Sketch by Sketch, Uncovering the Legacy of Artist David Friedmann

Feb 24, 2012

Friedmann Enlarge image (© Miriam Friedman Morris) There is only one original. It's of Váša Příhoda, the Czech violin virtuoso performing at the Berlin Philharmonic, from 1927. This face had disappeared, literally, into history; one of hundreds of portraits of Berlin Philharmonic musicians drawn by a well-known press artist of his time. Over 90 years later, the portrait served as the model for reconstructions of similar portraits drawn for the weekly program magazine of Der Deutsche Rundfunk (German Radio), which now adorn the walls of Deutsches Haus NYU.

The man behind the portraits was born in Ostrava (formerly Mährisch Ostrau) in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1893. His name was David Friedmann, and he had a talent for sketching and painting that led him to Berlin in 1911 to pursue an artistic career. For the next 27 years in the German metropolis, he portrayed hundreds of famous personalities of the day for German newspapers, including many musicians, for Der Deutsche Rundfunk.

The Berlin Philharmonic that Friedmann portrayed in the 1920s was a diverse one, with members who hailed from all over Europe, and many of whom were Jewish. After the Nazi rise to power in 1933, many of these careers came to a swift and tragic end, and Friedmann, who was also Jewish, was likewise prohibited from working as an artist in Germany. But here, in the exhibit "Giving Music a Face: David Friedmann's Lost Musician Portraits from the 1920s," they are preserved, depicted in their element as the luminous personas of their time.

Friedman sketched and painted everything from chess champions to the Havel River, before he too fell victim to the mass deportations of Jews from Prague- where he had fled with his wife and daughter in 1938- to the Lodz Ghetto in Poland. Friedmann, already in his 40s, was eventually sent to Auschwitz and the satellite camp Gleiwitz I; his wife and young daughter perished. Unable to perform the hard labor to which prisoners of the concentration camp were subjected, Friedmann found his lifeline in his ability to sketch and paint. Soon, he was painting portraits for SS officers, who, in spite of Friedmann's being Jewish, greatly admired his art. After the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945 and fleeing communist Czechoslovakia in 1949, Friedmann fled to Israel, before eventually immigrating to the United States with his wife.

Friedmann was employed as a billboard painter in St. Louis, leaving his life as a prolific press artist and painter behind with the assumption that most of his works had been destroyed by the Nazis. He and his second wife Hildegard Taussig, also a Holocaust survivor, were careful not to refer to this dark period of their lives around their daughter Miriam- her father's ruined career included. She recalls: “You just get little pieces," referring to her parents' reluctance to share too much of their personal pasts." But I never viewed it as a burden.”

It was not until Miriam Friedman Morris traveled to Europe as a student in the 1970s, staying with Friedmann’s sister-in-law, who lived in Berlin, that she realized there was more to the story. As she looked around her aunt’s living room, she realized all of these paintings were her father’s. “I thought to myself, ‘Did my father want to surprise me? Or am I about to surprise my father?’” she said. Photographing as much as she could, it became clear that the latter was true, and thus began what would become a decades-long search for the thousands of lost paintings and graphic works by her father.

Her searches brought her to archives, museums, and collections in Europe, mostly to no avail. Turned down in letters and emails by curators and directors who claimed to know nothing of Friedmann or his works, Friedman Morris finally made a breakthrough by visiting Berlin again, determined to find the works herself. She found more than 100 portraits that had been published in various newspapers.

Several years later, she befriended the historian Detlef Lorenz, who teamed up with her to find more published portraits. One of these great successes was his unearthing of Der Deutsche Rundfunk,  which contained copies of most of  the portraits now hanging in the Deutsches Haus at NYU. “It was hard to get information," she said of her search. "The archivists don't work with the curators, who don't work with the historical department. It is a phenomenon I saw in every country.”

But soon these discoveries paid off. Lorenz showed these photos to Helge Grünewald, Dramaturg for the Berliner Philharmonic, who had been researching the Philharmonic's past. After seeing the photos, Grünewald decided to organize an exhibition of Friedmann's drawings of musicians who were either members of the Berlin Philharmonic or worked with them as conductors or soloists. The exhibition was realized in Berlin on the eve of the 70th anniversary of Kristallnacht, November 8, 2008. It was through her fortuitous discovery of the Váša Příhoda portrait, which had been placed on auction, that Friedman Morris found the "star of the show": now, she was able to provide an original on which to base the digital reconstructions for the exhibition.

Three years later, Friedman Morris Friedmann Enlarge image Miriam Friedman Morris (© GKNY) contacted Martin Rauchbauer, Director of Deutsches Haus NYU. Aware of the Berlin Philharmonic's upcoming US tour, Rauchbauer helped Friedman Morris to organize an exhibition at Deutsches Haus that coincided with the Philharmonic's performances in New York. It was the perfect opportunity to exhibit these photos and organize a series of talks, the last of which is on Friday, February 24 with Grünewald and Friedman Morris, at Deutsches Haus.

The search for David Friedman's legacy continues. Friedman Morris hopes to produce a documentary on her father in the future, after touring with this exhibit that represents only one small sampling of his greater life's work. "I feel like if I stop, it ceases," says Friedman Morris, who is an only child. As a member of the "second generation," she says she is driven not solely by a sense of purpose in recovering her father's lost art  She also "connects the dots" with great anticipation of what will come next, out of fascination for her father's legacy. Where will she find the next piece? "It won't be hanging in a museum," she says. "It's going to be hanging in someone's home, a piece they've had and loved all these years."

David Friedmann's life is indeed one of the unique stories of his generation, and Friedman Morris knows her discoveries have ramifications for more than just her father. "He represents one of thousands of Jewish artists who didn't have this opportunity- the ones who are lost and forgotten." 

The exhibition "Giving Music a Face: David Friedmann's Lost Musician Portraits from the 1920s" at Deutsches Haus NYU runs through March 30. See the Deutsches Haus NYU website for details: