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By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 26 JANUARY 2011 — The retrospective of the work of the anti-Nazi, German Jewish painter, Felix Naussbaum at the Museum of Jewish Art and History is one of the most exciting and disturbing events in Paris. His paintings, little known in France, are not only magnificent, but are also a powerful testimony of an artist whose plight as a persecuted Jew would know no respite. They are a premonitory and poignant visual record of the rise of Nazism in Europe.

The story of this prodigious artist can almost begin with his death at Auschwitz in the summer of 1944, shortly after being denounced to the Gestapo in Brussels, where he and his wife, the Polish artist Felka Platek, had sought refuge four years earlier. Indeed, their exile had begun over ten years before, when Nussbaum, one of Germany’s most promising young painters, was summarily dismissed from the Academy. His criticism of the established order had culminated in The Fantastic Square, a painting completed in 1931 which lampooned official art and the intellectual stagnation at the Academy but which nevertheless won him wide acclaim and a scholarship to the Villa Massimo in Rome. But then in 1933 Hitler came to power, the first anti-Jewish laws were passed, and Nussbaum spent the rest of his short life fleeing between Italy, Switzerland, France and Belgium, in constant danger each time he left his hiding place to paint in his studio. He was never to return to Germany.

Felix Nussbaum: The Fantastic Square, 1931 

Felix Nussbaum was born in a comfortable middle-class family in Osnabrück, Germany where his father was an art collector and amateur painter who encouraged his son’s unique gift, passing on to him his passion for van Gogh. Later, after his studies at the Schools of fine Arts in Hamburg and Berlin, the young artist discovered the works of Henri Rousseau, Giorgio de Chirico, Max Beckmann and Otto Dix but  gradually forged his own highly personal and eclectic style which juxtaposes the falsely naïve with the macabre. His paintings reflected the world he saw collapsing around him, a world in the process of being destroyed by man.

"I had left the world of innocence behind me. I did large compositions, works which mocked, accused and provoked".

Many of the 40 paintings presented in the exhibition were self-portraits, beginning with portraits of himself as a young man questioning the place of an artist in the traditional Jewish world, to several where he is wearing a mask and culminating in those where persecution has intensified. All of them demonstrate a vast and conflicting range of emotions.

Arrested in Belgium in May, 1940, he was first sent to a concentration camp in Saint-Cyprien in the south west of France, but managed to escape three months later en route for Germany. He remained haunted by his experience in captivity. From his Self-portrait in the Camp, 1940, an oppressive, ominous work, to his later masterpieces, Self-portrait at the Easel, and Self-portrait with a Jewish Passport, all the fear of the Nazi terror and potential menace of extermination can be read in his facial expressions.

Felix Nussbaum: Self-portrait in the Camp, 1940

In his Self-portrait at the Easel he is naked from the waist up, gazing at himself. There is the mask on the wall he used in previous works, the mask of the commedia dell’arte, and although the pipe in his mouth makes him appear calm, on closer inspection, the French labels on the open bottles in front of him read "death", "nostalgia" and "suffering". He is seen as lucid and unequivocal in the midst of evil, but his sense of duty as a painter has not been shaken by danger; he will not be prevented from exercising his art.

With Self-portrait with a Jewish Identity Card, completed in the same year, he takes his defiance even further,  giving posterity an unforgettable image of the tragic situation of European Jews who have been banished from their homes. The artist, his yellow star clearly visible, is staring at us with a mixture of fear and insolence, showing us his identity card stamped, "Juif-jood," and placing the viewer in the role of the person checking it. His place of birth is virtually illegible and his nationality has been marked, "without". His emaciated, unshaven face is the image of the excluded, hunted exile.

All the characteristics Nussbaum used to illustrate the anxiety of the Jew in hiding are there; he is surrounded by high insurmountable walls, in the background a tree has been stripped of its leaves for use as a gallows, there is a threatening cloud, but last and not least, there is a solitary branch in bloom suggesting a tentative rebirth.

After his family was arrested in Amsterdam in August 1943; Nussbaum created a series of works of wraith-like figures with haggard faces, enormous eyes and wasted bodies wearing patched clothing and the yellow star. He did not know of the death camps, yet the premonitory vision in these works foreshadowed the horror of the images to come.

Death Triumphant, completed in the April before his death, is one of his more spectacular works and his last act of resistance. Inspired by such paintings as Picasso’s Guernica, Breugel’s Triumph of Death and Goya’s Disasters of War, it is an apocalyptic scene portraying the destruction of nature and the end of the liberal and fine arts, where science and progress has been annihilated. Telephones, light bulbs and jewellery lie amongst the wreckage. All the inanity of war is shown in a world reduced to rubble and disorder, where skeletons trample on ruined fields holding trumpets aloft to herald the end of time beneath a kite-filled sky. An emaciated angel of Death is gazing defiantly at us.

Felix Nussbaum: Death Triumphant, 1940

After denunciation by a neighbour, Nussbaum and his wife were arrested on 20 June 1944, and left on the last deportation train from Malines on 31 July . They arrived at Auschwitz on 2 August and died one week later. Many of his paintings, hidden for safekeeping in a cave by the Belgian Doctor, Dr Grosfils, and which came to light around 1970, needed careful restoration work, while others, concealed by the Belgian antique dealer, Willy Billestraet had remained in the Nussbaum’s hiding place in the Rue Archimède. The collection can now be seen in the Felix-Nussbaum museum, Osnabrück, which opened in 1998 with some 214 works, thus fulfilling the painter’s last wish: "If I disappear, don’t let my paintings die with me. Show them."

Headline image: Felix Nussbaum: Self-portrait with a Jewish Identity Card

Patricia Boccadoro is a senior editor at Culturekiosque. She last wrote on Paris, the Luminous Years.

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