The Last Goodbye, Edith Birkin (b.1928)

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Interpreting the image

Why do you think that this painting is called ‘The Last Goodbye’? 

Who do you think is saying goodbye? 

Why do you think that Birkin has chosen to depict the figures in the painting in the way she has?


Birkin says: “I evolved a pictorial language that enabled me to put my visions on canvas. It wasn’t so much the cruelty or physical suffering that I wanted to record. Most of all, I wanted to show what it felt like to be a human being, in the starved, emaciated strange-looking body, forever being separated from loved ones”.

Edith Birkin says that she evolved a ‘pictorial language.’

What might this mean?

 

Birkin has used a strong contrast between colours in her painting. What colours has she used and why?

What might the colours in the painting symbolise?

Why is colour used differently in different parts of the painting?

 

For more information about the art resources of the Ben Uri gallery in collaboration with the London Grid for Learning click here.

This painting shows a scene in a death camp, with two children and a woman.

There is a large group of people walking into the distance from which the children have divided, so that they may greet the older woman. There is a barbed wire fence running through the centre of the painting and the children are separated from the adult. 

The title of the painting implies that the child is saying goodbye to the woman, who looks like she could be a grandmother or Mother.

In this painting Birkin is depicting the gas chambers of the death camp, with the large chimney and thick black smoke. The sky looks red which can be seen to represent fire and burning.

The ground beyond the fence is covered with what looks like snow and the path seems wet, and yet the main characters of the painting – the two children and woman - are wearing no shoes and no coats, despite the apparent coldness.

The child in the foreground (front) of the painting has no hair, while the child at the fence has bright orange hair. This draws our attention to the difference between the two children.

The fact that the children have broken away from the crowd to bid their last farewell, highlights the individuality and family connection of each life lost in the Holocaust. The rest of the crowd move in unison along the path, their backs to the viewer with their heads slightly bowed; their destination is unknown, but the depiction of the gas chamber chimney and the title of the work, ‘The Last Goodbye’, suggest that they may never be seen again.

Edith Birkin

Born in Prague, Edith Birkin was sent with her family to the Lodz Ghetto in 1941. She was 14 years old. Her parents died there within a year and when the ghetto was liquidated, Edith was sent to Auschwitz.  Selected for slave labour, she spent the rest of the war working in an underground munitions factory. She took part in one of the notorious death marches and arrived, in 1945, at Belsen, where she was liberated the following month. On her return to Prague she discovered that none of her family had survived.

In 1946 she settled in England, where she became a teacher; she went on to adopt three children.

This painting is one of many paintings that Birkin has made in response to her experiences during the Holocaust. The Last Goodbye is also the title of a book of poems and paintings that Birkin wrote about her experiences.