Private collection, Germany
Andrea Lukas and Andrea Firmenich, Josef Scharl: Monographie und Werkverzeichnis, Cologne, 1999, p. 274, no. 299.
Like the better-known George Grosz, Josef Scharl (fig. 1a-f) was one of the more fortunate German artists labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis, as he was able to emigrate in 1939 to the United States. He had first trained in 1910 as a decorative painter in his hometown of Munich. In 1915 he was drafted into the military service and war injuries led to his hospitalization until 1918. Once returned to Munich he studied at the Künst Akademie there and launched his career. He became a member of the Neue Sezessiongroup. His work at this time has the rough expressionist quality that is typical of German painters of the era, devoted to portraits and figures of beggars, workers, war-cripples, and soldiers (figs. 2a-d). But in 1930 a scholarship allowed him to travel to Rome and Paris, and he was able to see firsthand the work of Post-Impressionist and Modern artists. This led him to the development of a style in tune with the then current German movement of Neue Sachlichkeit(New Objectivity) consisting of flatly conceived still lives and figures in bold colors (figs. 3a-f). It was also after his return to Germany that the rise of National Socialism began to impact his career; sales and exhibitions decreased, although the Nierendorf Gallery in Berlin did give him one man shows in 1933 and 1935. During the latter year some of his paintings were desecrated at the Nazi Party Day Rally in Nuremberg. Then two of his paintings were designated for inclusion in the propagandistic showing of Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) but were not in fact exhibited. Scharl’s work in the mid and late 1930s shows the temper of the times in often brutal and even grotesque subjects (figs. 4a-b). Banned from painting, emigration was his only route and through the aid of Albert Einstein, whom he had met in Berlin and often portrayed (figs. 5a-d), he was able to go in 1938 first to Switzerland and then to America, where in 1940 he settled in New York. Fortunately his dealer Karl Nierendorf had also moved to New York and was able to publish a monograph on the artist in 1945 and then present a show of his work in 1947. Scharl’s closest friend, Munich-born and now New York City resident, the publisher and translator, Wolfgang Sauerländer, got him a commission in 1944 from Pantheon Books to illustrate Grimm’s Fairy Tales(fig. 6). Scharl, who travelled around America incorporated impressions of the country into his art, which now became more decorative and ornamental (figs. 7a- g), and in 1952 he became a United States citizen. That same year he also journeyed to Switzerland for an exhibition and to restore his health. But back in New York, he died suddenly of a heart attack in 1954. His work, however, continued to be shown and honored both at the Galerie St. Etienne in New York and in various German exhibitions.
It is clear that the most profound influence on Scharl’s painting and prints throughout his career was Vincent van Gogh. As early as 1909 he would have seen examples on view in avant-garde galleries in Munich. Van Gogh motifs become an ever-present source of inspiration for Scharl from the 1920s onward in his prints, drawings, and paintings. This is particularly evident in his many vivid landscapes, most especially The Three Suns (figs. 8a-h). The van Gogh influence is also very notable in figurative works, such as mothers and children and scenes of workers, like the potato harvesters (figs. 9a-d). But, as the present painting so obviously reveals, it was especially van Gogh’s treatment of the sunflower still life that most captivated Scharl. There are many versions of this theme by van Gogh that Scharl could have known from reproductions, but most certainly he knew quite well the Bavarian State Gallery’s 1888 Twelve Sunflowers(fig. 10), which had been in Munich since 1912. Yet, it was only in 1933 that the sunflower began to appear in Scharl’s output. That year he painted a canvas very like van Gogh’s (fig. 11a), and he also produced an etching (fig. 11b). Then in 1935 he painted the present extremely powerful example, with a quite different, darker sensibility. The flowers shown from a variety of angles are in a humble black vase set on a table top against a dark blue background. The blooms are now larger and one might say more aggressive, filling nearly the entire canvas. The leaves and petals seem to almost quiver with intensity. Instead of van Gogh’s typical concentration on yellows, these flowers are a distinctly different variety with red centers (figs. 10d-e). A single cut bloom is laid on the table top at the left. Van Gogh had also done individual flowers like this (figs. 10b-c), which Scharl could well have known from reproductions. Also at the same time as this painting, he made two bold woodcuts – one of the cut sunflower blossoms on a table top and the other an upright vase of flowers (figs. 11c-d).
The sunflowers now became an almost obsessive subject for Scharl as he continued to paint and draw them during almost every year of his remaining life. In 1936 he painted another similar canvas known as the Grand Sunflowers(fig. 11e) as well as a related drawing and print (figs. 11f-g), all of which replace the solid vase with a glass one. Additional sunflower compositions occur during the next two years (figs. 11h-j). Then once Scharl settled in the United States, the subject reappeared periodically, but now in a much more decorative and fanciful manner throughout the 1940s and even into the 1950s (figs. 11k-p). These it is fair to say lack the impact and immediacy of the present example from the mid-1930s, which is undoubtedly one of Scharl’s masterpieces. It is both a lasting homage to van Gogh and a highly individual achievement of this painter, who, as Albert Einstein wrote in his moving eulogy for his friend, “sought and achieved the lucid expression of his personal artistic experience.”