Does alienation have a predefined or finite limit after which death writes its inevitable postscript? Can it become an all-consuming identity; part of a core genetic makeup? Is victimhood a path forged on the basis of free will, or a preordained destiny that unfolds over a lifespan. And, why does the victimizer feel compelled to play his role, this odd scenario of co-dependence and escape. There was even a form of ”death-wish” expressed by the fervent, pious, in an effort to induce a cameo by the messiah; The morbidity and slaughter led them to believe they were playing a strong hand at the cosmic card table. Almost a nuclear fission of Karmic mutants spiraling down a black-hole. The strange case of artist Felix Nussbaum appears as an articulate expression of that infinite emptiness.
In Threesome, painted in January 1944, Felix Nussbaum portrays himself as an observant Jew in hiding with his wife Felka and his son Jaqui. The triangular composition is reminiscent of renaissance sacral art. The painter identifies himself fully with the religion to which he was thrown back as a result of the persecution by the National Socialism, whereas his wife merely endures the situation. Felix Nussbaum describes here in one of his last pictures the situation of all those persecuted which lies somewhere between fear of death and vague hope.
Felix Nussbaum is not well known as a member of the German Expressionist movement in part due to his nomadic life; a personal voyage of the damned. In 1940, Nussbaum painted ”Self Portrait with Jewish Pass”. Here the artist is cornered and made to present documents that register his identity. The regard is furtive, that of the fugitive. Tired and hungry as well as powerless. The gloomy grey sky, bare tree and oppressive buildings heighten the despair and pain in this work. The artists angst filled glare puts the viewer in the uneasy position of the person demanding the pass. A position of dominance, power and authority. Uniformed, state sanctioned terror against the marginalized. Nussbaum draws us into the terror of the moment, while at the same time forcing an examination on our own role in oppressing others whether intentionally or as passive participants.
Nussbaum knew the influential James Ensor, whose bitter and cynical mask icons helped him configure his own dismal alienation which he refined into an almost differential calculus of abstraction.Mortality seasoned with a glimmer of fleeting hope. Then in 1936 came a rash of self-portraits: Self-portrait with Grimace, with Mask and Paper Horn, with Crazy Laugh, with Green Head Bandage, with Shadow, Self-Portrait Whistling. For the emigrant, the unwanted alien, an insecure, threatened identity demanded recognition–forming, in fact, the painter’s only standpoint and perhaps his unique identity.
There is with Nussbaum, a cultural identity, a restrictive religious affiliation and the identity of brilliant painter. For the former, there is an attraction and repulsion at play fused with an artwork that both reflects and resists destiny; achieved through experimentation with surreal and grotesque forms. In “Masquerade” (1939), a bunch of revelers are all citations of earlier self-portraits: the grimace, the mask and paper horn, the staring eye and covered mouth. Also from 1939, “The Refugee” brings on Nussbaum’s last phase. Leafless trees and black birds can be seen outside a bare room; inside, a globe of the world rests on an overlong table; at the table’s end near his sack and stick a figure huddles, back bent and head sunk in his hands like Van Gogh’s despairing old man painted jus
fore he shot himself.
”In letters he wrote during his forced exile in Scandinavia, the German playwright Bertholt Brecht complained about the sobriquet applied to people like him, who had decided to leave Germany upon the Nazi accession to power. “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.”