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Study of Skeleton Playing a Clarinet for the Painting

Felix Nussbaum (German, 1904-1944)

Study of Skeleton Playing a Clarinet for the Painting "Death Triumphant", c. 1944

  • Pencil, gouache, and chalk on paper
  • 10 7/8 x 8 13/16 in. (27.7 x 22.4 cm)
  • The Jewish Museum, New York
  • Purchase: Mildred and George Weissman Philanthropic Fund of the Jewish Communal Fund Gift, 1985-140
  • © 2008 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

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Study of Skeleton Playing a Clarinet for the Painting "Death Triumphant"

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Study of Skeleton Playing a Clarinet for the Painting "Death Triumphant"

THE DANCE OF DEATH: A MEDIEVAL MOTIF

The horn-playing skeleton in Nussbaum's painting Death Triumphant borrows from a medieval allegory known as the Dance of Death (Totentanz in German). Depicted in art and literature from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century, the Dance of Death consists of the personification of Death leading dancing figures from all walks of life to the grave. It was meant as a reminder of the universality of death and the vanity of earthly glories.



SPIRITUAL RESISTANCE

Felix Nussbaum's constant drive to create art while in hiding and in captivity is an example of spiritual resistance--the refusal to have one's spirit broken by degradation and dehumanization. In ghettos, in camps, and in hiding, Jews found ways to maintain some measure of dignity and humanity in the face of Nazi brutality. In the ghettos, for example, inmates organized concerts, plays, and art exhibitions. Despite the official policy banning education, they created makeshift classrooms for children. And they found spiritual solace in Jewish ritual even though religious observance was forbidden. Even a simple act of kindness from one person to another reflected a powerful assertion of an individual's humanity.