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Behind the Headlines an Unwilling Exile

April 24, 1985
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In 1985, German Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum is being described by officials of his hometown of Osnabrueck, Germany, as an “honored citizen.” In 1933, the talented 29-year-old artist was forced to cease studying at the Berlin Academy’s Villa Massimo in Rome. From that year when Hitler took power until Nussbaum’s life was ended in Auschwitz in 1944, he was not ever described as “honored” by the citizens of Osnabrueck.

For the 11 years between 1933 and 1944, Nussbaum continued to paint, while exiled and hiding in Belgium. He was never to return to his native city, nor to his native land.

Last week, a new generation of Osnabrueck officials were at the Jewish Museum here to launch Nussbaum’s first American retrospective (on view until August 4). The exhibit includes paintings, as well as drawings, and documents from public and private collections in Germany, Israel, and the United States, and is presented by the Jewish Museum with the cooperation of the Kulturgeschichtliches Museum in Osnabrueck and Goethe House in New York.

Nussbaum’s admiration for Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, Giorgio de Chirico is obvious in the early works displayed, but his unique style and sensitivity seem to grow greater as he expresses through his painting the personal and political crises that he faces.

Some of his paintings are highly symbolic, evoking the hell of a 15th century Hieronymous Bosch or the 20th century James Ensor. Others show the influence of the pathos of Picasso’s Blue Period and German Expressionism. His art is both a universal representation of the times and events through which he lived and painted, and his expression of his own personal ordeal.


A highlight of the show is Nussbaum’s “Self Portrait with Jewish ldentity Card, “painted in 1943. He depicts himself driven into a corner, holding up his identity card marked “Juif-Jood” (Jew).

Nussbaum’s first cousin, Shulamit Jaari, who has been instrumental in reviving interest in the artist, came from Israel to New York to attend the Jewish Museum opening. During World War 11, she fled from Germany to Holland and was a member of the Dutch resistance. Although she has worked with officials from Osnabrueck to bring her cousin’s paintings to the attention of the world, she admits to mixed feelings.

Jaari was quick to point out a significant feature of the “Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card” painting Nussbaum had first painted in and then carefully painted out the word “Osnabrueck” on the identity card in the painting. He Knew that he was not then an “honored citizen” but an unwilling exile.

He is said to have told a friend: “If 1 perish, do not let my pictures die; show them to the public.” It is somewhat ironic that the Jewish Museum and the Osnabrueck Museum have collaborated to do so, 41 years after Nussbaum’s murder by the Nazis. But irony aside, Nussbaum was an extraordinary talent and his painting speak volumes. They should be seen by anyone who wants to begin to understand the Holocaust in a political and social, as well as a personal and Jewish, context.

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