Sunday, August 24, 2014

Felix Nussbaum

I made a day trip from Münster with Andreas Hellgermann, Bill Paulsen, and with David and Jan Hellgermann to Osnabrück to see the Felix Nussbaum Haus.  The trip was Andreas' inspiration, and it was quite a revelation to me to see so much of this artist's work in the original together in one place.  I've always respected Nussbaum's work, but I'd never paid much attention to it before.  He turns out to be a much more substantial and fascinating artist than I thought.

Photography is not allowed in the Nussbaum Haus, so only one of these photos is mine, the picture of the entrance to the Nussbaum Haus.  All the others except one are scans from the book Felix Nussbaum: Art Defamed, Art in Exile, Art in Resistance by several authors under the sponsorship of the Nussbaum Haus.  I bought a copy of the book on my visit.  The reproduction of the entire painting Death Triumphant comes from here.  All the others are scans from the book.

Felix Nussbaum died in the Holocaust.  He died at the age of 40 in Auschwitz sometime in August or September of 1944.  He spent the last 4 years of his life in hiding in Brussels.  He was certainly not the only artist to perish in the Holocaust, but his work that survives is exceptional.  It bears witness to the struggles of a man who was hunted and who knew he was doomed, to hold out just a little longer, to try to make sense of what was happening to him and to all around him.  He tried very hard to make sense out of his own role in the catastrophe that would ultimately claim him.  He struggled with questions of truth to experience, of articulation, of conscience, and especially with overwhelming feelings of impotence and inadequacy in the face of events.  He felt trapped and helpless, unable to help himself, let alone anyone else.
I think he was being unfair to himself and to his art.  In an age of all consuming ideologies that made a claim on even the most private and intimate corners of individual life, making a painting on one's own initiative without any orders or supervision, as one wishes, was a profoundly political act.

Here is Felix Nussbaum's most famous painting, Self-Portrait with a Jewish Identity Card, painted in 1943 when he was in hiding in an attic in Brussels.  A trusted group of friends and fans of his work supplied him with art supplies, no small feat in the middle of the Second World War.  We saw this painting in the museum in Osnabrück.
He furtively flashes us his card and shows us the star on his coat.  He is thin from hunger, confined and separated from the rest of the world by a high wall.  There is a small promise of life and freedom in the painting; over the wall on the right next to a dead tree is a blossoming branch with a small glimpse of blue sky behind; a small bit of forlorn hope in the overwhelming shadow, but hope nonetheless.

Most of the world in Nussbaum's work is brown, gray, and blasted.  In his last works, he uses those bleak colors with remarkable subtlety and poetry.

My picture of the entrance to the Nussbaum Haus designed by Daniel Libeskind.  If you look closely, I think that is us reflected in the glass of the windows.

A very striking and harsh self portrait also from 1943; the painting shows Nussbaum naked from the waist up with a towel over one shoulder.  I would guess that the attic where he lived could get very hot.  He looks at us (and at himself in the mirror) with a gaze that appears to me to be sardonic; part mocking, part proud, and part accusatory.  The book points out that this pose with a square palette comes straight out of self portraits by Van Gogh and Cezanne.  Nussbaum proudly claims continuity with those artists while showing himself as very poor and in hiding.  The bottles of chemicals on his taboret are marked as poison, with a skull and crossbones on one, and the words "Nostalgie" and "Souffrance" on the other; nostalgia and suffering, key ingredients in his work that he insists here can be lethal to a clear and authentic view of life without illusions or despair.
The passage of stain painting with blots of opaque color in the palette is really remarkable.

This is a self portrait by Nussbaum with his 6 year old niece Marianne in a painting titled Fear from 1941.   The painting is almost certainly based on actual experience, the experience of millions of people on the European continent in those years, the experience of an air raid.  In this painting, it is a nighttime raid with the broken streetlamp covered in blue glass to dim its light.  A small moon behind a thin veil of cloud just barely illumines a bomber flying low without lights in the darkness.  Nussbaum and his niece cling to each other in terror while a poster on the enclosing wall behind them reads "Tempest over Europe."  It's a great painting not only for its drama, but also for its skillful use varieties of darkness and dim light.
In so many of Nussbaum's paintings, a wall or a fence serves as a backdrop.  There is always the awareness of being cut off from the rest of the world and of being effectively imprisoned.

Felix Nussbaum, Self Portrait in the Camp, 1940

In 1940, Germany invaded and conquered France and the Benelux countries.  Nussbaum lived in Brussels at the time as a Jewish refugee from Germany.  The new occupation government in Belgium deported foreign nationals to concentration camps in France maintained by the Vichy regime.  Nussbaum was one of 7000 sent from Belgium to the Saint Cyprien concentration camp on the Mediterranean coast near the Spanish border.  Nussbaum and the others traveled for days in cattle cars on slow-moving transport trains to get there.  Saint Cyprien began as a refugee camp for Spaniards fleeing the civil war in that country.  Conditions were harsh and humiliating in that camp with many prisoners dying of disease, exposure, and malnutrition.
This is a self-portrait that makes no pleas for pity or for help.  It is a defiant image.  With fixed gaze and set jaw, the artist stares audaciously right at us out of the bones, sand, barbed wire, shit buckets, and overall brown and black colors of death that surround him.  In all of his paintings from his time of hiding, Nussbaum pays particular attention to telling details like threadbare clothing held together with patches and other improvised repairs.

Felix Nussbaum, Prisoner, 1940, another painting inspired by his experiences in Saint Cyprien

Felix Nussbaum, Camp Synagogue, 1941

Nussbaum was always conscious of his Jewish identity even though he was not a particularly religious man.  Here, a group of men almost completely concealed in their talleisim walk toward a flimsy shack that serves as a makeshift synagogue.  The artist takes a certain pride in the capacity of his own traditions to survive even in the worst of conditions.  And I think there is an element of doubt in this picture.  The men are dim white flickers in an overwhelmingly dark painting.  A dark spot in the center of the sky may be a blackened sun.

After 3 months in Saint Cyprien, Nussbaum signed papers to be repatriated to the German Reich.  When his train reached Bordeaux, he escaped and made his way back to his wife, Felka Platek, in Brussels.  They hid together in an attic and in his old studio for the last 3 years of their lives.  Nussbaum had no papers, no money, and no way to make a living.  He was now a fugitive, completely dependent on friends for shelter, food, and art supplies.  These last years in desperate circumstances were among the most productive in Nussbaum's life.  He painted many of his most celebrated works in these years.

Evening, Self Portrait with Felka Platek, 1942, unfinished

Scholars frequently describe Nussbaum as a kind of Surrealist painter even though he had no ties to that group.  While there is a lot of de Chirico's influence in Nussbaum's work, especially in this painting with its harsh shooting perspective, he is closest in spirit to the hard edged figurative painting of Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity painters of the 1920s, artists like Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Max Beckmann.  Here, he and his wife are reunited.  They are both still young and determined to enjoy their sexuality despite the war and disaster everywhere, and especially despite efforts to keep them apart and to supervise their time together.  Nussbaum shows himself in mid strip, pants open and about to drop as he stands with his nude wife.  She wears nothing but a pair of shoes and a choker necklace.  I don't know if there's any significance, but the colors on her necklace are the colors of the 1848 German flag, the flag of the Weimar Republic, and of the current Federal Republic.  She holds a sprig of greenery while he stomps on bad news, on a newspaper, Le Soir of Belgium. like an unwanted guest on their date.  Nussbaum goes to great lengths to make both of their bodies sexually desirable despite the almost formal standing pose and the air of doom surrounding them.

Felix Nussbaum, Young Couple, 1941

A very melancholy painting of young love interrupted by catastrophe.  The couple may be a modified self-portrait of Nussbaum and Felka Platek.  They are together, but uncommunicative and each seemingly absorbed in their own reveries or melancholy.  The young man looks like he has just ceased to play on his little flute.
There is more of Nussbaum's attention to tell tale details in this painting such as the girl's threadbare blouse held together with a safety pin, a detail that speaks of the desperation of their circumstances.

Felka Platek was herself a very talented artist.  Here is a portrait she painted in 1927.  It too is housed in the Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück.

I find it remarkable how even the most modern, and post modern, of artists will resort to allegory on desperate occasions.  This allegory is Nussbaum's last painting completed 2 days before his arrest and deportation to Auschwitz.
The book describes him as having "made peace" with his impending death at the time this was painted.  I don't think he's made any kind of peace at all.  If anything, his is the resignation of a doomed animal.  This painting expresses his very human anger and despair at what he knows will happen to him and at what he sees happening all around him.  This is not a resolved or peaceful painting in any sense, but an angry desperate screed of frustration and despair.

Felix Nussbaum, Death Triumphant, 1944

This is not only Nussbaum's last painting, but his most old-fashioned, deliberately recalling all that totentanz imagery from Northern Renaissance art in Germany and the Low Countries in the 14th to the 16th centuries.  Most of the figures are spread out across the canvas on the same plane like an old relief sculpture.

Detail from Death Triumphant showing corpses playing musical instruments in a devastated and lifeless landscape.  These are corpses, not quite skeletons as in many Renaissance Dance of Death prints.  They are corpses in advanced stages of decay with malevolent and insolent grins.  These corpse musicians are making noise instead of music.  Like so many Renaissance figures of Death, one skeleton plays a broken drum with a bone.  The other plays what looks like a clarinet in the pose of a jazz musician.

Nussbaum did a series of splendid drawings for this painting.

Just about every aspect of human enterprise lies broken and discarded at the foot of the painting.  We see a smashed head of Justice, a broken entablature from a classical building, film canisters with the film stock spilled out, torn books, broken scientific instruments, a broken telephone, and Nussbaum's own discarded palette and brushes.
The torn musical score (more visible in the whole painting above) shows an actual tune, "The Lambeth Walk" which was very popular in Britain at the time, and in the occupied countries like Belgium that were in broadcast range of Britain.  "Everything's free and easy, doing what you darn well pleasey," says the song.  I don't think Nussbaum scorns that song.  On the contrary, he probably liked it.  I think he contrasts the song's innocent pleasures with the sterile devastation in this painting.  This is the world remade by Hitler, a world where nothing is free or easy and no one does as they darn well pleases.  Even the world's pleasures are tossed out like so much trash in this picture.  On the right side of the painting at the bottom is the emasculated fragment of a classical statue next to a torn painting of a female nude.  The primal pleasures of sex lie as dead as every other aspect of human life in this painting.

In the sky are paper kites with either blank or menacing faces patrolling the dim sky.  The malevolence is inescapable.

A corpse stands triumphant on a broken classical column playing a fiddle.  In the background, the kites fly together in a bombing run formation.  The organ grinder is a modified self portrait of Nussbaum.  He used the humble organ grinder as a kind of metaphor for his own art.  Here, he sits in despair and does not play his instrument.  A figure of winged death looks at him with an expression of triumphant scorn as he plays a flute.  Death wins in this painting.  All life is over, replaced with a devastated nullity.  There will be no Exodus and no Resurrection.  The end of the whole story of life is destruction and entropy without meaning, dignity, or hope.  This is a profoundly angry and despairing picture.

The date on the piece of paper in the lower right corner of the painting says June 18, 1944, the day Nussbaum completed the painting.  On the night of June 20 - 21st, Felix Nussbaum and Felka Platek were betrayed by an informer and arrested in a raid by the Gestapo.  Their new policy of paying huge cash rewards to informers was paying off.  The Gestapo in Brussels was rounding up 80 to 100 fugitives a day according to its own reports.  A neighbor Christian Jacques described the arrest:
"One night, about one in the morning, the immediate neighborhood of our house was sealed off.  There were German soldiers in the street and on the roofs.  Searchlights lit up the house.  Soldiers ran up into the attic.  We heard terrible screams from upstairs."
Nussbaum and his wife were taken to a collection camp at Malines, and from there on July 31st, 1944, they were deported to Auschwitz and never seen again.  Belgian authorities concluded that they were murdered on August 9, but new evidence suggests that they may have been killed as late as the middle of September.
On September 3rd, Nussbaum's older brother Justus was transported to Auschwitz and died later of exhaustion at the Stutthof camp in October.  On September 6, Felix Nussbaum's sister in law Herta and his niece Marianne died in Auschwitz.  Felix Nussbaum's parents had already perished in Auschwitz in February of 1944.
All of the Nussbaum family died in 1944.

In 1944, Nazi Germany discarded Felix Nussbaum like so much garbage and incinerated his mortal part at Auschwitz, his ashes now mixed with those of over a million others murdered there.  Partly out of remorse, and partly out of local pride, the city of Osnabrück built a whole new wing on their small local art museum that doubled the size of the building, and all for Felix Nussbaum.  They hired the internationally famous architect Daniel Libeskind to design the new museum for Nussbaum's work. The man hounded out of his hometown and hunted down and killed like an animal is now the most famous artist Osnabrück ever produced and an object of local pride.

I sometimes think that we who are not Jewish tend to grab for straws when it comes to thinking about the Holocaust.  We are always looking for those heroic exceptions who courageously risked life and limb to save people; but those people were exceptional, and perhaps too exceptional to make much of a difference.  Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer complained about how ineffectual were movements like the Confessing Church.  In reality, most people went along with the program or looked the other way.  The fact remains that the Nazis succeeded in destroying more than a thousand years of Jewish culture in Europe, and came very close to destroying the Jewish people, in a span of less than 4 years.   As bad as things were, they would have been so much worse if Hitler had won the war.  The Jewish people (along with the Roma) probably would have been completely exterminated in Europe.  Hitler's plans for clearing out the east to prepare for German settlement involved the total destruction of major cities like Warsaw, Kiev, Leningrad, and Moscow (which the Nazis planned to turn into a lake), and the destruction of 65 percent of the population through starvation and mass murder.  The surviving 35 percent would have been made slaves to the Herrenvolk.  The historian Timothy Snyder estimates that these plans would have cost the lives of around 90 million people. As it is, around 17 million people died under the Nazi regime, and millions more perished in the War that Hitler started.  This is an unrelievedly bleak chapter in human history.  The paintings of Felix Nussbaum bear eloquent witness to that most colossal and destructive of all crime waves.


Gerrit said...

Just two months earlier a Dutch museum held an exhibition of his works. I completely missed that. D*#&

Unknown said...

At the outset I could not be able to express myself. I am deeply morose after reading this post.

feet on the ground said...

Thank you so much for this article, which is informative, insightful and beautifully written. (Without trying to gloss over the horrors at all, I feel that the last painting is a masterpiece. How astonishing that it could be painted in such appallingly difficult circumstances. It shows, I think, that it is not death that is ultimately triumphant, but all those broken things at the front of the picture, which will in the end flourish once more because they are so strong within us. Perhaps, in painting it, he was telling himself that.)
Just one question - how did the paintings survive?