The Felix Nussbaum house, a museum that opened in 1998 and is located in Nussbaum’s native city of Osnabrück in northwest Germany, closed for renovations July 26. A two-story extension designed by the museum’s original architect, Daniel Libeskind, will provide room for a new foyer, a library and other amenities. The renovated Nussbaum House is not scheduled to reopen until April 2011, but a retrospective exhibit of Nussbaum’s paintings, accompanied by a lavishly illustrated catalog, will be seen at Paris’s Museum of the Art and History of Judaism from September 22 to January 23, the artist’s first major showing in France.
Libeskind’s original design for the Nussbaum House, the first of his building designs ever to be completed in what has become a superstar career, reveals hyper-awareness of European historical tragedy, as seen in his much praised designs for the Jewish Museum Berlin (1989–1999) and San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum (1998–2008). Like a highly concentrated version of these vaster structures, the Nussbaum House takes the visitor through a narrative of shared Jewish experience, starting with household coziness and then veering to the starkness of deportation.
At its best, Nussbaum’s work, much like Libeskind’s, expresses a wide range of 20th-century Jewish experience and emotion. An illuminating, closely argued study that appeared last year from Routledge Publishers, “Pictorial Narrative in the Nazi Period: Felix Nussbaum, Charlotte Salomon and Arnold Daghani” by Deborah Schultz and Edward Timms, explains how Nussbaum retained the identity of creative artist rather than mere historical victim. One of his most famous paintings, “Self-portrait With Jewish Pass,” in which he holds an identity card marked “Jew” and wears a yellow star, is an artistically formulated composition, not a literal snapshot. By 1943, when Nussbaum painted “Self-portrait With Jewish Pass,” he did not actually carry an ID card or wear a yellow star, but was sequestered in Brussels, where he had moved in 1937 and managed to return in 1940, after escaping from a French concentration camp train. Nussbaum’s firm draftsmanship, akin to Germany’s 1920s New Objectivity art movement, exemplified by such painters as Otto Dix and Christian Schad, wards off self-pity and sentimentality.
Nussbaum’s constant stylistic experimentations likewise strove for emotional mastery at a time of inhuman stress. Adopting elements from the death-obsessed expressionism of Belgian artist James Ensor and the dreamy idealism of French painter Henri Rousseau, Nussbaum developed a stylistic variety that was more than mere eclecticism. This variety more closely resembled a kind of artistic fleeing that preceded even his status as a hunted refugee. Nussbaum’s earliest surviving work is in the swirling art nouveau (Jugenstil) manner: “Remain Pious” (Bleibe Fromm, quoting the 37th Psalm), a 1920 drawing dedicated to a 13-year-old friend, Alfred Gossels (who would be murdered in 1944 in the Stutthof concentration camp), as a “constant reminder of his bar mitzvah.” Nussbaum himself did remain pious, in his own way, as he informed the German-Jewish painter Ludwig Meidner in a 1925 letter: “I am much too uneducated to deny God… I cannot search for God. I can only believe in my parents, and for their sake (perhaps because I am a stupid person) keep the festivals — out of love. Is this then not God? Whether the closeness between me and my parents is God — I don’t know.”
Despite this apparent lingering uncertainty, Nussbaum, whose decision to become a painter was financially supported by his parents, clearly embraced his own Judaism as a kind of happier, more contented Franz Kafka might have, in terms of his rapport with elders. Nussbaum’s ardent 1926 “The Two Jews (Inside the synagogue in Osnabrück)” includes a self-portrait in which the artist proudly wears a tallit. Other works, now lost but included in his online catalog raisonné, display a concern reminiscent of Paul Gauguin for local color, such as “Jews’ Alley in Antwerp” from around 1928. Another now-lost work from around 1929 shows Nussbaum’s companion and later wife, Felka Platek, a Polish-Jewish painter, in the guise of a rough Gallic Apache dancer. Nussbaum’s creative sense of reinvention extends to adopting, as early as 1930, the death-obsessed style of Ensor, which makes him look historically prescient today. “Dance by the Wall (Coffin-Bearers; 1930),” now in Milwaukee’s Marvin and Janet Fishman collection, declares a willingness to be inspired by the mortuary of modern history. Nussbaum’s 1933 “ Entombment (Organ-Grinders) ” associates a white-clad ensemble boldly playing the shofar with hurdy-gurdy men. The latter have been symbols of existential despair since Franz Schubert’s song “ Der Leiermann ” in the early 19th-century song cycle “ Die Winterreise ” (a metaphor continued in “ Organ-Grinder ,” 1942–1943).
This linkage of historic German culture, especially music, with contemporary horrors continues in 1935’s “Comic Concert ( The Classical Singing Lesson) ,” now in The Israel Museum. In this painting, everyday cultural expression carries on amid foreboding ruins. Refined cultural understanding is problematic at times of violent tragedy, as suggested in Nussbaum’s 1936 “ Self-Portrait With Apple ,” in which the perplexed-looking artist proffers an emblematic fruit from the biblical tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Nussbaum’s dozens of self-portraits from his time in hiding, like 1936’s “ Grimacing Self-Portrait ,” are profound investigations of the very meaning of art, using a vocabulary familiar from the self-portraits of painters ranging from 17th-century Dutch masters to Austrian modernist Egon Schiele. By donning a pointed hat, such as those forced upon medieval Jews, in the 1936 image, Nussbaum clearly expresses his religious identity; yet, in other works, like 1937’s “ Self-Portrait With Brother ,” the sole context is artistic, alluding to Italian Renaissance master Raphael’s celebrated “ Self-Portrait With Fencing Master .”
Such enduring primacy of art allowed Nussbaum, as his tragic fate approached, to express complex themes, such as the refugee as escaping trickster, in 1937’s “ Man Behind the Window Self-Portrait after Adriaen van Ostade) ,” or the betrayal of nature inherent in the monstrous rise of European fascism, in 1939’s “ Self-Portrait With Scabious Flower .” Such metaphoric power rejects victimhood, as in Nussbaum’s 1941 “ Self-Portrait With Key ,” now in the Tel Aviv Museum. In this portrait, the artist’s clenched fist defines creativity as a bellicose act.
While Nussbaum did produce some disappointingly standard-issue images of pitiably emaciated refugees with big eyes, his New Objectivity rigor notably permitted him to create harder-edged works, like the 1941 “ Fear (Self-Portrait with his Niece Marianne) ,” in which emotional expression, not a demand for pity, is the key element. Even when blending New Objectivity with surrealism in the style of Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, as in 1942’s “ Soir (Self-Portrait with Felka Platek) ,” Nussbaum’s symbolic force did not desert him. It seems only right that the last surviving works by this mighty artist should be pared-down visual metaphors, such as “ Study of a Skeleton Playing a Clarinet ,” now in New York’s Jewish Museum. In such images as “ Death Triumphant (The Dance of the Skeletons) ,” as we often find in the greatest modern art, the message is devastating but the artist’s humanity is nonetheless triumphant.
Benjamin Ivry is a frequent contributor to the Forward.