Born in 1902 in Hungary, Theodore Fried lived through the first world war, the rise of the Nazis and WW2 before escaping to the US. His artistic oeuvre reflects both the thriving artistic movements he witnessed first-hand, and also the historic event he got caught up in.
In his work Skeleton Violinist and Dancers, we are treated to a playful Danse Macabre, from the French for ‘Dance of Death’. This allegory has been popular in visual arts since the Middle Ages
and usually depicts a skeleton representing ‘death’ playing a fiddle while the newly dead dance on their way to the grave. Fried has captured a typical Danse Macabre scene using impasto impressionism popular in his lifetime. A relatively small painting, only 14” x 12”, the frivolity and energy almost conceal the dark and painful subtext.
The largest figure’s form envelopes the two smaller figures, while they look up, grimacing in delight. This arrangement, postures and scale implies the two smaller figures are children. The allegory is twisted in Fried’s hands and becomes about innocence lost.
After training at the École des Paris, he set up a studio in Montmartre and worked tirelessly to make a living as an artist. Besides painting, he worked as an orchestra violinist, a dress designer and even a puppeteer. For Fried, the interwar period in Paris was a period of self-discovery and learning.
In the run-up to WW2 Hitler’s propaganda machine had organised an exhibition of avant-garde European artworks titled Entartete Kunst or the Degenerate Art Exhibition. These exhibitions were designed to stir up hate for the modernist art movements and pour scorn on the (mainly) Jewish artists pushing against classicism and realism. A painting by Fried titled Blinder Spielzeugmacher (Blind Toymaker) had been featured. Fried had caught the attention of the Nazis.
At the outbreak of WW2, he and his wife made a plan to emigrate to the US. Their Jewish heritage and his inclusion in the Entartete Kunst meant Europe was no longer safe. His wife and son left first but his application was rejected. He was trapped in occupied France and forced to flee to the South where he supported the Resistance. Eventually, he escaped France entirely and landed in New York, finally safe from Nazi persecution.
Given his extraordinary life experiences, this Memento Mori carries more gravitas. Fried’s Danse Macabre reminds us of the fragility of life and the innocence lost when conflict and hate consume the soul.
Theodore Fried died in 1980 and his archive and paintings are now deposited with the Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
February 9, 2024
App Art, Sherwin Miller Museum of Jewish Art