Thursday, February 28, 2019

What If? The Life And Work of Fritz Ascher Part I

Fritz Ascher (1893 - 1970), Untergehende Sonne (Sunset), c. 1960,
oil on canvas, 49.2 × 50 in. ( 125 × 126 cm)
Private collection
Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Bianca Stock
Courtesy of the Grey Art Gallery

The current exhibition Fritz Ascher: Expressionist at New York University's Grey Art Gallery is artistically impressive and historically important. Accordingly, ArtWithHillary February 2019 and ArtWithHillary March 2019 are devoted to an account of the show.

The artist Fritz Ascher (1893 - 1970) suffered through a horrific period of time from 1933 through 1945 in which he was prohibited from producing art.  No one will leave the exhibit without thinking what if the artist had not been denied the freedom to work for twelve years - a period that  impacted profoundly the rest of his life.  

Thanks to the efforts of the show's curator Rachel Stern, Director and CEO of the Fritz Ascher Society for Persecuted, Ostracized and Banned Art, Inc., New York, the work of the relatively unknown Ascher has come to light.  There was an exhibition of Ascher's works on paper at the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting & Sculpture in 2017, however, the Grey Art Gallery presents his first solo retrospective in America. On view are twenty-three paintings, forty-two works on paper, two sketchbooks and documents relating to the artist's persecution and personal life.  In addition, an informative twenty-two minute biographical video runs continuously.  

Ascher was born to a Jewish couple in Berlin in 1893.  He was the oldest child and only son.  He had two younger sisters. His father was a dentist who invented a tooth enamel which he successful sold through his company. The family was well-off.  In 1901, his father left the Jewish faith and had his children baptized Protestant. The reason for this is unclear but antisemitism and assimilation may well have been on the elder Ascher's mind.  Both his daughters married non-Jews.  The father recognized his son's talent when he was very young and took him to study with Max Liebermann (1847 - 1935), the most influential and avant-garde painter in Berlin at that time. Liebermann was the leader of the Berlin Secession, an artist group opposed to the conservative art establishment.  They championed Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and other modern art movements. Liebermann recommended Ascher, then sixteen years old, to the innovative Art Academy in Könisberg.  Ascher spent three years there (1909 - 1912) then returned to Berlin where he worked as a professional artist exhibiting in solo and group shows.  He also continued his art studies with leading painters such as Lovis Corinth (1858 - 1925) whose work combined Impressionism and Expressionism.  In addition, Asher took classes at the highly-respected Lessing University in Berlin. 

German Expressionism, Cubism and Fauvism and other modern art movements had an influence on Ascher. What remained of his library showed his knowledge of  old masters with books on Leonardo da Vinci (1452 - 1519), Michelangelo (1475 - 1564), Rembrandt (1606 - 1669) and others. Ascher's interests in classical music, opera, theater and literature were reflected in his artwork.  He was a painter, poet, and composer.  He also made prints.

Ascher was an active participant in the Berlin art scene. To expand his social and artistic circles, he traveled. In 1914, Asher went to Oslo to visit the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863 - 1944) who he much admired.  He was in Munich between 1919 and 1920 where the Der Blaue Reiter, an informal artist association, had been formed by Wassily Kandisky (1866 - 1944) and other artists like Franz Marc (1880 - 1916) in 1911.  The movement advocated a lyrical, abstract style of German Expressionism. 
This was in contrast to the earlier art group, Die Brücke, which began in Dresden in 1905. Founding members included Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938),  Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884–1976) and Erich Heckel (1883–1970). They promoted a form of Expressionism with distorted figurative imagery.  Munich was also the home of the modern art school established by Hans Hofmann (1880 - 1966) in 1915.  Hoffmann had lived in Paris between 1904 and 1914 and had first hand experience with all the trailblazer artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881 - 1973), Henri Matisse (1869 - 1954), and Robert Delaunay (1885 - 1941).

Fritz Ascher (1893 - 1970), Der Vereinsamte (Loner), c. 1914,
oil on canvas,  47 1/4 x 37 1/4 in. ( 120 × 94.6 cm)
Private collection
Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Bianca Stock
Courtesy of the Grey Art Gallery

Der Vereinsamte (Loner) of 1914 demonstrates the abilities of the young artist.  A lone male nude stands against a turbulent background.  The figure looks downcast as if he carried the burden of the world. He may be remorseful about something.  His muscular body appears to be able to withstand whatever presses upon it.  

Fritz Ascher (1893 - 1970), Golgotha, 1915,
oil on canvas,  53 3/8 x 69 in. ( 135.6 × 175.3 cm)
Private collection
Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Bianca Stock
Courtesy of the Grey Art Gallery

Still in his early twenties, Ascher painted Golgotha, a highlight of the exhibit.  Golgotha, also known as Calvary, is the hill outside the walls of Jerusalem where Jesus was crucified along  with two convicted thieves.  The painter focused on the crowds surrounding the event.  Christ and the thieves are in shadow in the background positioned against the upper edge of the canvas. Although placed before a brilliant sky, they can easily be overlooked.  In traditional Crucifixion scenes, the holy figures are prominent and not the anonymous bystanders. In Ascher's canvas, in the middle ground on the right,  a soldier on horseback holding a spear appears to be pushing the crowd away. Some foreground figures are depicted as if about to flee out of the picture into the spectator's space.  These unnamed witnesses wear colorful robes and have the facial characteristics associated with Northern European portrayals of Jews - an unflattering stereotype.  The work's meaning is uncertain. Perhaps, as one scholar suggested, the artist was commenting on religion as some type of theater or entertainment for the masses.  

Installation view of exhibition Fritz Ascher: Expressionist
January 9 - April 6, 2019,
Grey Art Gallery
New York University
Photo: Nicolas Papananias
Grey Art Gallery Web site

From one point in the gallery, viewers can take in four extraordinary paintings:  Loner (c. 1914), Kneeling Male Nude (c. 1914), Golgotha (1915) and Der Gequält (The Tortured) (1920s).  The latter work is an unusual depiction of Saint Sebastian. Sebastian was a Christian who was sentenced to death by the Roman emperor because of his faith.  He was shot with arrows and left for dead.  Irene, a pious widow, nursed him back to health. Saint Sebastian imagery typically portrays the saint tied to a tree, his body shot with arrows or the saint is seen being attended to by Irene. In Ascher's painting, Sebastian, standing unattached to anything, is constrained by a binding rope which his torturers continue to tighten.   

Fritz Ascher (1893 - 1970), Mondnacht (Moonlit Night), c. 1918,
oil on canvas,  39 x 30 in. (98.5 x 75.5 cm)
Private collection
Photo: Malcolm Varon. © Bianca Stock
Fritz Ascher Society Web site

Not to be missed is Mondnacht (Moonlit Night).  This c. 1918 canvas, in the same room as The Torturedapproaches pure abstraction.  Vibrant colors coupled with charged brushstrokes create a compelling composition that makes its subject almost unrecognizable. Furthermore, figurative representation dominated Ascher's work during this period making landscapes the exception.

Ascher was not a participant in World War I (1914 - 1918) but would have been affected like everyone else. Things turned on him with the rise of the Nazis.  With the Nazi Party in power and Hitler as Chancellor of Germany, citizens had their civil liberties revoked after the burning of the Reichstag (Parliament) on February 27, 1933. Modern art was deemed an insult to Germany and labeled "degenerate art."  Although baptized, Ascher was identified as a Jewish degenerate artist and was not allowed to produce, exhibit or sell his art.  From then on he constantly moved from one place to another to avoid persecution.  On the night of November 9 - 10, 1938, known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, Hitler unleashed a rain of terror on the Jews, attacking them and their buildings, stores and synagogues.  Ascher along with some three thousand Jewish men was sent to the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, the principal concentration camp for the Berlin area. He was released on December 23 due to the efforts of a lawyer friend. Almost immediately after that, Ascher was imprisoned in the Potsdam jail where he spent five months until the same attorney friend gained his release on May 15, 1939. Ascher intended to get out of Germany by a ship going to Shanghai but was required to settle some inheritance issue related to his mother's estate and was not allowed to leave the country. Both his parents were deceased. His father died in 1922 and his mother on October 17, 1938.  

Forced to remain in Germany, Ascher moved into a Jewish boarding house and was required to report to the local police three times a week and to their headquarters once a month.  In 1941, as a Jew, he was forced to wear the Yellow Star.  In 1942 his name appeared on a deportation list.  The chief constable warned him about his fate and he sought the help of Martha Grassmann (1881 - 1971), his attorney friend's mother.  Martha was twelve years his senior and had been a friend of  his mother.  The artist had known her and her son since they came to his studio to see his paintings in 1928. Martha, whose son had died of tuberculosis in 1941, agreed to hide him.  For the duration of the war, she hid Ascher.  They remained together for the rest of his life.  A chilling aspect of the exhibit are the documents related to Ascher's ordeals. In one glass table top is the facsimile of the typed list of prisoners released from the Sachsenhausen concentration camp on December 23, 1938.  Ascher's name is number 3. In the same vitrine is the facsimile of the artist's Nazi-issued identity card dated June 2, 1939 . All Jews were required to carry these cards with them. The label informs that Ascher's middle name was "Israel" because Jewish men with non-Jewish first names were given the middle name "Israel."  Jewish women with non-Jewish first names were given the middle name "Sara."  

See Part II in ArtWithHillary March 2019.  

Fritz Ascher: Expressionist
January 9 - April 6, 2019
100 Washington Square East, Manhattan
Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays: 11:00 am – 6:00 pm
Wednesdays: 11:00 am – 8:00 pm
Saturdays: 11:00 am – 5:00 pm
Closed Sundays and Mondays. 
Also closed  Memorial Day Weekend, and Independence Day, Thanksgiving Weekend, Christmas Day and New Year's Day.

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