April 24, 2019

Libeskind-designed museum reflects surrealist Nussbaum’s art

Just walking up to the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück, Germany, is a breathtaking experience. The building’s unconventional design of sharp angles, zigzagging windows and mixture of wood, concrete and zinc creates a visual symphony with the surrealistic art housed within. 

It’s a first-rate art museum designed by the eminent Jewish architect Daniel Libeskind, dedicated to the life of a young local Jewish artist who perished in the Holocaust.

The main section of the Felix Nussbaum Haus, covered with oak, imparts a warm, organic feeling, in contrast to a section of cold, immovable concrete. 

Not the sort of thing you might expect to find in a quaint medieval German town founded by Charlemagne in the eighth century.

And yet, there it is on the borders of Lower Saxony and Westphalia in a region where Jews have lived since the Middle Ages. (Currently, approximately 1,500 Jews reside in the region, and there is one Orthodox synagogue.) 

Felix Nussbaum was born there in 1904. His father — an educated, wealthy iron merchant and World War I veteran — appreciated culture and supported his son’s artistic passions. His mother, however, felt “the arts are nothing useful,” according to Eva Gerber, director of the Museum of Cultural History in Osnabrück, where the Nussbaum collection was originally housed. 

Nussbaum left the city in 1922 at the age of 18 to pursue his art, first in Hamburg and then in Berlin, where he attended the Prussian Academy of Arts. There he met his Polish-born wife, Felka Platek, a fellow painter. In 1932, he was awarded the coveted Rome Prize, allowing him to study abroad in Italy. When Hitler came to power, the scholarship was revoked, and Nussbaum went through 12 tumultuous years living in exile that lasted into World War II. 

The artist painted in hidden places, escaped from an internment camp in France and lived illegally with the Belgian underground. He was able to slip by, out of sight of the authorities, until the closing months of the war. On June 20, 1944, Nussbaum was found and deported, along with his wife, and was eventually sent to Auschwitz. He perished there about a month later, at age 39, meeting the same fate as his wife, parents and older brother. 

The Felix Nussbaum Haus opened in 1998 and displays close to 100 of its 300 pieces of art, thanks to a large number of works recovered by the artist’s cousin and given to Osnabrück. Gerber said they’ve become a valued treasure.

“The city of Osnabrück decided to create a museum for the Nussbaum collection, not just for the crime of the time but for the art,” she said.

Artistic influences revealed in Nussbaum’s work include the Post-Impressionist painters Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Rousseau, according to our tour guide, Anne Sibylle Schwetter, curator at the Felix Nussbaum Haus. However, she said, “Nussbaum developed his own style using metaphors to depict his emotional and isolated world.”

In a powerful example of architecture and art working together, the museum showcases two self-portraits by Nussbaum — both created in 1943 while he was in hiding — on a long, stark concrete wall. The first piece, “Self-Portrait With Jewish Identity Card,” is spiritually deflating. Filled with drab colors and an aura of claustrophobia, it shows a man standing in front of a crumbling wall, holding an identity card that has an illegible place of birth and the word “without” written for his nationality. Wearing a coat with a yellow Jewish star on it, one of the ultimate symbols of the degradation imposed by the Nazis, his penetrating gaze seems to be foreshadowing his destiny.

“His identity is not his identity. … The Germans were responsible for taking away his identity and freedom,” Schwetter said. 

In a stark juxtaposition, the only other painting on the long wall is “Self-Portrait at the Easel.” A more virile Nussbaum is shown calmly smoking a pipe, bare-chested with bright eyes. His internal angst reveals itself through the labels that appear on the bottles of paint — death, nostalgia and suffering. According to Schwetter, the painting suggests a message from Nussbaum that even though he was a prisoner, he found freedom in his art.

“Self-Portrait at the Easel,” Felix Nussbaum, 1943. Photo courtesy of Felix Nussbaum Haus

Nussbaum’s sense of humor remained evident even up to his last known painting, “Triumph of Death” (1944). It features a hideously alluring landscape of trash, dead trees, a sky filled with masks in the shape of kites, and skeletal figures, many still with skin and hair, playfully making music in an post-apocalyptic world. A torn piece of sheet music appears on the ground with notes from “The Lambeth Walk,” a song in the 1937 musical “Me and My Girl” that is a caricature of a German military march. 

This painting is placed alone on a dark wall; the floor leading to it slopes downward, and a grate compels you to stop at a distance a few feet from the painting. It forces you to pause for a moment and take it all in, and then you realize: You’re at a dead end.  

The museum, which sits on the remains of an 18th-century bridge that was once part of the city’s fortifications, is itself a work of art. Designed by Libeskind, a Polish-American Jew and internationally renowned architect and urban planner, it was the first building he completed in his signature deconstructionist style. Other noteworthy ones have followed: the Jewish Museum Berlin, the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco and the master plan for the World Trade Center site in New York City.  

The entrance to the Felix Nussbaum Haus — part of a 2011Libeskind-designed extension project — is both inviting and daunting, as its cacophony of shapes hints at the interior.

Inside, the museum contains three distinct sections, each symbolic of an important phase in Nussbaum’s life. A windowless narrow corridor made of concrete — a material that is cold, hard and barren — symbolizes his experience in exile. This wing of the museum faces what from 1933 to 1945 had been the local Nazi Party headquarters. 

The main wing is covered with oak, symbolizing Nussbaum’s younger life and his artistic evolution. It looks toward the former location of the old Jewish synagogue, which burned down in 1938. 

The wing called “The Bridge” is faced with zinc sheets — the coldest and most unchanging of the materials. It represents the last days of Nussbaum’s life and his death in the extermination camp. It is oriented toward the neighboring Museum of Cultural History, symbolically reintegrating Nussbaum’s life and art into the history of the city of Osnabrück. 

Throughout the building, asymmetrically shaped windows create collisions within the walls. The light works like a sundial throughout the museum, always changing with the time of day. There are sloping floors, unpredictable intersections and dead ends that reflect Nussbaum’s martyred life of fear and oppression. 

Leaving the museum, it’s hard to not feel swept away by the magnitude of the architecture and Nussbaum’s gripping and powerful world that was filled with beauty, confusion and, ultimately, silence.