Black flags hang from bare window sockets onto the empty street, on which stands only a leafless tree and a black cat with its tail cocked in fear: Felix Nussbaum's painting "Rue triste" (in German "Desolate Street") is depressing. Until now it was considered a visionary premonition of death; the catalog raisonné of the artist, who was murdered in 1944 in the Auschwitz concentration camp, dates it to 1928. A high-tech investigation now shows that the picture must have been taken at the end of 1938 or beginning of 1939 and should therefore be Nussbaum's reflection on the November pogroms, better known but imprecisely as "Reichskristallnacht". represent.
Nussbaum, born at the end of 1904 as the son of wealthy Jewish parents in Osnabrück, had left his adopted home of Berlin in 1932 to take up a scholarship as an artist at the Villa Massimo in Italy. He did not return to Germany, because Hitler had ruled there since the end of January 1933. Nussbaum was stripped of his state grant and had to emigrate to Belgium via Switzerland and France. He lived here until the Wehrmacht attacked in May 1940, when he was interned and deported to southern France. Nussbaum managed to escape from the St. Cyprien camp, then returned illegally to Brussels and lived underground there, supported by non-Jewish friends.
In mid-1942, Nussbaum hid his painting "Rue triste" along with many other paintings at his dentist Grosfils. In complete isolation and in constant danger of being discovered and deported, he himself created other works of art that are impressive testimonies to the psychological pressure on persecuted Jews.
On June 20, 1944, he and his wife Felka were arrested in their hiding place and taken to an assembly camp. From there they were deported to Auschwitz on July 31. A file from the infirmary in the Auschwitz main camp from September 20 lists the name of Felix Nussbaum; in the following months he must have succumbed to the unbearable living conditions in the concentration camp. In any case, he did not live to see the liberation of the camp in January 1945.
It was not until the late 1960s that Auguste Moses-Nussbaum, the painter's cousin, rediscovered the painting "Rue Triste"; since 2008 it has been on permanent loan at the Center for Persecuted Arts in Solingen. For the exhibition "1929/1955" about the beginnings of the documenta in Kassel, the painting was examined at the Institute for Restoration and Conservation Science at the Technical University of Cologne using X-rays and infrared light. This allows earlier layers to be made visible.
The result was surprising: "Rue triste" is painted over a previously lost work by Felix Nussbaum, of which there are only two original sketches from 1938/39. From this, the Center for Persecuted Arts concludes: "The 'Rue triste' is Felix Nussbaum's reaction to the pogrom night of November 9, 1938."
The former journalist (among others at WELT) and collector Jürgen Serke, who owns and lenders the painting, said of the find: "A sensational discovery! I've always had the feeling that this picture hides a secret. Now it's aired."
The two known preliminary drawings (today in Yad Vashem and in the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt/Main) show people in a landscape of ruins. You are still associated in the catalog raisonné with the invasion of Poland in September 1939. But that cannot be, because Nussbaum had painted a version of it in oil under the motif of "Rue triste" - and "Rue triste" was shown for the first time at his exhibition in Brussels. On this occasion, the Dutch newspaper "Nieuwe Rotterdamse Courant" mentioned the picture on February 11, 1939, almost seven months before the attack on Poland. "Rue triste" can therefore only have been created after the oil version of the two preliminary drawings, which Nussbaum immediately painted over again.
The director of the Solingen Museum, Jürgen Joseph Kaumkötter, considers the November pogroms to be the reason for Nussbaum's first apocalyptic, then desolate portrayal: "There is no other event to which one can connect it." In fact, the evidence speaks for it. This would make "Rue triste" one of the earliest artistic depictions of the organized attacks that began in the late evening of November 9, 1939 in Munich, covered the entire German Reich in the hours that followed and continued until November 11, in some places even more stopped or flared up again by the 13th.
During this time, National Socialists of all ages took action against the Jewish population in at least 1,400 towns and cities. Almost all synagogues and prayer rooms on German soil were desecrated or set on fire, and tens of thousands of homes and businesses were looted. Following the state-sponsored assaults, the Gestapo, SS, and police deported some 31,000 male German Jews to Dachau, Buchenwald, and Sachsenhausen concentration camps.
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