4.18. Felix Nussbaum, painting ‘Entombment (Organ-Grinders)’ (1933)

This painting by Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944) is unfinished in every respect: it is neither complete, nor signed, nor dated, nor titled by the artist. *The actual title was given by the auctioneering house in Jerusalem, which sold the painting to the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus of Osnabrück in 1998. Nussbaum began working on the painting in 1933, during his stay in Rome; after his education at the Berlin Academy, he had received the 1932 Prix de Rome, which entitled him to study for one year in the Villa Massimo, the auxiliary branch in Rome of the Academy. *Nussbaum’s neighbor in the Villa Massimo was Arno Breker (1900-1991), another laureate of the Prix de Rome, who was to become the representative sculptor of the Nazi regime. However, Entombment remained just as unfinished as his stay in the Eternal City:

This city hasn’t given me what it appears to have given others. Everything seemed to me so artificial, archaeological and unreal. Especially the play with the enormous ruins and broken pillars inspired me only to artistic pranks and villainous arguments. *Nussbaum, Interview with Émile Langui, 1939. In Berger et al., Felix Nussbaum 280. Quotation translated from the German by KvH.

Moreover, Nussbaum had to leave the Academy after a conflict in May, 1933. To make matters worse, his Berlin studio with 150 paintings had burned down a few months before and although the fire was not started on purpose, Nussbaum later considered it as a bad omen of the book burning by the Nazis in May, 1933, when thousands of books by Jewish, socialist, pacifist, anarchist, and liberal authors from Germany as well as from other countries were thrown into the fire. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels commented: “These flames do not only illuminate the end of the old era, they also light up the new. Never before have the young men had so good a right to clean up the debris of the past . . . The old goes up in flames, the new shall be fashioned from the flame in our hearts.” *Fishburn, Burning Books 35



Fig. 4. Felix Nussbaum, Entombment (Organ-Grinders). Oil on canvas. 80,5 x 100 cm. Felix-Nussbaum-Haus, Osnabrück. Reproduced by permission of the Felix-Nussbaum-Haus, Osnabrück.

Without any background information, it is difficult to understand Entombment. The hybrid character of the chronotope in the painting is enhanced by the strange perspective relations between the parts. The proportions of the figures may remind us of those in medieval paintings, in which the kings are pictured larger than their subjects. As all the motifs can be found in other works by Nussbaum from the same period, a comparison can be enlightening.

The main theme is the conflict between the authoritative discourse of the generation of established, academic artists and the internally persuasive discourse of the younger generation. Entombment is an Italian counterpart of Nussbaum’s painting Der tolle Platz (“The Crazy Square”) (1931) with the even more ostentatious format of 97 x 195,5 cm. The chronotope of Der tolle Platz is Berlin, with a city view composed of the Pariser Platz (“Paris Square”), Brandenburg Gate, the Academy of Fine Arts and the home of the old, well-known Jewish artist Max Liebermann (1847-1935)—which is reduced to a ruin in the painting. A procession of bearded professors in black robes enters the Academy, announced by a trumpet angel, while young artists in white painter’s coats, Felix Nussbaum in front, remain outside with their paintings, that were rejected by the Academy. Although Der tolle Platz was meant as a joke, it had an ominous motif in the form of a funeral procession of men with black top hats, led by a drummer. “An omen of the collapse, beginning intolerance and the gradually increasing war against (Jewish) ‘Kulturbolschewismus’?” *Berger et al., Felix Nussbaum 120. Quotation translated from the German by KvH ask Nussbaum’s biographers themselves, pointing out that the first anti-Semitic demonstrations at the Berlin academies were organized in the same year 1931.

The chronotope of Entombment has a mixed Jewish-Roman-German character. The center of the composition is an open box with instead of a corpse, a stone woman’s torso, a motif which appears in many works of Nussbaum as a symbol of the academic tradition with its glorification of classical Greek and Roman art. The bearded Academy professors do not assist at a burial, but at the opposite: an excavation. The organ grinder with his mobile instrument is a typical Berlin figure and not only the symbol for the artist living in poverty, but also for the artist as a craftsman, who has to work hard, turning the organ crank. The pale green sky is an important motif in Nussbaum’s work, particularly in paintings from the period of World War II, ending with his deportation and death in Auschwitz, where the green sky is always related to death. *For example in Kauernder Gefangener (“Chewing Prisoner,” 1940); Lagersynagoge (“Concentration Camp Synagogue,” 1941); Der Sturm – Die Vertriebenen (“The Storm – The Displaced Persons,” 1941); and St. Cyprien – Gefangene (“Concentration Camp St. Cyprien – Prisoners,” 1942). In Berger et al., Felix Nussbaum 337, 345, 363, and 375-6, respectively. The idealized Ancient world with the muscular men and lush nature of Ephraim Moses Lilien’s The Creation of Man *Chapter 4.3 is far away. The concert singer amidst a ruin is also a motif in Nussbaum’s work, for example in Sänger und Statue (“Singer and Statue”) and Das komische Konzert (“The Silly Concert”) (both 1935). *Berger et al., Felix Nussbaum 176, 177. There, the theme is the artist trying to keep up his bourgeois concert practice in a collapsed world. In Entombment, there is a male choir next to the ruins on the Roman Forum. Their hymn to classical civilization is disturbed not only by the organ grinders, but also by eight men dressed in white, blowing primitive horns and producing more sound than the obese trumpet angel in Der tolle Platz, who announces the professors. Similar singers and shofar blowers appear in the drawing Zerstörung (“Destruction”) (1933), *Ibid. 151 where not only does the colonnade of the Castor and Pollux temple in the Roman Forum lean dangerously, but where the leaning tower of Pisa needs only a few more shofar blasts to collapse.

In his protest against the ancient Roman tradition which seemed to him “artificial, archeological and unreal,” *Nussbaum, Interview with Émile Langui, 1939. In Berger et al., Felix Nussbaum 280 Nussbaum uses elements of the ancient Jewish tradition, to which these negative qualifications apparently do not apply. The shofar blowers—who rather resemble oryx horn or ḥaẓoẓrah blowers—seem to allude to the conquest of Jericho in Josh. 6, where seven priests with shofarot precede the Ark and the troops of the Israelites; the white painter’s coats might allude to the garments of priests. The eight instead of seven horns could mean that Nussbaum distanced himself from the letter of the Bible and only wanted to deal with the overall theme, the demolishing of a bulwark. The Past of the shofar blowing before Jericho is altered by the Present of the attack on the conservative bulwark of German art in Berlin. In contrast to the book burners, who according to Goebbels, destroyed “the debris of the past,” Felix Nussbaum did not destroy the works of the older generation of artists, but criticized his opponents in a humorous way. One of them, Max Liebermann, is alleged to have said, in his Berlin dialect: “Der wird mal beinah so jut wie ick selber.” *“One day, this guy will become nearly as good as I am.” In Berger et al., Felix Nussbaum 120. Quotation translated from the German by KvH. As a Jewish artist, Max Liebermann also fell victim to the Nazis: “On May 7 [1933] Liebermann resigned from the academy [the Prussian Academy of Arts] . . . Isolated and ostracized, Liebermann died in 1935[.]” Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. I: The Years of Persecution 12.

In two other works in A Tool of Remembrance the chronotope of Jericho is associated with resistance against contemporary, oppressive or restrictive authorities and there, the authoritative discourse of the biblical, military shofar becomes the internally persuasive discourse, in which the voice of the mighty is heard together with the voice of the weak. Yitskhok Leybush Perets’ short story Bontshe Shvayg (1894) *Chapter 4.1 is about a man who remained silent all his life, even under the most unjust treatment. “[Y]ou could have brought down the walls of Jericho,” says the judge of the heavenly court, “You never knew what powers lay within you.” *Ibid. 151. In the other work, the shofar is not blown figuratively but instead quite literally, as a protest against the restrictive rules of conduct of an older generation. In the first part of Amir Gilboa’s poem Raav (1950), *Chapter 4.32 a boy sneaks a shofar out of the Ark in a synagogue: “Look, look! Yosi is sneaking up to the ram’s horn in the ark. / What’s with the old man, how can he hesitate by his ark and not see Yosi? / Yosi, Yosi, blow, blow the ram’s horn! / Yaakov’s cards are dropping from his hands / and the walls of Jericho are crashing to the earth.” In the second part of the poem, the transgression of rules is transfered from the religious sphere to the sexual sphere, and the shofar can be considered as an implicit phallic symbol. In Felix Nussbaum’s painting, the role of religion is even more restricted: the attack of the shofar blowers is neither located in a specifically Jewish chronotope, nor supported by a high authority, nor directed at a religious establishment; instead, it is directed against the secular authority of the establishment in German art.


Next Chapter