An article from the Guardian:
Further along the train, we notice a group that a soldier is herding into another truck. We cannot count how many trucks there are, but it is a long train. The plume of smoke above the locomotive suggests it is ready to leave. The sharp angles and harsh contrast between the black ink and yellowed paper tell us this is a linocut. The adjoining text says: Deportation to Death (Death Train), 1942, a translation of the original Spanish, Deportación a la Muerte (Tren de la Muerte). The work of a Mexican artist, Leopoldo Mendez, it is part of a collection, El Libro Negro del Terror Nazi en Europa, published in Mexico in 1943. The linocut itself was done a year earlier.
Death Train was on show at the Art Institute of Chicago till mid-October, part of an exhibition telling the story of the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP; people’s graphic workshop), a collective founded in Mexico City in 1937 by Mendez, Luis Arenal and Pablo O’Higgins. Many Mexican or émigré artists took part in the studio’s activities. Their aim was to use linocutting, a cheap art form well suited to large-scale publication, to broadcast an explicit, committed political message, close to the line of the Communist party and other anti-Fascist groups.
The TGP was founded during the Spanish civil war, during which Mexico was one of the few countries to come out clearly in support of the Republican cause. It also coincided with Picasso’s Guernica painting. Several prints condemn Spanish fascism, associating Franco’s silhouette with a mocking skull, with the Falangist emblem on his back. Other satirical, morbid or grotesque images denounce Mussolini and his regime in Italy. The Vichy regime is treated in similar vein. But from 1939 the TGP concentrated on the Third Reich. Assisting the Liga Pro Cultura Alemana, an anti-Nazi organisation established in Mexico in 1938, the workshop soon targeted what it saw as the two pillars of nazism: systematic use of terror and antisemitism.
To bring home the appalling nature of rule by terror, Mendez and the American artist Robert Mallary forced their audience to look at scenes of victims being beheaded, hanged or shot. In each instance their macabre realism includes items that are far more than mere details. When Mallary puts a cross round the neck of a hanging victim in a lithograph, This is the New Nazi Order, he fully realises how it will affect people looking at this representation of the new Christian martyrs. The pages of the Black Book need to be deciphered with care, for each image is a precise symbolic construction.
Well informed too. As Diane Miliotes, art historian and curator of the show, points out, Deportación a la Muerte is one of the earliest representations of the Holocaust, perhaps the first, to be published. The systematic extermination process decided by the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 had already started by then. Mendez is clearly referring to the death camps here, not to the mass executions perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen following the conquest of Poland and the Soviet Union. He clearly knew that by this stage no one was spared. A screaming child can be seen climbing into the truck; the group in the lamplight comprises young and old, men and women.
So how did Mendez discover what was going on? Miliotes recalls that the Libro Negro brought together eyewitness accounts, photographs and statistics. Anti-Nazi émigrés in the US were decisive. Their work documenting terror gave rise to the 33 pictures by 11 TGP artists, including the one by Mendez. So he knew and all those who contributed to the book knew. As did their readers, as early as 1943.
This article appeared in Guardian Weekly, which incorporates material from Le Monde