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Felix Nussbaum - Self Portrait with Jewish Passport

by Claire Deuticke

The Jewish artist Felix Nussbaum, who came from Osnabrück, painted the "Self-Portrait with Jewish Passport" in 1943, at the time of the Nazi occupation of Belgium, in his hiding place in Brussels. It is one of his last works - in 1944 Felix Nussbaum was deported to Ausschwitz, where he perished a short time later.

The work shows him placed in the front half of the picture, he occupies about two thirds of the picture and presents himself to the viewer in three-quarter profile. He is wearing a beige coat, the collar of which he is gathering with his right hand in order to make the yellow-colored Jewish star attached to the coat visible. In his left hand he holds his Jewish passport, on which the word Juif - Jood (Jew) is clearly visible in thick red letters. It is a gesture of identification, a situation to which Jews were exposed on a daily basis under the National Socialist regime, a situation that could decide over life and death. Felix Nussbaum fixes the viewer with an insistent, almost provocative gaze. The viewer automatically assumes the role of the counterpart, the controller, and thus becomes a part of the situation depicted.

He is consciously placed in the position of power of a denunciator who has the responsibility of life and death and is confronted with a decision. Thus Felix Nussbaum deliberately evades the role of victim: it is not he who is cornered and accused, but the viewer who, in his role as controller, is jointly responsible for the suffering of the Jews. On his head he wears a hat - not a Jewish headdress, mind you, but a hat corresponding to the everyday clothing of a man living in the 20th century. Apart from the Jewish passport and the Jewish star, Felix Nussbaum presents himself here as a completely normal citizen. Possibly not much distinguishes him from his counterpart except for the Jewish compulsory license plate. In the background, a massive gray wall towers over Felix Nussbaum, who is positioned at the front edge of the picture. The wall illustrates the hopeless situation in which he finds himself. Running away is futile, it is almost like a prison wall that imprisons him in this situation. The depiction can be interpreted as a reference to his life situation in exile, in which Felix Nussbaum was trapped, far from his homeland, far from his family, a life of persecution and fear.

Behind the wall, a trimmed tree with bare branches protrudes. Next to the trimmed tree is another tree - with white blossoms. Felix Nussbaum deliberately plays with pairs of opposites like this in order to illustrate the fear-filled, hopeless situation in which many Jews found themselves, but also the hopeful, yearning, striving for freedom. Torn between fear and hope, certainty of death and lust for life. A life of the soul that he shared with numerous Jews, a life of the soul that he gave expression to on behalf of his fellow sufferers. The work thus goes beyond the self-referential character of a self-portrait. Rather, it is a historical testimony to the life of a Jew suffering persecution and is representative of all those persecuted. The work's ability to put the viewer in the position of power of the controller and thus encourage him to question his own attitude makes it an incomparable work, especially in the culture of remembrance of the Shoah.

Felix Nussbaum - Self Portrait with Jewish Passport

Oil on canvas, 56 x 49 cm, Felix Nussbaum House, Osnabrück


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