Who was Felix Nussbaum? His work has only recently been rediscovered and in France, where he is not well known, his paintings have never been shown before. Through 23 January 2011, the Musée dart et dhistoire du Judaïsme
is presenting the first major retrospective of his work organised in France.
Felix Nussbaum was a modern German painter, whose work was shaped by the New Objectivity and by contact with the European avant-garde of the first decades of the 20th century, in particular the Italian pittura metafisica and international surrealism, references that link him to some of his contemporaries: Max Beckmann, Otto Dix or John Heartfield.
Yet first and foremost, he strikingly embodied the path of an artist whose condition as a persecuted Jew was never to leave him in peace. One day in 1933, this German Jewish bourgeois, from an honourable family, whose talent was supported by his father and acknowledged by his peers, the hope of young painters of his time, found himself banished by the Academy and forced to leave, without hope of return.
From being a critic of the bourgeoisie and the establishment, he became a restless watchman of the prowling threat of those dark days. He was to encounter it in the guise of revocation, exile, war, internment, forced to go underground: tragic news items marked out a process whose outcome was a foregone conclusion.
Born in 1904, Felix Nussbaum studied decorative arts in Hamburg, and later at the Fine Arts School in Berlin. A graduate of the German Academy in Rome, he was boarding at Villa Massimo in 1932.
When Hitler came to power, he was forced into an exile which after Italy, Switzerland and France, was to take him to Ostend, in Belgium. Arrested after the country fell on 10 May 1940, as a citizen of the Third Reich he was interned at the Saint-Cyprien camp in the South of France. After escaping, he returned to Brussels where he lived in hiding, with his wife Felka Platek, a Polish Jewish artist. He was eventually deported with her to Auschwitz and murdered on 31 July 1944.
His work testifies to the influences he acknowledged: Douanier Rousseau, Van Gogh, Beckmann, Ensor, Chirico; yet his taste for self-portraits and his allegories of Death also link him to the ancient Flemish and German masters. Exile and danger threw him into an existentialist portrayal of the condition of the hunted Jew to which he was to give such a fascinating expression.
Portraits, and above all self-portraits, set the pace of the artist's work, recalling his questioning, as a man, a son, an artist, a lover and an outlaw. Nussbaum used symbols that question the power of art and the role of the models and realities he claimed as a reference. His painting constitutes a journey through the history of art, a narrative and autobiographical thread attesting to a very complex mind, and a metaphysical fresco that is strangely disturbing, which describes a world being led to destruction by the hand of man.
Felix Nussbaums most important and spectacular works will be presented for the first time in France; most of them are housed in a museum specially dedicated to him in his city of birth, Osnabrück in Lower Saxony. This was what he wrote in his will: If I die, do not let my paintings follow me, but show them to men!
The museum is thus continuing a series of exhibitions dedicated to artists who were persecuted and murdered during the Shoah, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Bruno Schulz, Charlotte Salomon and artists who survived and were for ever marked by the experience, Isaac Celnikier or Serge Lask.