“Finally Home with the Greats. An exhibition places the under-the-radar Fritz Ascher squarely in the canon of 20th-century German artists.”
For those of us who consider themselves familiar with German Expressionism, the compelling new exhibition at New York University’s Grey Art Gallery, “Fritz Ascher: Expressionist,” makes us wonder why this artist hasn’t been on our radar screens. The 67 works of art on display, along with sketchbooks and documentary materials, may not quite qualify as a discovery, but they significantly expand the range of what we thought we knew. And while his work shares much with that of German Expressionist artists, he doesn’t fit neatly into that category since his late work includes large moody works with lush colors. Ascher (1893-1970) was born in Berlin to a comfortable Jewish family. A protégé of Max Liebermann, Berlin’s most celebrated late Impressionist painter, Ascher befriended and interacted with most of the prominent artists of Weimar period Berlin, and shared with many of them the distinction of having been categorized as a “degenerate” artist by the Nazis.
The exhibition is accompanied by a densely illustrated book, published for several German museums where it was shown over the past two years. The essays in this book make a strong case for the interactions—personal and aesthetic—between Fritz Ascher and a host of other, more familiar artists: Lovis Corinth, with whom he studied; Edvard Munch, whom he met in Oslo; artists of the Berlin Secession and Dresden’s Die Brücke, as well as those associated with Munich’s Blaue Reiter. In Berlin he apparently learned printmaking from Hermann Struck, who introduced many artists, including Ludwig Meidner and Marc Chagall, to print techniques. But if all of this places Ascher in a position that enables us to pigeonhole him properly, it also diminishes the artist’s somewhat idiosyncratic biography and compelling oeuvre. Happily, the Grey Art Gallery exhibition reasserts Ascher’s bona fides by letting us focus on the work itself.
Not that the biography isn’t interesting. His father, Hugo, had studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Dental Medicine, practiced dentistry, and then developed an artificial tooth enamel that provided the family’s wealth. The family lived in several Berlin homes prior to moving into an elegant villa in the suburb of Zehlendorf. Hugo had his children baptized in 1901, but he and his wife seem not to have joined the Protestant church. After Hitler came to power in 1933, Fritz Ascher changed addresses regularly in Berlin, until he was arrested and briefly sent to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp after Kristallnacht in November 1938; he stayed there for about four weeks, and was soon rearrested and jailed in Potsdam for five months. Unable to emigrate, Ascher was forced to wear a yellow star as of November 1941 and found himself on a deportation list, so he went into hiding in Berlin’s Grunewald suburb, where he survived the war thanks to friends. Much of his work was destroyed during the Berlin bombings, and after the war he set up his studio in a villa he shared with friends; he continued to work, and even wrote poetry, until his death in 1970.
Given the fate of so much of Ascher’s art, the exhibition tends to feel episodic, in that there are several groups of work that show his visual relationship to contemporaneous art movements as well as his occasionally quirky interests. A single 1912 graphite drawing of Frederick the Great’s plaster death mask assures us of Ascher’s grounding in traditional art training. Several caricatures and sketch portraits of 1910-15 suggest the influence of the popular satirical magazine Simplicissimus, which was especially popular early in the 20th century; here we can see Ascher’s debt to the earlier French artist Honoré Daumier, and visual affinities to contemporary artists such as Lyonel Feininger and Jules Pascin. It’s puzzling to be confronted by Ascher’s moving, but morose, clown-like image, Bajazzo, who appears in several works, the most successful of which is the 1924 painting. The clown reference may be to the title character in Ruggero Leoncavallo’s popular 1892 opera, “Pagliacci,” or to Thomas Mann’s 1897 novella, “Der Bajazzo.” An essay in the catalog by scholar Ori Z. Soltes about Ascher’s “Golem” painting (1916/45, not in the exhibition) made this viewer see these haunting images with other, even more layered, meanings.
Despite notable highlights in Ascher’s career both early and late, the star of the exhibition is a majestic large 1915 canvas, “Golgotha,” shown with an ink and pencil study for it nearby. Inflections of Pieter Bruegel the Elder coalesce with James Ensor to create a scene of pandemonium and horror. In the study Ascher started out with a formal arrangement of three crosses holding the composition together. In the large painting, those figures have moved to the top, just barely readable in an aura of bright yellow light (not the darkness of the canonical Gospels). The main field of the canvas is taken up by frightened, fleeing figures threatened by a spear-carrying soldier on horseback; this is not the fear of awe at the sight of the Crucifixion. Several other large paintings of this period make it evident that Ascher was capable of achieving masterly, ambitious works that hold their own when compared with those of his contemporaries, and we can now safely add him to our canon of 20th-century German artists, even if we might quibble with the “Expressionist” title of this important exhibition.