Fritz Ascher's 'Sunset' (c.1960)
Fritz Ascher's 'Sunset' (c.1960)

You have probably never heard of Fritz Ascher, a passionate and peculiar painter who, nearly 40 years after his death, is finally getting a smidgen of renown at New York’s Grey Art Gallery. Ascher belonged to a generation of German artists the Nazis hounded into hiding — or worse — leaving a chapter in the history of art truncated and brimming with might-have-beens. He was lucky enough to survive, though the war’s after-effects kept shuddering through his life, pushing him ever further into his own private world. This exhibition lets us see what damage a generational cataclysm can wreak on a single mind. It’s not a redemptive tale with a happy ending, but it speaks of one man’s irrepressible creativity under the direst circumstances, and a strength that eventually ran out.

The Grey labels Ascher an Expressionist, but his style kept changing and still defies categorisation. In the years before the second world war, he painted figures in a Michelangelo-meets-comic-book style, with hyper-muscular torsos contorted by suffering. He obsessively depicted Bajazzo, the German name for the clown in the opera Pagliacci, who kills his wife and her lover when he discovers their affair. The character’s lethal jealousy and masked despair evidently spoke to the artist.

Ascher's 'Golgotha' (1915)
Ascher's 'Golgotha' (1915)

Ascher hovers on the verge of cliché, but his fervid brushstrokes and intense feeling save him from tumbling over the edge. Compared to such Berlin contemporaries as Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein, his work looks old-fashioned. An early breakthrough, “Golgotha” (1915), is closest to Nolde in its New Testament subject matter, seething colours and grotesque, mask-like faces. Ascher exiles the crucifixion itself into a corner of the canvas; he is more interested in the melee around it. Mounted Roman soldiers brandish spears and chase the spectators towards us so that the crowd practically bursts out of the picture plane, their features brutish and terrified. It’s a violent and anarchic scene, echoing the chaos and horror of the first world war. Although he didn’t fight at the front, Ascher wasn’t immune to the conflict’s repercussions.

His story weighs heavily on his work. Born into a Jewish family, he was baptised in the Protestant faith at eight, apparently to advance the ambitions of his assimilationist (but unconverted) father, Hugo. The elder Ascher, who had studied dentistry at the University of Pennsylvania, invented, and successfully marketed, an artificial tooth enamel, which cocooned the family in a privileged life. They lived in a palatial villa, and Fritz was free to pursue art, unencumbered by the need to make money.

'Sunflower' (c.1958) by Fritz Ascher
'Sunflower' (c.1958) by Fritz Ascher

That idyll ended when Hitler came to power in 1933. Ascher was labelled “degenerate” and forbidden to produce, exhibit or sell his art. He was arrested on Kristallnacht in November 1938, released, then rearrested and imprisoned in Potsdam for five months. He tried to flee to Shanghai and failed. When a friend warned him that Berlin’s Jews all faced immediate deportation, he effectively disappeared, sheltering in the bombed-out, rat-swarmed basement of a home in the Grunewald neighbourhood. All around his hide-out were the mansions of vanished Jews, commandeered by high-ranking Nazis. For three years he dared not emerge. Nor could he paint or draw. Most of his artworks succumbed to Allied bombing.

After the war, he went back to painting, but his approach shifted radically. First he re-worked some old canvases, embellishing haunted depictions of suffering clowns with showers of bright pointillist dots. These pictures are visually weird and emotionally ambiguous. The paint handling discharges a bolt of joy, but the ghoulish faces scowl through surface sparkle. It’s as if the artwork itself embodies the leitmotif of the crying jester beneath his jovial make-up.

Soon, Ascher left human beings behind altogether, turning to landscapes for solace. As obsessional as ever, he kept coming back to a handful of eccentric motifs: suns and sunflowers that emanate spiritual urgency. In the gouaches, tangled skeins of paint both reveal and obscure the glowing orb that is simultaneously flower and star. In the oils, thick impasto performs the same trick. Back in 1914, just before the outbreak of the first world war, Ascher had journeyed to Oslo to meet Edvard Munch, whose sun paintings spring immediately to mind as credible inspirations. Munch and Ascher both see the radiating disc as an antidote to darkness, a pulse of creation.

Between 1945 and his death in 1970, Ascher continued to live in the Grunewald neighbourhood, just across the street from his wartime lair. A recluse, he rarely ventured beyond the suburban woods that lent the neighbourhood its name (“Green Wood”). Contact with nature sustained him, and he made countless drawings and watercolours of trees, serried in ranks so that they screen off the views of whatever lies behind. Ascher huddled with his paintings the way his trees pressed together; he refused to exhibit or part with them, arranging the canvases around him like talismans.

Ascher's 'Tree' (c.1960)
Ascher's 'Tree' (c.1960)

A spotlight from the outside world caught him briefly in 1969, when the Berlin dealer Rudolf Springer persuaded him to show 22 oil paintings. Around the same time, crisis struck. His landlord sold the woodland retreat to developers, and he was forced to move in a hurry. He lost his studio, and his beloved paintings disappeared into storage. Ascher never recovered; he descended into severe depression and died within a year.

For a long time, the darkness that shadowed Ascher’s life nourished his painting, and whatever style he chose, he mastered a gloomily electric manner. Working helped Ascher to cope, to stay connected with the world and transcend the trauma of war. But at the end, severed from familiar surroundings, he suffered old ordeals all over again, and not even painting could sustain him. Misery is manageable so long as it can be channelled into art; only when it goes mute does despair finally triumph.

To April 6, greyartgallery.nyu.edu

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