Role Playing on Canvas

Excerpted from Wall Street Journal 2.2.2019 and Visit to German Museum of History 10.2.2018

In the first half of the 20th century, German-speaking Europe experienced world wars, economic chaos and the rise of Nazism. It was an unlikely historical moment for artists to focus on the most private of genres, the self-portrait. But “The Self-Portrait: From Schiele to Beckmann,” a new exhibition that will be on view at New York’s Neue Galerie from Feb. 28 to June 24, suggests that this time and place produced the greatest flowering of art depicting the artist since the Renaissance.

There is nothing stylized about the haunted, unshaven face that Felix Nussbaum gave himself in “Self-Portrait With Jewish Identity Card,” painted around 1943. At the time, Nussbaum was in Brussels, where he had gone into hiding after escaping from a concentration camp. In the canvas, the artist is portrayed wearing a coat with an upturned collar bearing the yellow-star symbol that Jews had been forced to wear. In an ironic contrast, a small I.D. photo on a card he holds up for our inspection shows him in an earlier incarnation, wearing a suit and tie. Arrested soon afterward, Nussbaum died in Auschwitz in 1944.

Born in Osnabruck, the artist and his wife Felka went into hiding in Brussels in 1942.  This self-portrait with his wife and a young helper shows him as a devout Jew, dressed in a blue-and-white striped prayer shawl and wearing a kippa. They follow the front lines on a map, but their faces show no sign of hope for their rescue.  After being betrayed, the Nussbaums were sent on the last deportation train from Belgium to Auschwitz on July 31, 1944.

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