Leo Haas (1901-1983): Conversation, Vienna, 1925
Black chalk on paper, 396 x 312 mm
Signed and dated LR: Haas 25
Provenance: acquired by the JMP in 2010, purchase from a private collection in Vancouver, Canada
The drawing with the parenthetical title “Conversation” is part of a larger set of prewar work by Leo Haas acquired by the Jewish Museum in Prague at the end of 2010 from a private collector in Vancouver, Canada. The collection contains a total of nineteen works, including a cycle of ten lithographic illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s dark poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol,” which was produced by Haas in 1920 during the time he was a student at the art academy in Karlsruhe. Similar to other Haas drawing from the 1920s, “Conversation” reflects the form and content of German Expressionism, which he absorbed during his two years of study in Berlin, and later developing it in Vienna, where he relocated in 1924 and worked as a caricaturist and magazine illustrator for two years. The caricature-like drawing captures a conversation in sign language between two deaf men, one of many “snapshots” from the lives of those consigned to the peripheries of society – pimps and prostitutes, petty thieves, the mentally ill and the handicapped. During the first half of the 1920s Haas created a number of such works that show the strong influence of George Grosz and Otto Dix.
Graphic artist, draftsman, illustrator, painter, Leo Haas studied at the art academy in Karlsruhe from 1919 to 1921, and from 1921 to 1923 in Berlin. After a short break to travel to Paris and the South of France, he worked in Vienna from 1924 to 1926, primarily as an illustrator and caricaturist for periodicals. In 1926, he opened his own atelier in Opava, and his graphic work was augmented by his work for the stage, largely set design (his drawings from this period depict a number of actors, such as Albert Heine). Moving to Ostrava in 1938, Haas was soon deported with other Ostravan Jews to a labor camp in Nisko nad Sanem. It was during this internment that he produced his first drawings documenting the racial persecution of Jews (a view of the camp, portraits of fellow prisoners). He returned to Ostrava for a short time in 1940, but was again deported on September 30, 1942, this time with his wife, Erna, to the Terezín (Theresienstadt) ghetto. Here he was put to work in the technical drawing office with other artists, among whom was the phenomenal draftsman Fritz Taussig (Bedřich Fritta), whose artistic sensibilities were very close to Haas’s. As with Fritta, Otto Ungar, or Norbert Troller, Haas tirelessly devoted his free time to documenting reality, creating a sharp contrast to the propagandistic image of the ghetto the Nazis hoped to create. When the activities of these artists were discovered, in what became known as the “Affair of the Terezín Painters,” the Nazis charged them with disseminating “horror propaganda” (Greuelpropagande) and imprisoned them and their family members, including young children, in Terezín’s Small Fortress, a notorious Gestapo prison. From here Haas was deported to Auschwitz, where he was classified as a copyist and draftsman (among others, he produced sketches for Mengele). In November 1944, he was deported to Sachsenhausen and selected to be part of the “counterfeiter commandos.” Transferred to Mauthausen in February 1945, and from there to the Ebensee camp, living to see it liberated by American forces. After the war, Haas produced several lithographic series based on his traumatic experiences in the camps. As a prominent communist, he moved to East Berlin in 1955, accepting a position as professor at the Academy of Fine Arts. In 1981, barely two years before his death, a comprehensive retrospective was held in his hometown of Opava.