Jesekiel Kirszenbaum – Exhibition in Solingen
A collection of personal documents showed a few remnants of a life caught between flight and persecution and in exile, these being special treasures from the family estate. Presented in a long row on a desk under glass, they also served as a timeline and substitute for the biography usually required at the beginning of an exhibition. The exhibition included early photographs and a typewritten autobiography recalling his childhood in Staszów (ill. 6, 7). Excerpts from Parisian newspapers and magazines published in 1933 report on exhibitions in Paris in which Kirszenbaum participated after his flight, and where he successfully presented himself as a young member of the École de Paris. Finally, there were letters written in 1940 between Kirszenbaum and his wife Helma, after he had been deported to a camp in Meslay du Maine, east of Rennes, when the war broke out in 1939 (ill. 8). In 1941 he was transferred to a camp for foreign workers in Bellac in Limousin. His wife, too, initially passed through a camp in Gurs, was released once more, arrested in 1943, and deported a year later to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, where she was murdered.
A letter after the end of the war in which the artist asked the Director General of the Royal Museums of Art in Brussels about the possibility of an exhibition, showed that he had managed to escape from the labour camp in 1942 and remain in hiding until the end of the war, while six hundred artworks were looted from his apartment in Paris by the Germans. Kirszenbaum wrote that he had received no news about the fate of his wife. When, in another letter to Brussels, he inquired about the whereabouts of his friend, the painter Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944), he was informed that Nussbaum and his wife had not returned from being deported to a concentration camp (ill. 9). Invitation cards, catalogues, photographs and the poster of a retrospective in 1962 at the Galerie Karl Flinker in Paris described Kirszenbaum's artistic activities until his early death in Paris in 1954. He had solo exhibitions in Lyon in 1946 at the Maison de la Pensée Française, in Paris in 1947 at the Galerie Quatre Chemins, in 1951 at the Galerie André Weil, and in 1953 at the Galerie Au Pont des Arts. Above all, however, Baroness Alix de Rothschild, who helped persecuted artists after the war, looked after Kirszenbaum, took painting lessons from him, acquired his works, and exhibited his current works, "Arts sacrés, sujets religieux", in 1947 at her estate on Avenue Foch 21 in Paris. In 1946 he also took part in the exhibition of the Salon de Mai artists' group, which had been founded in 1943 during the German occupation of Paris to oppose the National Socialists. He also took part in the Salon des Tuileries in 1946, in the exhibition of the artist group Les Surindépendants in 1947, which he joined in the following year, and in the Salon des peintres témoins de leur temps in 1954.
Due to the loss of almost all of his early works, the exhibition only included one painting from the Berlin period, a portrait of Sigmund Freud from 1930 (ill. 10, right), and three paintings from the first Parisian period until the outbreak of the Second World War. The only compensation for this were loans from distant museums, such as a self-portrait in the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, painted in Berlin in 1925, and Jewish scenes painted in Paris in the 1930s that are now held in Israeli museums. Whereas the Freud Portrait, (about which nothing more is known and which may have been painted from a photograph), with its stiff posture and coarsely executed hands is reminiscent of portraits by Oskar Kokoschka from the 1910s or by Chaim Soutine a decade later, Kirszenbaum discovered his own style later in Paris. By studying the Impressionists in museums and galleries and under the influence of the École de Paris, which expanded considerably during this period, especially with immigrants from Eastern Europe, Kirszenbaum became a master of grey tones and nuances, while structuring his pictures with isolated luminous colour effects. The "Man with Cigarette" (ill. 10, centre), a 1935 ink drawing, shows an everyday scene from Staszów. The "Arrival of the Messiah in the Village" (1939, ill. 11) is one of several similar paintings in which he depicts Jesus entering Jerusalem riding like a Hasidic Jew on a white donkey into Staszów or a Jewish village. Kirszenbaum thus linked biblical tradition with his memory of life in the Stetl. He may have used a painting by James Ensor, the "Entry of Christ into Brussels" (1888), as his inspiration for the idea.
After the artist managed to escape from the Bellac labour camp in 1942, he hid in Limoges and finally until the end of the war in Lyon in the unoccupied part of France. He created paintings both in the camp and in the underground, five of which were on display in the exhibition (ill. 12): "The Messiah and the Angels Arrive in the Village" (1942, ill. 13), showing a large crowd of people and the painter with his palette capturing the scene; a "Water Bearer" (1942, ill. 14) as Kirszenbaum remembered him during his childhood in Staszów; a "Jew on a Wintery Road" (1942), a "Wood Gatherer" (1941), and a winter landscape from 1941. Here it remains unclear whether the painting shows an area in Poland or France. Three portraits led visitors into the post-war period: a blurred portrait of his lost wife Helma, probably drawn from memory; a self-portrait (1947); and a portrait of Kirszenbaum (ill. 15) drawn by Alix de Rothschild around 1950.