Explanation about painting by Deputy Director and Senior Art Curator of the Museums Division Yehudit Shendar
This artwork follows a sketch created by Felix Nussbaum immediately after his escape from the St. Cyprien camp to Brussels. Here for the first time his Jewish identity takes a central stage, after many years during which he addressed universal subjects.
A cohesive group of four men wrapped in their prayer shawls stands in front of a camp barrack which serves as a makeshift synagogue, while a single figure remains apart. This is likely the artist himself, who still hesitates whether to join the service. The congregants are viewed from behind, their heads vanishing into the dark background, while their features are not discernible. The white prayer shawls serve as the only highly illuminated surface in the painting. The worshippers cling to their faith in the moroseness of the camp, while the protective prayer shawl magnifies the fragility of the prisoners.
The gray light of the threatening morning sky confers the painting an apocalyptic aura. A black cloud and the scavenger birds circling above their prey – a recurrent motif in Nussbaum’s art – forebode ill. Scattered on the sand are items alluding to the harsh and miserable life in the camp: barbed wire, a bare bone, an empty can, and an abandoned shoe symbolize hunger and death.
Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944)
Born in Osnabrück, Germany. Studied art in Hamburg and at the Academy of Art in Berlin, which awarded him a scholarship to study in Rome. In 1933, his scholarship was revoked because he was Jewish. Refusing to return to his homeland, Nussbaum condemned himself to life as a refugee, and with his wife, the artist Felka Platek, he found asylum as an alien in Belgium. Following the German occupation of Brussels, he was arrested and sent to the St. Cyprien and Gurs camps in France. He managed to escape and returned to Brussels where he lived in hiding with his wife. Despite the harsh conditions, he produced many paintings, receiving help from friends who provided him with art supplies. For the first time, Jewish subjects appeared in his art, echoing his own fate and that of his persecuted brethren. In June 1944, the couple was apprehended after an informant revealed their hideout. In July they were deported on the last transport from Belgium to Auschwitz, where they were murdered.
Click here to view an online exhibition about Felix Nussbaum