The name they coined us – emigrants - is fundamentally erroneous, since this was not a voluntary migration for the purpose of finding an alternative place to settle. The emigrants found themselves not a new homeland but a place of refuge in exile until the storm passes - Deportees that’s what we are, outcasts. (Bertold Brecht)
Felix Nussbaum, Jew at the Window, 1943
Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944) was born in Osnabrück, Province of Hanover, as the son of Rahel and Philipp Nussbaum. His father, Philipp, was a World War I veteran and German patriot before the rise of the Nazis. He was an amateur painter when he was younger, but was forced to work as a merchant for financial reasons. He therefore encouraged his son’s artwork passionately.
Felix Nussbaum, My Father, 1926
In 1922 Felix Nussbaum began his studies at the Hamburg State School of Applied Arts. One year later Nussbaum attended the private Lewin-Funcke-School in Berlin where he met the Polish-jewish painter and his later wife Felka Platek (who studied there under Ludwig Meidner). In 1924-25 he was a student of the Berlin School of Fine and Applied Arts and a master student of Hans Meid in 1928-29. As of 1929, together with Felka Platek, he rented a studio in Berlin (Xantener Straße 33).
Felka Platek, Self-Portrait, 1927
Nussbaum's early work was produced primarily in Berlin between 1920 and 1932. From 1924 onwards he attended the Preußische Akademie der Künste (The Prussian Academy of Arts) and as early as 1931 he was a well-known great amongst the artists of the young generation. If in his early pictures there are still traces of the painting style of Vincent van Gogh, the art to emerge from his time in Berlin is primarily influenced by Giorgio de Chirico and Carl Hofer, the painter who taught his trade in Berlin at that time. The artistic breakthrough came in 1931 with the great painting The Paris Square. It ridicules the "nobility" of the Prussian Academy of Arts (which was located there):
Felix Nussbaum, The Fantastic Square (The Parisian Square), 1931
As an award for his work, in October 1932, Felix Nussbaum travelled to Rome to be a studying guest at the Villa Massimo. As a result of the political situation evolving in Germany, he was never again to return to his home country. After Hitler came into power, Nussbaum's Berlin studio was set on fire because of his Jewish belief and some 150 works fell victim to the flames. During his travels along the Italian Riviera, Nussbaum succeeded, at least for a certain time, in counter-balancing the threatening events taking place in Germany by painting pictures that showed a soothing kind of beauty. But, from 1934 onwards, the colours, motifs and metaphors of his pictures attest to a foreboding, which warned of an uncertain future.
Felix Nussbaum, Puppets, 1943
In 1934, Nussbaum took Felka Platek to meet his parents in Switzerland. Rahel and Philipp Nussbaum eventually grew homesick for Germany and, against his fiercest objections, they returned. This was the last time Felix would see his mother and father - the source of his spiritual and financial support. Felix and Felka would spend the next ten years in exile, mostly in Belgium. Thus began Felix's emotional and artistic isolation.
Felix Nussbaum, Self-Portrait with Felka Platek, 1942
The February of 1935 saw Felix Nussbaum travelling on a tourist visa to the Belgian seaport of Ostend. This is where he proceeded to paint rather monotonous street and harbour scenes that became increasingly drab and gloomy. In 1937 Felix Nussbaum and Felka Platek moved to Brussels where they married and took up residence in an apartment in the Rue Archimède. In addition to some political works completed around 1938, Nussbaum began working on a series of still life paintings, in which things of a "dead nature" were turned into symbols and metaphors reflecting his own political circumstances.
Felix Nussbaum, Prisoners in Saint-Cyprien, 1942
On May 10th, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium. The Belgian police then embarked on a massive wave of arrests of thousands of refugees originating from German territories. The refugees were taken from their apartments at dawn and instructed to take 48 hours worth of supplies. Also Felix Nussbaum was arrested on May 10th and, together with the other refugees, sent to the French internment camp at Saint Cyprien. In August/September he could escape and returned to Brussels where Felka (she had stayed in Brussels) and Felix were hidden and supported by Belgian sculptor Dolf Ledel.
Nussbaum's most famous painting: Self-Portrait with Jewish Identity Card, probably from late 1942. The Nazi occupation ID card states JEW in French: JUIF, and in Flemish: JOOD.
1944 marked the fruition of the deadly Nazi machine’s plans for the Nussbaum family. Philipp and Rahel Nussbaum were killed in the concentration camp of Auschwitz in February. Like being aware of his own upcoming death, in Nussbaum's last painting, Triumph of Death (dated 18 April 1944), skeletal creatures play and dance to music within a a barren wasteland:
Felix Nussbaum, Triumph of Death, 1944
A matter of weeks later, on 20 June, Felix Nussbaum and Felka Platek were denunciated, arrested by German armed forces and given the numbers XXVI/284 and XXVI/285. On August 2, they arrived in Auschwitz where both were murdered a couple of days later. On September 3, Nussbaum’s brother was sent to Auschwitz, and three days later his sister-in-law and niece were murdered there. In December, Nussbaum's other brother Justus - the last of the family - died from exhaustion in the concentration camp of Stutthof. With one fell swoop, the Nussbaum family was officially and completely exterminated.
The Nussbaum family, 1915. Justus, Rahel, Felix and Philipp.
In 1998, the Felix Nussbaum Haus in Osnabrück - designed by Daniel Libeskind - opened its doors. More of 170 of his is works are permanently exhibited there. They also provide an excellent online catalogue.