Nierendorf Gallery, New York and Los Angeles, 1943-53;
Private collection Geneva
Josef Scharl, Nierendorf Gallery, New York, October 10-30, 1943;
The Fourth Biennial Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, March 19 – April 16, 1944, no. 131;
Oils, Temperas, and Drawings by Josef Scharl, San Francisco Museum of Art, July 23 – August 27, 1944;
Pasadena Art Institute, September 5-30, 1944;
Josef Scharl,Nierendorf Gallery, New York, April 23-May 10, 1945, no. 1;
possibly exhibited in Josef Scharl, Galerie Georges Moos, Geneva, February 21-March 12, 1953.
Alfred Neumeyer, Josef Scharl, New York, 1945, ill. 27.
Andrea Lukas and Andrea Firmenich, Josef Scharl: Monographie und Werkverzeichnis, Cologne, 1999, p. 288, no. 377.
Like the better-known George Grosz, Josef Scharl (fig. 1a-f) was one of the more fortunateGerman artists to have been labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis but 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 Scharl 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 develop 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 werebdesecrated 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 first portrayed in 1927 and then many times later (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, residing in Morningside Heights at 160 Claremont Ave. Fortunately, his German dealer, Karl Nierendorf, had in 1937 also moved to New York and having established a gallery on East 57th Street, was able to present annual exhibitions of Scharl’s paintings in the 1940s, publish a monograph on the artist in 1945, and arrange to show his works, including the present example, in museum exhibitions in New York and San Francisco. Also, Scharl’s close 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).
Once settled in America, Scharl travelled around his new country, incorporating impressions of its landscapes and people into his art, which now became more decorative and ornamental (figs. 7a-g). Scharl’s work received a generally warm welcome in America. For example, of his 1945 showing at Nierendorf’s gallery in New York, Art News observed:
Josef Scharl’s oils, gouaches, and drawings currently on view are profound and passionate…There are a series of portraits, where Scharl has penetrated into the personality and then made his commentary in straight-forward pattern…But most important of all are the themes of humanity….Scharl’s heritage of peasant color and pattern and his intense and thoughtful emotion come together in a language which is among the most forceful; and integrated of contemporary expression.
In 1952 Scharl became a United States citizen, and 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 City and in various German exhibitions.
From his earliest days Scharl had been drawn to representing forceful personages with emphatic big eyes and large, expressive hands, and very often men with beards. Perhaps influenced by the works of his favorite predecessor, van Gogh, he liked to employ a kind of confrontational pose, placing his subjects close to the frontal plain of the artwork and having them make direct visual contact with the viewer (figs. 8a-h). He also liked dark, brooding, sometimes exotic, figures (figs. 9a-g). During his time in America, Scharl often found black models, such as the present older gentleman, to serve as his inspiration. It may well be that having himself suffered persecution and hostility in his homeland, he empathized with the plight of the “American Negro,” and when first exhibited this work was indeed called “Praying Negro.” The same man also appears in a gouache of 1944, and then in 1953 he employed the same title for another similar oil painting but of a different man (figs. 10a-b). Conveying his identification with the sitter, Scharl, in a note of April 1953, observed of the man in the present portrait, whom he seems to name, if one can rightly decipher his handwriting, as “Black Tilly” (fig. 11), “Here the painter and the man are not separated.” About the same time as this work, he also made drawings of a young black woman (figs. 12a-b), and black women appear as well in other later paintings (figs. 12 c-d).
Given this painting’s title, one has to assume that the man here is holding a prayer book or Bible, but in fact he seems to be contemplating rather than praying. Scharl, again from his earliest days, had a penchant not only for showing his figures reading or with books (figs. 13a-g), but also for conveying through them a religious or spiritual sensibility. As previously noted, in his later American period, his works became more vivid and decorative, and thus here there are the swirls of variegated color in the jacket and the decisive division of the background into bold blue and tan sections. Most especially this painting, certainly one of his most powerful portraits, derives its intensity from the use of white for the man’s eyes, eyebrows, and hair. His somewhat grizzled features convey a sense of age and also a hard-won perseverance, imbuing it with an iconic presence representative of its time but also making it timeless. As Albert Einstein wrote in his moving commemorative eulogy for his friend, “Sharl sought and achieved the lucid expression of his personal artistic experience.”