The Aestheticization of Death – Paul Ricken and the Identification Service of Concentration Camp Mauthausen
From 1940 to 1944, Paul Ricken was part of the staff – and for about a year even the head – of the Identification Service (Erkennungsdienst) of the Political Department (Politische Abteilung) of concentration camp Mauthausen. Ricken, an arts teacher and would-be artist himself, was not only responsible for keeping photographic records of the prisoners and documenting special events in the camp such as official visits from high-ranking National Socialist functionaries, but also accidents or the shooting of prisoners who were ‘attempting to escape’.
In this function he manipulated the position of the dead bodies in a way that made the murders look like accidents. In addition to this deception he also seemed to have had sort of artistic values for staging a photo: he precisely paid attention to the entire composition of the image and even staged himself in a picture taken by self-timer as a corpse lying in the snow. Many of the photos that Ricken had taken were saved from destruction by Spanish prisoner Francisco Boix, who served as an aid to Ricken and – after the liberation – as testimonial of his sick mind. Although the pictures can be seen as a symptom of Ricken’s alleged mental instability they were also interpreted by former prisoners as possibility of a man with artistic aspirations to self-actualize within an environment where death and terror are daily routine. We don’t know whether it was a way to deal with the exceptional violence or a banal act of making his task more interesting– the fact is that Ricken established himself as an aesthete of death in the concentration camp Mauthausen.
In my presentation I’d like to demonstrate how a violent environment can make its own bizarre aesthetics emerge through a kind of morbid and unethical creativity which only surfaces in extreme situations like those in a concentration camp