January 20, 2019

Nussbaum: The woe of an artist

They often say that the life of an artist is tragic by nature. Whether this generalization seems to be an overstatement when you take into account Felix Nussbaum’s story, is up to you. Yet surely you should at least begin to ponder on the real tragedies of our world. Nussbaum, an imperative German artist, not only recorded the suffering of Jews in concentration camps through his harrowing paintings, but was murdered in one of them along with many unfortunate others.

Nussbaum was quite the character. He simply refused to stop painting despite the destruction and devastation that surrounded him. At the very heart of the Nazi regime in Germany, he was caught along with many other Jews in a wave of hatred- uprooted from their country of birth, and deemed as aliens. The paintings which he produced in the 30’s are a bleak and despondent reminder of the horrors of the Shoah. But there is nothing more eternal, nor more tragic than the pain captured in his work.

The exhibition of such pieces although do not remain privy to the hearts and souls of the viewers who actually engage in viewing them, do play a role in the culture that formed as a result of the Shoah amid the diaspora and Israel. Something which has become eternally and unfortunately part of the Jewish existence. Yet, we cannot forget such tragic art, similar to how we are deemed by moral law to remember the millions that have perished.

Not only was Nussbaum born with a precocious ability to paint, but indeed his father, an amatuer painter, supported him through his desire to become a famous artist. As many Jews, Nussbaum was born in Germany’s secular Jewish populace, who although in the minority at the period were becoming far more typical. Still, despite his obvious talent, Nussbaum mastered the great feats of surrealism during Germany’s Weimar craze in the 20’s, when a great deal of Jewish and non-Jewish artists worked together to create new styles, forms and aesthetics.

These styles, mind you, carried the elaborate analogy of a mixed ethno-religious melting pot, which represented Germany’s welcoming and relatively prosperous Weimar period. Although, possibly made unclear by the surreal aspect, still held a great deal of weight in the representation of a society completely unlike Germany prior to 1914, or that of 1933.

In 1932, Nussbaum received a scholarship to study abroad in Rome as a result of his obvious ability. However, his luck ran short when Adolf took power in Berlin, and through his long arm extended his influence all the way to Rome, obviously due to Mussolini’ eagerness to please the Fuhrer. The academy where he was studying suddenly turned from a forward-thinking democratic entity to a mental factory directed at producing Aryan-oriented German and Italian propaganda. He immediately took the hint that he was not welcomed and fled to Belgium.

However as the shadow of Nazi Germany was descending over Europe, and Belgium was soon invaded by Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Felix and his wife were forced to go into hiding similar to thousands of other Jews. He lost contact with his family in Berlin, and soon while out he was captured and sent to an internment camp in Southern France. However he managed to escape and return to Belgium, with the obvious idea, as Liz Esby an Yad Vashem historian mentions, that his life as a “Jew and the Jewish people” was to be shattered. This only made more real by his dreary and bleak “Camp Synagogue at Saint Cyprien” where three men in tallits can be seen praying. Undeniably a reminder of the means by which some kept their religion through the entire disaster.

Despite all the vehement running and hiding, Felix Nussbaum was captured in 1944 and murdered at Auschwitz along with his wife. It was only a year earlier that he painted his famous “Self-Portrait”, where he can be seen with his yellow star and passport with the clearly stamped “Jewish blood” in wistful red.

What can we learn from Nussbaum?

The array paintings that have been left behind, not only display the languishing pain that Jews have gone through during the Shoah, but also the consolidation of a new part of Jewish culture. In fact, they are the very representation of the survival of the individual, and his/her humanity amid the calamity and ruin that surrounds him. This, most of all, can be seen in the tormented eyes that Nussbaum himself chose to depict in his “Self-Portrait”.

His legacy continues to live on in the Felix Nussbaum Haus, which is a museum in Germany dedicated to his life and works.