Imagination and Expressive Arts as Antidotes to Adversity

Friedl Dicker’s strategy with children during the Holocaust is our roadmap.

Posted Aug 31, 2019

Permission from the Jewish Museum in Prague
"Dreams of Thereseinstadt"
Source: Permission from the Jewish Museum in Prague

Children in detention at the U.S. border continue to be the focus of concerns about long-term consequences including chronic and complex traumatic stress. While the outcomes for these children are of critical importance, there are many more children who are detained in other ways throughout mental health and medical systems for a variety of reasons.

In response, I am sharing an excerpt from an upcoming book on traumatic stress and expressive arts (Malchiodi, in press). It is a brief synopsis of the story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis whose actions made a difference in the lives of hundreds of children who were held in detention within cruel and horrifying circumstances. It also demonstrates the importance of imagination and expressive arts as antidotes to atrocity, even in the most adverse conditions, resonating many of the challenges children currently held in detention endure. 

Imagination and Expressive Arts as Antidotes to Adversity

Many years ago, I was invited to study an unusual collection of drawings created by children at Theresienstadt, a hybrid concentration camp and ghetto built by the Nazi SS during World II, as well as the story of their teacher, artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis.

Friedl was born in Vienna in 1898 and studied art at the Weimar Bauhaus with well-known artists Johannes Itten and Paul Klee. The Bauhaus philosophy embodies not only design but also the aesthetics of empathy. Students like Friedl were taught to not merely depict an object in drawing or paint; they were encouraged to become one with their subject, to see it both inside and out, and to empathize with it. This philosophy influenced Friedl’s own artwork and subsequently how she taught art to children at Theresienstadt.

In 1942, Friedl and her husband Pavel Brandeis were living in Czechoslovakia when they were deported to Thereseinstadt. I was surprised to learn that when Friedl was deported, she used most of her 50-kilo weight allowance to bring art supplies to this ghetto. While others were understandably focused on self-preservation and packed items needed for survival, Friedl obviously had a different intention in mind—to have what was necessary to teach art to hundreds of traumatized children.

At the camp, she encountered over 600 children who were taken from their homes, communities, and routines and forcibly separated from their parents and families. They were placed in unspeakable conditions and sent to live in overcrowded houses; because boys and girls were separated, even brothers and sisters no longer were allowed to stay together. This trauma of separation was compounded by starvation and illness. 

As I reviewed these stories and records of the brutality of Thereseinstadt, I realized that Friedl Dicker-Brandeis gave these children more than just a purpose or a way to cope. She purposively gave them the power of imagination to help them endure the atrocities of daily life. She realized that art could be a form of therapy for misery, fear, and uncertainty, and encouraged her young students to create in the style of the Bauhaus philosophy.

Using collage, watercolor painting, and drawing, she taught the children to look below the surface of a flower, person or still life and become absorbed with the feeling of the object or individual. In witnessing dozens of these children’s artworks, I came to believe her goal was not only to help these children stimulate imagination but also redirect them to internalize what existed far beyond the walls of Theresienstadt. 

Like so many interned during the Holocaust, Friedl watched as her husband was deported from Thereseinstadt; as a result, she voluntarily signed up for the next possible transport to follow him. On October 6, 1944, Friedl and approximately 60 of her students were sent on transport number EO 167 to Auschwitz Birkenau where they were either murdered on arrival or died of illness or starvation shortly after.

What became of the children’s art expressions and a few of her own drawings and paintings still sends chills throughout my body. In the hope that others would eventually see what they had created, she placed approximately 5000 pieces of artwork in her two suitcases and hid them before she left on the transport to Auschwitz. Friedl did not sign most of the work she created during this time, but she had the children sign their artworks with their name and age. 

While I am emphasizing the role of imagination in Friedl’s work with these children, her deliberate action to make sure that each artwork had an identity also resonates with Judith Herman’s (1992) emphasis on the voice of the individual and reconnection to community.

Although most of the children who created these works were murdered by the Nazis, I was able to meet with some of the few who did survive and remembered their art teacher. The consensus among these survivors—at the time in their seventies—was simple and profound.

They believed Friedl redirected each of them to embody the beauty of life through their art expressions rather than depict the daily horror that surrounded them at Theresienstadt. I believe that it was imagining and re-creating that beauty that sustained these survivors while experiencing the most abysmal, oppressive and extreme conditions.

As survivor Eva Dorian said of Friedl, “I believe that what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings, to the liberation from our fears…these were not normal lessons, but lessons in emancipated meditation” (Wix, 2009, p. 154).

Imagination and the Capacity for Positive Change

The story of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis is a dramatic example of the power of imagination in the face of extremely traumatic and adverse conditions. The core of her approach to work with children underscores a principle that actually has been verified by research in the arts.

In the field of art therapy, art-making has traditionally been used to discharge negative emotions through self-expression. But when it comes to stimulating new narratives with reparative capacities, this may not be the best strategy. Research demonstrates that drawing what is negative may not be the best use of imaginative powers; in fact, using drawing as a distraction away from negative emotions is more helpful when it comes to regulating mood (Drake & Winner, 2010). 

As it turns out, “drawing a picture of happiness” is improved by distracting oneself away from negative thoughts and is more effective in repairing mood than either venting negative feelings or simply allowing time to pass for the mood change. Drawing also was a more effective means of immediate mood repair than writing; both activities repaired mood more effectively through distraction than through venting.

What We Make “Stick” Is Key in Traumatic Stress

The kinds of cognitions, emotions, and somatosensory experiences we want to make “stick” in clients when using art-based approaches are key to eventually helping them imagine new narratives, post-trauma. In other words, if we do not eventually help individuals move away from distress, we leave them with thoughts, feelings, and sensations that will not support new narratives of pleasure, confidence and hope.

Friedl helped children who were subjected to a terrifying array of horrors and atrocities. Children currently in detention at the U.S. border are, in many ways, experiencing similar fears and uncertainties. At the very least, her story underscores the possibilities for psychotherapists to support reparative imagination in children coping with traumatic stress — by using expressive arts to help them to momentarily and actively redirect attention away from the internalized experience of the world as a place of threat.

References

Herman, J. (1992). Trauma and recovery. NY: Basic Books.

Drake, J. E., & Winner, E. (2011). Short-term mood repair through art: Effects of medium and strategy. Art Therapy, 28 (1), 26-30.

Malchiodi, C. A. (in press). Trauma and Expressive Arts. NY: Guilford Publications.

Wix, L. (2009). Aesthetic Empathy in Teaching Art to Children: The Work of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis in Terezin. Art Therapy, 26 (4).