Saturday, 21 January 2012


“During times of war, hatred becomes quite respectable even though it has to masquerade often under the guise of patriotism.” - Howard Thurman
Summer is back this weekend and we had a very hot and sunny day today. As we had another leisurely morning and a lazy breakfast, it was already 10:00 a.m. by the time we decided to go out. It was already quite warm and we didn’t want to drive far, nor spend too much time in the hot sun. It was a perfect day we decided to go to the National Gallery of Victoria. There is a wonderful sculpture garden in the back courtyard, and plenty of things see and do inside, in air conditioned comfort!

It’s always a pleasure to visit our Gallery as it is of world standard with many significant works: Paintings, sculptures, drawings, decorative art pieces, ancient artifacts and ever-changing temporary exhibitions. Add to that an excellent gallery shop that specialises in art books, several bars, cafés and a restaurant. It seems that many people had the same idea today and it was rather crowded there! It is quite civilised that entry to the gallery is free (although a donation of course is appreciated) but if one wants to see the visiting temporary exhibitions one has to pay an entrance fee.

Another wonderful thing about the Gallery is that one may take photographs inside it (without flash, of course), but only in the permanent collection areas. Temporary exhibitions are sacrosanct and one may not photograph the exhibits. However, I am very pleased that I am allowed to use my camera in the Gallery and one may take some stunning photographs not only of the exhibits but also of the wonderful architecture.

The special temporary exhibition at the present time is called “The Mad Square - Modernity in German. It covers a tumultuous time in Germany in the early twentieth century. After the First World War, the monarchy was abolished and replaced with the Weimar Republic. This was a period of political unrest, but it was also an era of optimism characterised by industrial development, innovation, and unprecedented freedom of expression. In Berlin and cities throughout Germany, avant-garde art movements flourished: Expressionism, Dada, Constructivism, Bauhaus and New Objectivity.

Artists experimented with new forms, techniques and great changes and innovations extended across all art forms, including painting, photography, design, decorative arts, film, theatre and political satire. The temporary exhibition brings together over 200 works exploring the fascinating and complex ways in which artists represented the modern world, including major works by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Christian Schad, Hannah Höch, August Sander, László Moholy-Nagy and El Lissitzky. The art works exhibited are drawn from renowned international and Australian collections. It certainly is a grand collection of works highlighting the broad spectrum of modern German works from this period.

Expressionism is a term that can be used to cover a huge variety of subjects and styles in which shape or colour is exaggerated or distorted so as to express the emotional essence of a subject. This often leads to creation of confronting works that elicit gut reactions in the viewers. In Germany, where Expressionism dominated the artistic circles in the first decades of the 20th century, the movement is associated with two generations of artists. The first – such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Franz Marc and Wassily Kandinsky – included the Brücke and Blaue Reiter groups, founded between 1905 and 1911, which were swept up by the idealism and optimism of the new century. The second, born ten years later – like George Grosz and Otto Dix – came to maturity on the brutal battlefields of the First World War.

In tribute of the special exhibition, I am showcasing a work by the German painter Felix Nussbaum. He was born in Osnabrück in 1904. In 1922 he studied at the Hamburg State School of Applied Arts. In 1923 he attended the private Lewin-Funcke-School in Berlin. In 1924-25 he became a student of the Berlin School of Fine and Applied Arts and a master student of Hans Meid in 1928-29. Beginning in 1929 he established a studio together with the Polish painter and later partner and wife Felka Platek.

In 1932 Nussbaum received a scholarship for the Villa Massimo in Rome. With the National Socialists taking over power in 1933, the political and cultural atmosphere in Germany underwent drastic changes. His Berlin studio was set on fire because of his Jewish heritage, and some 150 of his works went up in flames, an immense cultural and artistic loss. His scholarship at the Villa Massimo was at first extended by three months, but it was then cancelled and Nussbaum had to leave precipitously. His paintings were sent on to him in Alassio.

In 1935 Felix Nussbaum and his wife were in Paris, from where they travelled to Oostende. He changed his place of residence in Belgium several times, finally residing in Brussels in 1937. As German troops marched into Belgium in 1940, Nussbaum was arrested as a hostile foreigner and had to go to a detention camp in Saint-Cyprien, from where he managed to escape. He went back to Brussels and rescued his paintings, giving them to two of his friends in 1942 for safekeeping. He and his wife hid in the apartment of the Belgian sculptor Dolf Ledel.

Despite the hardships, Nussbaum continued working. As the smell of turpentine could reveal his hiding place, he worked in the basement of the house of an art dealer that he was friends with. In the 1940s he painted a number of extraordinary self-portraits and haunting pictures, dealing with his personal impressions, such as the “Selbstbildnis mit Judenpass” (Self Portrait with Jewish Passport) in 1943. Nussbaum and his wife were arrested on June 20, 1944 and were deported to Auschwitz where he died on July 31, 1944.

Felix Nussbaum is one of the main representatives of New Objectivity. His hometown opened the Felix-Nussbaum-House in 1998, where 170 works, some two thirds of this oeuvre, are exhibited.

Shown above is the “Masquerade” of 1939. This is a powerful and evocative work a distillation of the misery an anxiety of his time and life. Superficially, the people in masks are shown to be having a good time. The face on the right blowing the horn and the one on the left shouting (drunkenly?) that are “enjoying themselves” frame the remaining faces that show fear, disbelief, amazement, pain, impassivity. The group occupies a cramped space in the centre of the canvas. On the right tall buildings of an empty city that contributes to the claustrophobic feeling of the group. On the left, a desolate, moonlit landscape with a lone leafless tree that fails to allay the feeling of imminent danger and doom – rather it contributes greatly to it.

The painting is also a self-portrait, as Nussbaum used himself as the model for all six faces. The hats are the cultural heritage that Nussbaum is conscious of – the artist’s beret, the workman’s cap, the religious yarmulke, the mediaeval triangular cap, the top hat of the German burgher in which Nussbaum acknowledges his German Jewish roots. The artist also shows his female anima, which however, has been silenced. The closed eyes or masks worn by the figures show how everyone ignored the imminent holocaust of the war. A broken communication tower in the background contributes to the feeling of isolation, dysfunction and crumbling of civilisation shown in the painting.

The masquerade theme is also significant as it alludes to the period of latitude, wild abandon and revelry seen during the pre-Lenten carnival time. The heady pre WWII years in Berlin where a carnival-like atmosphere predominated, were followed by a period of agony and sacrifice, the holocaust being superposed on the passion of Christ. This is an amazing work where one may find much of the pain and misery that the artist experienced in the last five years of his short life.


  1. hooray, i can get into the comments section here ;-)

    thanx for this great post

    spending sunday in the airconditioned environment of the NGV - yep, thats the kind of stuff I miss about city life

    when it's hot here, there's nowhere in town you can spend half a day in the comfort of AC (except the office!)

    this painting and your explanation of it is superb

    when i start to feel like a country hick, i can always count on you to deliver the goods of some cultural conversation :)

    methinks i might be overdue for a 'colour bath' under that magnificent Leonard French ceiling of stained glass

  2. I agree. The Weimar Republic era might well have been a period of enormous political unrest, but oh what a creative time it was. Industrial development, innovation and exotic cabarets yes... but I am not sure about the optimism. If there was great hope for the future, it was equally weighed down by fear.

    Masquerade, a painting I did not recognise, beautifully depicted the perceived dysfunction of German society then. Thank you.