This Day in Jewish History

1904: An Artist Who Painted Wonderfully in Hiding From the Nazis Is Born

Felix Nussbaum, creator of 'Triumph of Death,' never stopped painting in years of fleeing. In the end, he was caught.

Wikimedia Commons

December 11, 1904, is the birthdate of the German-born Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum, who was arguably on his way to becoming one of the great painters of the 20th century, when his life was cut short by the Holocaust. Fortunately, in large part due to the efforts Nussbaum made to hide his work with non-Jewish friends before his deportation to Auschwitz, much of his work survived.

Felix Nussbaum was the younger of the two sons of Philipp Nussbaum and Rachel van Dyk Nussbaum, a bourgeois couple from the German city of Osnabrueck. Philipp was an amateur artist himself, the owner of a ironmonger’s shop who was to serve proudly in the German cavalry in World War I.

Felix attended Jewish primary school and then gymnasium in his birthplace. The first piece of art of his that survives was an Art Nouveau drawing, titled “Remain Pious,” he made for a cousin on the occasion of his bar mitzvah, in 1920.

During the early 1920s, he studied the subject seriously, first in Hamburg, and then in Berlin, where he worked with several different masters. In 1924 he met Felka Platek, a Polish-born artist with whom he shared a studio in Berlin, and whom he married in 1937.

A short-lived scholarship

Nussbaum, whose main influences are artists like Van Gogh, Georgi di Chirico and the German Expressionist Karl Hofer, had his first solo show in 1927, at the Jacques Casper Gallery in Berlin. In 1932, he was awarded a fellowship by the Prussian Academy of Art to study at its Villa Massimo in Rome.

By the following spring, however, the Nazis had taken power in Germany, and in April Joseph Goebbels visited Rome and told Nussbaum and his colleagues that the role of the Nazi artist is to focus his work on the themes of “the Aryan race and heroism.” A short time later, after a fight with a fellow student, Nussbaum’s fellowship was withdrawn.

In 1935, his studio back in Berlin went up in flames, apparently an act of arson, and approximately 150 of his works were destroyed.

In the years that followed, Nussbaum and Platek, whom he married in 1937, moved around a lot, as did the rest of his family, as they sought a safe haven in various European cities. He also continued to paint and to exhibit, including in solo shows in Cologne, Brussels, Ostende and the Hague. In 1938, he participated in a show of “Free German Art” in Paris, which was meant to be a response to the “Degenerate Art” exhibition then moving around Germany.

Painting in his hiding place

In May 1940, after the Germans invaded Belgium and France, Nussbaum, then in Brussels, was arrested, as an enemy alien, and sent to the St. Cyprien internment camp, in southern France. Later in the year, while being transported, he escaped from captivity and made his way back to Brussels, where Platka was. From then, until their deportation, in June 1944. the two of them remained in hiding with various friends in Brussels, one of whom provided Felix with a basement studio where he continued painting.

But the couple was betrayed and on June 20, 1944, they were turned in to the authorities in Brussels. On July 31, they were deported, on the last train to leave the Mechelen transit camp for Auschwitz.

They arrived there on August 2, and were murdered a short time later. On September 3, Brussels was liberated by the Allies.

Nussbaum remained extremely prolific during his years of hiding, and his work, often grotesque and macabre, offers rare testimony of someone who was able to document artistically his own reactions to being a Jew in the Holocaust. Perhaps not surprisingly, Jewish themes became increasingly common in his late works. Nussbaum’s last known painting, “Triumph of Death,” is dated April 18, a chilling Hieronymous Bosch-like depiction of a scene in which skeletons play music and hold court over a despoiled post-apocalyptic wasteland.

In 1942, Nussbaum had hidden some 100 oil paintings with two dentist friends in Brussels. They are among some 460 works by Nussbaum that are known to have survived. All can be found, together with extensive biographical and critical material, in an online catalogue raisonne maintained by the Felix Nussbaum Foundation at
http://www.felix-nussbaum.de/werkverzeichnis/archiv.php?lang=en&
The foundation, together with Nussbaum’s native city of Osnabrueck, also operates a museum dedicated to displaying his work.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen