For the second time recently, Dalrymple writes of those Jews who hid, successfully or unsuccessfully, from the Nazis. (I’ve often thought it an interesting but unremarked biographical detail that according to Jewish tradition, Dalrymple would be considered Jewish.)
The subject of this particular piece is the artist Felix Nussbaum. And what a powerful piece it is, telling the story of a man whose fear of impending death drove him to a great artistic achievement (the visual depiction of his own foreboding), and who did then actually succumb to its evil source, perhaps giving greater weight and meaning to his work.
…his portraits of his parents and himself are stylistic hybrids of van Gogh and Christian Schad; in his townscapes, he shows the influence of Utrillo. He is clearly a young artist, gifted but not supremely gifted, looking for a style to call his own.
But then the subject matter took over, as it were, and the subject was history.
His two last canvases, The Damned and The Triumph of Death, achieved unmistakable greatness. He was the Breughel of his time, working with a palette of S.A. brown and S.S. black…The Triumph of Death is a Breughel-shaped and -sized work, though with fewer bodies and seen from closer-up. Nine skeletal figures, again with skulls over which is stretched parchment skin, like bodies resurrected from the dead without amelioration of their decomposition, play musical instruments among a few ruins of ruins…One of them bends over a drum, striking it with a humerus, another plays a violin with a broken string in a mockery of human art. An angel of death in black gown and with white wings touches the stops of a pipe without blowing through it. In the background is a crashed car in a gully, crumpled up like a piece of paper, a few stumps of trees denuded of their leaves and branches. In the foreground is the random detritus of civilization, symbolic of technical and artistic accomplishment and of the abandoned pleasures of life.
…there is a faint guilt in appreciating the aesthetics of this composition, surely among the most intensely felt that any human being has put his hand to. What one does not ask oneself in its presence are the kinds of questions that postmodernists have delighted to ask with such subversive intent. The Triumph of Death is also the triumph of art.