The reconstruction of a forgotten painter's career can be one of the most beautiful acts of scholarship. Jan Vermeer remains the classic case, unknown when he lived in the 17th century, ignored through the 18th, and finally revealed to the world by scholars late in the 19th. Lyubov Popova, a Russian abstractionist, is a less famous example, but still impressive--her art was banned by the Soviets after she died in 1924 and remained unknown till collectors and scholars rediscovered it half a century later. And then there's the remarkable case of Felix Nussbaum, in whose honour a museum will open this July 16 in his home town, Osnabrück, a small industrial city in northwest Germany.
Breathing fresh life into an artist's dead reputation requires intelligence, persistence, and a detective's shrewdness. Nussbaum's case was especially hard, since he lived in hiding for years, painted in secret, and left his work in the hands of people who were often untrustworthy. He was a victim of the Nazis, killed at Auschwitz, but he was also a brilliant chronicler of the Holocaust. The museum, containing 140 works, will be his personal triumph over history; it will also stand as Osnabrück's Holocaust memorial, used to tell the story to Germans of the future.
Nussbaum was born at Osnabrück in 1904. In some ways the family story carries the same tragic ironies now familiar to anyone who has studied this period: Felix's father was a fierce German patriot and a First World War cavalry officer; he, like his wife and both sons and his daughter-in-law, died for being Jewish.
In the early 1920s the father sent his talented son to study art in Hamburg and Berlin. Felix's early work, much of it now lost, showed Van Gogh's influence and Henri Rousseau's. Later, working toward his own style, he borrowed insights from the Belgian painter James Ensor and the Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico.
In 1932, Nussbaum and his companion, Felka Platek, went to Rome for what they expected would be a two-year stay at the German Academy's school. The fellowship ended after the Nazis came to power in 1933, and the Nussbaums (they married in 1937) never returned to Germany. They spent their remaining 11 years in various corners of Italy, France, and Belgium, scratching out a living as they searched for a place in which they could live with safety.
In 1940 the Belgians deported Felix to France and a miserable, crowded detention camp. There he made drawings of Jews living in terror and squalor, which later became the basis for many of his best paintings. Miraculously, he escaped, and in the same year returned to Brussels. He and Felka lived in a series of hiding places while making money by having his illustrations and ceramics sold under the names of non-Jews.
His "Self-portrait with a Jewish Identity Card," made in this period, often shows up in surveys of modern art, a desperate self-image, the artist drawn as a hunted animal, his face partly hidden by his trench coat. He displays a pass stamped "Juif-Jood," which Nussbaum was never actually issued, since he was underground. He wears a yellow star, which in life he never wore, for the same reason.
In his last months Nussbaum painted "The Damned," in which Felix and Felka are among Jews awaiting death. His last surviving picture, a modern version of a medieval dance of death, shows musicians playing in a shattered landscape representing the ruins of European culture.
The Nussbaums were alive a month before the liberation of Belgium, but they were betrayed. The Gestapo pushed them onto the last train taking Jews to Auschwitz. After the war, his art was scattered and his life undocumented. Scholars in Osnabrück spent years piecing together the life and searching for the work, often with no help from those with whom Nussbaum stored it. One man kept many paintings for decades, let them rot in a wet basement, and was reluctant to hand them over to Nussbaum's relatives for exhibition. Another man knew Nussbaum but claimed to have no paintings--which then showed up in the possession of his son after the man's death.
By 1971 there were enough works to make a fair-sized retrospective. In 1994, on the 50th anniversary of Nussbaum's death, Osnabrück put together a major retrospective. A handsome, detailed catalogue, published with that show, appeared as a book in English last year--Felix Nussbaum: Art Defamed, Art in Exile, Art in Resistance, edited by K.G. Kaster. The permanent Nussbaum memorial has been in the works for years, and has taken the form of an impressive design by Daniel Libeskind, an American Jewish architect born in Poland in 1946. Libeskind won a competition with a scheme that integrates the Felix Nussbaum Building with the city's history and folk museums.
In recent decades his work has been exhibited from New York to Moscow. The city that turned its back on the Nussbaum family now celebrates him and helps establish his place in art history. According to an ancient Jewish saying, to save one life is to save the world. In Osnabrück they have saved one painter, and perhaps helped redeem the honour of a nation--or at least of one city.