Fritz Ascher: from Golems to Landscapes
by Ori Z. Soltes
Given the enormous number of people who were victimized during the Holocaust—both those who perished and those who somehow did not—it should not surprise us that, as time goes by, narratives still continue to emerge reflecting the varied experiences of these victims and their tormentors or saviors. Among these there are many artists—artists, like Felix Nussbaum (1904-1944), who were producing high-level work, and others less skilled—who did not survive but left behind bodies of work that provoke the question: what if? Had these artists not been destroyed by the Nazis, what might they have accomplished and what songs of praise might art historians now be singing about them? There were artists, like Marc Chagall and Jacques Lipschitz, already very well known, who were able to escape Europe and continue their lives in the United States or elsewhere. And there were some who managed to survive but remain largely unknown because the context before the war in which they thrived has disappeared, and so they and their work awaits rediscovery.
Fritz Ascher (1893-1970) falls into this last category. Ascher had a rather complicated religious identity. He was born and grew up in a Europe marked by a certain malaise that is typically referred to as a characteristic of fin-de-siecle life, particularly and somewhat paradoxically in the burgeoning central European centers of cultural modernism: Vienna, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague. For assimilated Jews this malaise was interwoven with the difficult pattern of acceptance/rejection, inclusion/exclusion within the larger Christian community. Even Christians who had, during the past century come to think and speak of themselves as post-Christian—on the basis of which they had enacted laws permitting Jews into the mainstream of society, economically, culturally and even sometimes politically—had, more often than not, failed to abandon a sense of antipathy and/or supersessionist superiority toward Jews and Judaism.
In part this was a result of rethinking Judaism as racial and ethnic rather than religious. In brief, the world of Ascher’s childhood and early youth was formed, in part, by the following significant events. In 1878, the German pamphleteer and politician, Wilhelm Marr, transferred the term “Semite/Semitic” from its linguistic context to a racial-ethnic context, hoping to re-marginalize Jews on an ethnic-racial basis, asserting that they were not and never could be Europeans—certainly not true Germans—and that they in fact presented a threat to the purity of the Euro-Germanic world. This rethinking of how Jews might be and should be excluded from the mainstream had a traumatic effect on many upper-middle-class and upper-class Jews who had believed, in the previous two generations, that they had broken completely through the glass ceiling of acceptance.
Sixteen years later—a year after Ascher’s own birth—the Dreyfus Affair exploded in France, releasing a vicious expression of wide-spread anti-Jewish (anti-Semitic) sentiment (they are not truly French but all potential traitors to France) a century after French revolutionaries had declared Jews to be fully French. The event shook up those who had imagined that such feelings had died—which, thanks to Wilhelm Marr, could now be called anti-Semitic, and not simply anti-Jewish. Given that France had been largely regarded through the 19th century as the paragon of forward-looking thinking in matters of politics and religion, the Affair shocked most of Europe.
Certainly this environment had something to do with the decision of Fritz Ascher’s father, Hugo Ascher, to convert to the Protestant faith with his children in 1900/1901. Fritz would have been seven or eight years old at that time. One of the questions regarding an intelligent child like Fritz Ascher, growing up in a religiously-transformed world is: how did he view himself vis-a-vis his Jewish/non-Jewish identity—particularly given the post-Marr, race-obsessed world in which he was growing up? His father converted, also converting his children. His mother—coming from the prominent Bleichroeder family— remained Jewish, (although a quarter of a century later she did join the family on the Protestant side of the religious fence. She converted in 1926—four years after her husband died—and it is not entirely clear as to why she did so at that time).
When Ascher began his career as a painter, his mentor was Max Liebermann (1847-1935), the pre-eminent Jewish painter—and one of the most important painters in general—in Germany, and head of the Prussian Academy of Arts, in Berlin; Liebermann would eventually resign from his position, in 1933, shortly before he would have been removed from it with the introduction of a Nazi legal structure, since he was Jewish. On the other hand, when Ascher was first deported to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp on Kristallnacht (November 9-10, 1938), it was for political subversion, not for being Jewish, and it is not clear whether, when he later went into hiding, having been warned of imminent deportations, the deportation that he sought to evade would have been based on his Judaism—although that seems likely—or because he was still considered subversive due to the “degenerate” (entartete) expressionist style of his art and his politics. Was it as a Jew from the Nazi perspective that he was in such danger: because the regime, which had embraced and refined the Wilhelm Marr perspective of two generations earlier, would have seen him as a Jew regardless of his childhood conversion?
Chronologically sandwiched between his conversion as a child and his Sachsenhausen experience, his subsequent years in hiding and his survival and return to painting as a medium of self-expression comes the painting of Der Golem, in 1916 (currently in the collection of the Jewish Museum, Berlin): Ascher presents the Golem itself with an expression of both fierce seriousness and sadness; the other three individuals—Rabbi Loew, presumably, in the center, with his flowing white beard and his two assistants—have rather ghoulish expressions, noticeably limited teeth, and inordinately large hands. Where the Golem looks out directly at us they all look down and to the side, as if either distracted and afraid of something that we cannot see; or they are unable or unwilling to lift their gaze and look us in the eye. The Golem looks more human than they and they look almost demonic. So he has reversed the norm and the expectation, in making his Golem appear more human and more sympathetic as a character than they do. Does this reflect a conscious or unconscious anti-Jewish bias, not to be unexpected necessarily for someone who is in the midst of trying to clarify his own identity as a Jew and/or as a Christian?
But if Ascher’s depiction of the Golem it/himself is benign—who towers over the other individuals in the image, perhaps even protectively—that also suggests that he is seen as a positive figure regardless of how those who made him and would ultimately have to destroy him were seen by the artist. This certainly accords with a distinct Jewish perspective. For Jews, the Golem was a kind of messianic character.
If we view Ascher as a Jewish painter, (both because we cannot judge the seriousness of a conversion imposed on a child and because the world in which Ascher lived had come to view Jews in any case as a race, rather than a religion from which one could really convert), then he is one of a handful of Jewish artists who also focused on the figure of Jesus between about 1870 and 1940. Ascher’s 1918 “Golgotha” is different: Christ is not only not the center of the visual activity in his painting but is, as it were, the opposite of Ascher’s “Golem”: while there are background figures in the upper center of both of their respective compositions, the Golem dominates his visual arena, whereas Jesus is a small shadow in his.
The image of the Christ is one to which Ascher returned several times. In a complex work from 1922 with Golgotha once more as the focus, he offers a viewpoint whereby the foreground figure is positioned as if he is one of the thieves, (ie, a side crucified figure rather than the central one), as the three victims are arrayed in a diagonal that, from lower right to upper left, neatly bifurcates the composition between these three individuals, dying, and the rest of the action. But in otherwise retaining traditional iconography he has made it clear that this side figure, closest to the viewer, is Jesus, crowned with thorns and his extended arms held to the cross’s horizontal beam by large nails, whereas the figure positioned both in the center of the three victims and in the painting’s compositional right-left center, as well as in the middle ground, has his arms wrapped around the cross beam.
Surely the most unusual of Ascher’s engagements of the Crucifixion is an undated painting that combines the sacred scene on Golgotha with three other elements—each, as it were, connected to it but increasing in conceptual distance from it. Golgotha itself, limited to no more than the three crucified figures, dominates the left hand upper side of the image. Not inconsistent with the tradition of merging past and present, a procession that may be identified as medieval makes its way along a diagonal from the upper right (running in a subtle parallel to the placement of the three figures on the upper left, and contrary to the diagonal line of the three horizontal beams of their crosses). We recognize the leaders of the procession as cardinals.
Those solemnly marching with them hold high a series of pennants that can be identified as bearing images to represent the contrade—parishes—that comprise the community within which the procession takes place. Most importantly, they also hold aloft a life-sized image of the crucified Christ, his head encircled by a series of glowing lights to represent his halo. The image’s upper arms, shoulders and head stand out in being placed by the artist against the dark purple cloud in the upper center of the entire composition from behind which the sun manages to emit an explosion of golden beams.
So a procession led by an image of Christ is placed within the same register as the image of the actual Christ. Far more disturbing to a traditional understanding of both Golgotha and the myriad processions across Christendom that recall it throughout the centuries, is a second procession that runs precisely parallel to that first one—almost, but not quite, as if it were the foreground of the same just-described parade—from the center of the overall composition to the lower left. Four muscular male figures with naked torsos, their heads and faces completely shaved, bear on their shoulders a golden platform upon which a completely naked female figure kneels, sitting back on her heels. She has a halo around her head, albeit more of a sun-like glow expanding out from her detail-less face than the flat disk that serves as the halo of the Crucified Jesus. She raises her arms in an orans position consistent with the style assumed by priests and particularly priestesses in antiquity, from Egypt to Crete to Canaan to Mesopotamia, in adoration of the sun god or the storm god.
Placed as she is in the composition, her gesture could be construed as directed in adoration toward the Crucified Christ—or not, given the direction of her head and even considering the problematic of determining the precise direction of her gaze, since she has no eyes, nose or mouth. She may simply be maintaining that orans pose for the duration of the procession as it makes its way through the sacred precinct of whatever ancient city toward the temple of some pagan deity.
Is this Ascher the Jewish painter, as opposed to Ascher the Christian painter—or perhaps, more accurately, Ascher who is neither and both of these—who creates this apparently subversive image? The Golgotha element is largely as a traditionalist would envision it. The Roman Catholic procession with life-sized crucifix and contrada pennants, even in the same register as Golgotha itself, is consistent enough with familiar Christian imagery. But the inclusion of an apparent pagan procession within the same composition, the elements of which suggest ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia in particular? Is this intended to underscore the pagan side of the origins of Christianity—a side most everyday Christians are either unaware of or uncomfortable referencing, but the sort of aspect of which an everyday Jew might take particular note as Judaism and Christianity contend with each other regarding which of them has a firmer hold on God’s Truth?
These paintings were done between 1916 and the early 1930s—before the world of which Ascher was part began to implode and then explode. Arrested and brought to Sachsenhausen concentration camp during Kristallnacht, as we have noted—a few weeks after his mother’s death and his own 45th birthday—he was removed to Potsdam Prison after six weeks, and freed from prison six months later through the efforts of a lawyer friend and Propst Heinrich Grueber, an Evangelical Protestant minister.
For two years he was permitted to live openly, but was required to report to the authorities every week. When the police officer to whom he reported, Heinrich Wolber, told him that he was scheduled for deportation, he went into hiding, surviving for three years in the basement of a partially bombed-out villa—Lassenstrasse 28, in the wealthy Grunewald neighborhood of Berlin—tended to by Martha Grassmann (1881-1971), a close friend of his mother.
This was a house surrounded by the residences of important Nazi officials—the villas having been confiscated by the regime from their Jewish owners—making his situation complicated, and underscoring the importance of those who helped him. There, all of the powerful emotion that suffuses his early work, in particular his Golem and Christ images—a diverse handful of messianic paintings and drawings—would be subverted into words, as a practical matter, (painting supplies were virtually impossible to come by), so that he would be limited to self-expression through dense and difficult poetry. The biographical question—how did this Jewish artist, (for surely the Nazi regime would have considered him Jewish), manage not only to survive the era of Nazism and the Holocaust but to live and even create, (albeit not painting but poetry), for much of that period, in the very eye of that storm?—yields to an artistic question: how might his style and its formal and coloristic elements have been affected by his experiences, as few artists can be unaffected by the world around them? How—if at all—do his subjects reflect the concentrated universe in which he functioned during those years, once he was able to return to visual self-expression after the war?
It is arguable that he created his strongest work after 1945, after emerging from this wartime chrysalis, opening up emotionally, using his work as an instrument with which to overcome what he had experienced—and in those post-war years he remained connected to the expressionist color and form he had found by the 1920s and 1930s, while locating his own pictorial language in his landscapes. He added what might be seen, perhaps, as a deeper spirituality than before: not formal religiosity, but spirituality, visible in his intense Expressionism, in his thick impasto, vigorous brushstrokes and surprising pigments, in his Rembrandt-like interest in light and shadow. The Expressionist fervor of his earlier work if anything increased—perhaps reflecting the energy pent up during the years of visual silence, but his style may be said to have picked up where he had left it when Nazism and war transformed his world.
For the most part, he turns in his oil paintings away from those early figurative images, toward landscapes and nature that are both richly textured and vibrantly colored—even his darknesses seem to have a paradoxic brightness to them—although in his drawings and water colors and gouaches figures and often very fierce faces remain prominent.
In his oils, though, Ascher depicts the sky itself and depicts the sun exploding from the canvas toward the viewer. Or he is the sun, turning toward the sunflowers that fill the entire picture plane, that turn toward the sun, as he portrays these elements, one by one, canvas by canvas, in thick, bright pigments that suggest both vibrant, life-affirming joy and, in the rough-hewn nature of his brushstrokes, a dark, inner anguish transformed into light. In the last decade of his life he often used the motif of two lush trees rising toward a sky that scintillates with light blue and is dominated by white, fleshy clouds; or that glows, in an evening landscape, from horizon line to treetops to the upper edges of the painting with the same sort of brash yellow-orange that he used decades earlier on Christ’s halo in his mysterious image of Golgotha and its accompanying processions. Are the two trees (or two lines of trees) that repeat so often just two trees to frame the sky to which he devotes such visceral attention or do they echo the spiritual duality—feeling somehow both Jewish and Christian—that haunted the artist throughout his life?
These works show how his expressionist style evolved toward further ferocity in the last twenty-five years of his life. His work connects to Expressionist style both before and after him, from Van Gogh and Soutine to Francis Bacon and David Stern.
In his last work, The Drowned and the Saved, the Italian Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, Primo Levi, observed that nobody sets out to be a “Holocaust writer or artist,” but remains so emotionally marked by the experience—one is never free, never truly a “survivor”—that s/he writes or paints or sculpts out of compulsion: a need to express and to remember (or to forget) what is fundamentally inexpressible and paradoxically unforgettable. As mind-challenging ambiguities emerge from an examination of Fritz Ascher’s Der Golem and other early messianic/Christological works, so in the late, post-Holocaust work of the artist one encounters an obliquely expressed visual echo of Levi’s proposition: Ascher’s work is freer than ever and as burdened as ever, completely disconnected from his Holocaust experience that is yet deeply embedded within every painting. His work has nothing to do with that experience and everything to do with it. From “Der Golem” to the last landscapes, Ascher’s paintings are powerful reflections and refractions of what and how humans are, at their best and at their worst.