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Two Depictions of the Enclosed Landscape

Added on 06 October 2022

On a still winters evening two white collar doves flutter against a slate grey sky. Below them centred in the background is a large evergreen bush where more white doves are settling down to roost. A large black bare leafed tree twists its branches towards the sky echoing the carefree movements of the two doves in flight. All is quiet.

In front of the tree and evergreen bush the artist has painted a view of rooftops and an assortment of tall chimneys in the foreground. A checked tea towel is suspended by large pegs from an invisible clothes line flutters against the faint breeze. This image reminds me of the scene in The Godfather, Part 2 , when the young Robert De Niro has just assassinated the local godfather and is making his escape across the tenement rooftops of New York throwing parts of his pistol down smoking chimney pots as he makes his escape. At first glance Felix Nussbaum’s (1904-1944) painting, oil on canvas from about 1940, ‘View from the Studio at Night with Tea Towel’ (also known as ‘Over the Roofs’) seems a tranquil enough image. Watch out for the quiet paintings! In my experience they often pack a visual punch. Nussbaum painted an earlier version of the same scene in gouache, pen and ink but in this version the palette is lighter, set in daytime and the washing line which is clearly visible in this version has two large working gloves pegged to it.

Felix Nussbaum was a German Jewish artist who is best known as a chronicler of the Jewish experience of the holocaust. He was a highly skilled painter who painted still lives, portraits and landscapes and powerful surreal depictions of loneliness, terror and despair.  His best known image is ‘Self Portrait with Jewish Identity Card’, 1943. A recurring theme in his seeming quiet still lives and self-portraits is his inclusion of domestic clutter, gloves, towels, his painting materials and masks.  As a German Jew these objects carried symbolic weight. In his painting ‘View from the Studio at Night with Tea Towel’ I think he uses the tea towel to represent domesticity, the German reputation for neatness and order and also the prayer shawl of the Judaic tradition.

When he painted this image Nussbaum and his wife were moving from one safe house to another in Brussels to escape the Gestapo. Friends put them up and supplied them with materials to paint with. In comparison to his other work ‘View from the Studio at Night with Tea Towel’ looks unfinished. I think this only adds drama and tension to the image. Nussbaum didn’t get around to painting the washing line on which hangs the tea towel and pegs. On the other hand because they aren’t there the tea towel flutters in the dusk as if to say "come and get me, you know where I’m hiding". To me this only adds a feeling of claustrophobia and fear to the image. Do the two white doves represent Nussbaum and his wife?

Nussbaum chooses to use a concealed almost cinematic viewpoint as a starting point for this image. Edward Hopper chose to use the same pictorial device but from a different angle looking up from a place of concealment in his painting ‘House by the Railroad’ which in turn has been used by Alfred Hitchcock in his opening shot of the Bates Motel in his film Psycho. Psychological drama in painting is nothing new. In Brussels three hundred and seventy five years before Nussbaum was hiding in plain sight Pieter Breugel was busy working in the same city on his famous sequence of winter snow landscapes which in many ways depict similar sentiments to the Nussbaum work.

‘Winter Landscape with a Bird Trap’ painted in 1565 depicts a snow bound village in Flanders. A frozen river divides the scene diagonally from left to right. Two or three adult figures watch over a large group of children playing gleefully on the ice. They are busy playing ice games children still enjoy. This being a painting by Bruegel not everything is as it seems however charming at first glance. In the lower right hand corner of the picture the adults have been busy. Before refrigeration enabled us to preserve meat in the winter months fresh protein was a scarce commodity at the coldest time of the year. Under a tree an abandoned door lies on the snow one end propped up by a stick. Underneath seed is scattered to tempt birds to feed there. If many gather and a frenzy ensues the stick will be knocked out of the way. Bruegel has very carefully painted a string attached to the pail propping up the door. The string is held taut, it disappears through a hole in the wall of a nearby house. Feeding birds beware, they are being watched and will be crushed by the door at any moment.

Bruegel paints this analogy to the dangers the children face playing on such an unpredictable surface as ice. Curiously Bruegel paints the birds in the foreground and middle distance larger than the children playing on the ice. By doing this is Bruegel suggesting that people can trap and kill people also. Nussbaum’s image also painted in Brussels all those years later echoes a similar sentiment. Strangely Nussbaum’s image painted all those years later also in Brussels shows us some of the fear and terror experienced by someone caught inside their own bird trap.

Nussbaum and his wife were caught in the same trap as Bruegel birds. The Gestapo would eventually find them hiding in an attic but unlike Bruegel where the trigger string which operates the trap is visible, Nussbaum chooses not to paint the washing line which the tea towel is hanging from. Unfinished it maybe but ‘View from the Studio at Night with Tea Towel’ packs just as powerful an emotional punch as Bruegel painting painted in the same city three hundred and seventy five years before years earlier.

Further information:
Eva Berger et al , 'Felix Nussbaum: Art Defamed, Art in Exile, Art in Resistance - A Biography', 1997, ISBN-10: 0879517891, ISBN-13: 978-0879517892

Images of Felix Nussbaums art work can be found at the Felix Nussbaum Foundation website :

The painting by Pieter Bruegel 'Winter Landscape with Bird Trap' 1565 is in the collection of the The Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

by Alan Watson - 20:50 on 04 December 2016

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