Curator's Choice: August 2011

Curator's Choice

August 23, 2011

Egon Schiele (1890-1918)
Town among Greenery (The Old City III), 1917
Oil on panel
Neue Galerie New York
In memory of Otto and Marguerite Manley, given as a bequest from the Estate of Marguerite Manley

This townscape was inspired in part by Krumau, a city in southern Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic. Marie Schiele (née Soukup), mother of the painter Egon Schiele, was born there in 1862. Krumau is distinguished by its twisting, narrow, streets and joined medieval houses. In May 1911, Schiele moved to Krumau with his model and girlfriend, Valerie (Wally) Neuzil, and took up residence in a garden apartment that Wally had found. Schiele was attracted to its picturesque landscape and used the local residents as his sitters. His time in Krumau was cut short, however, when it was observed that a young girl had posed nude in his garden. Schiele returned to Vienna in August 1911, but frequently visited Krumau to sketch the city and its environs.

Schiele's depictions of Krumau are often completed from a bird's-eye view. This offers a somewhat claustrophobic presentation of the town and leaves no room for any streets. Most of his landscapes exclude people. He painted an entire series of Krumau in a somber palette entitled Tote Stadt or Dead City. This work is a rare exception in that there are a number of inhabitants visible. The riotous splashes of red, orange, purple, and yellow suggest a sense of elation rarely encountered in his pictures of Krumau. The dramatic brushstrokes and brilliant palette demonstrate Schiele's study of Vincent van Gogh's work. Schiele would have seen Van Gogh's bright canvases both in exhibitions and in private collections; in addition, he owned a copy of the 1910 monograph on Van Gogh by art critic Julius Meier-Graefe.

The optimism seen in this landscape may have resulted from the fact that Schiele's fortunes were improving. He and his wife Edith were expecting their first child, and he was gaining both critical and financial success. Tragically, in October 1918, the influenza epidemic claimed the lives of Edith, Schiele, and their unborn child within days of each other. Schiele was only twenty-eight years old at the time of his death.

Curator's Choice

August 11, 2011

Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944)
Self-Portrait in the Camp, 1944
Oil on panel
Neue Galerie New York

Felix Nussbaum was born in Osnabrück in Lower Saxony, the son of Philipp Nussbaum, an assimiliated ironware manufacturer, and Rahel, née van Dyk. Nussbaum studied art first in Hamburg and then in Berlin. His work shows the influence of Vincent van Gogh, Henri Rousseau, Giorgio de Chrico, and James Ensor. In 1932, he received a stipend to study at the German Academy in Rome at the Villa Massimo. While he was studying in Italy, a fire at his Berlin studio in December 1932 destroyed nearly all the work he had created to date. With the rise of the National Socialists to power in 1933, Nussbaum was dismissed from the Academy.

After a brief period spent on the Italian Riviera, he ultimately sought refuge in Belgium along with his companion and later wife, Felka Platek, a Polish Jewish painter. The couple initially lived in Ostend and later in Brussels. Belgium proved to be a safe haven until the German army invaded in 1940. Under the occupation, the Belgian authorities arrested all German males over the age of fifteen. Nussbaum was among those seized, and he was sent to detention at the Saint-Cyprien camp in France.

Self-Portrait in the Camp is an eyewitness account of conditions at the internment camp. The situation was so nightmarish at Saint-Cyprien—known as "the Hell of the Pyrenees"—that Nussbaum requested a transfer back to Germany. During the transport, he escaped and joined his wife in Brussels. There, he painted this haunting picture and other works documenting the experience.

In this self-portrait, Nussbaum's handsome but crease-worn face stares relentlessly. His right eye is at the very center of the panel. One side of hs face is obscured in shadow, perhaps a reflection of the gathering storm clouds above. In the background on the left, a man at a table holds his head in his hands. Before him, a candle symbolizes that his life has almost burnt out. At the right, two men suffering from dysentery struggle to relieve themselves. Bones scattered in the yard confirm the fate of the other prisoners. Nussbaum's palette is somber and reflects that dark subject of the painting. Nussbaum's signature appears just beneath a skull.

In July of 1944, Nussbaum and Platek were arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where they both died in August of 1944. Before his capture, he begged a friend, "If I perish, don't let my works die; show them to the public." This self-portrait is at once a powerful testament to the horrors of the Holocaust, and to the irrepressible creative drive of the human spirit. 

Curator's Choice

August 5, 2011

Alfred Kubin (1877-1959)
Man in a Storm, ca. 1903
Pen and ink, wash, and spray on paper
Neue Galerie New York

Bohemian-born artist Alfred Kubin moved to Munich in 1898 to study art. It was here that he first encountered the works of Old Masters at the Alte Pinakothek and also the black-and-white prints of German artist Max Klinger. They made a lasting impression on the young artist and determined the course of his career. Kubin immersed himself in the graphic work of Francisco de Goya, Félician Rops, Edvard Munch, James Ensor, Odilon Redon, and others. He also found inspiration in a wide variety of literary sources, from Edgar Allen Poe to Fyodor Dostoevsky, August Strindberg, and Gérard de Nerval, a French Romantic poet from the early nineteenth century.

Kubin's artistic output explored basic human impulses—desire, fear, death, destruction, and also fantasy. His enigmatic drawings belie an unusual sense of humor and a taste for perversion. Kubin's work from around 1903 entitled Man in a Storm evokes a nightmare. A huge, bee-like insect with a giant stinger swoops down on a nude, male figure, whose own shadow is transformed into a ghostly doppelgänger. The man strides toward a luminous source of light. His long hair streams behind him, yet his feet appear rooted to the ground. The diagonal thrust of the composition increases the sense of urgency and directs attention toward a possible passage of escape. As a child, Kubin suffered a series of traumas, including the premature death of his mother and the loss of his first fiancée, Emmy Bayer. This work is believed to have been completed around the time that Emmy Bayer was sick and dying of typhus.