When the National Socialists rose to power in 1933, a number of artists sought refuge outside of Germany, including Felix Nussbaum. Of Jewish descent, Nussbaum lost his position at the German Academy in Rome. Soon thereafter, he moved to Belgium, a country that provided safe haven until the German army invaded in 1940. Because of this occupation, the Belgian authorities arrested all German males over the age of fifteen. Nussbaum was among those sent to detention at the Saint-Cyprien camp in France.
This painting is an eyewitness account of conditions at this 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 rejoined his wife in Brussels. There, he painted this gripping picture and other works documenting the experience.
In this self-portrait, Nussbaum stares at us relentlessly. His right eye is at the center of the panel. One side of his 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 symbolizing life has almost burnt out. At the right, two men suffering from malnutrition and dysentery struggle to relieve themselves. Bones scattered in the yard confirm the fate of other prisoners. Nussbaum has signed the work just below a skull.
In 1944, Nussbaum was arrested again and deported to Auschwitz, where he died along with his wife. 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.