The ‘Rudolf Levy Life & Exile’ Show at Pitti

Rudolf Levy’s last, unfinished work, created in Piazza Santo Spirito, where he lived in the Le Sorelle Bandini boardinghouse.

Until April 30: RUDOLF LEVY, HIS LIFE AND WORK. Palazzo Pitti, Andito degli Angiolini.  Open daily 8:15 am – 6:30 pm, closed Monday. Admission is included in the museum entrance fee: €10 until February 28, and €16 afterward.

January 27 marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day to remember the lives lost to hatred and cruelty against the Jewish people. It also serves as the date when the last survivors of Auschwitz were freed. To ensure the memory of the Holocaust is never forgotten, the Uffizi Gallery has organized an exhibition showcasing the paintings by the late Jewish artist and Florence resident, Rudolf Levy (1875 -1944), within the Pitti Palace.

This exhibition is an expansion of last year’s display for International Holocaust Day of Remembrance, in which the Uffizi featured a famous painting done by Levy, entitled Flame. 

The Uffizi has dedicated the current 2023 show to Eduard Bargheer and Klaus Mann. Eduard Bargheer was a German painter and friend of Levy. They first met in Ischia, an island off Naples, in the mid to late 1930s where they were both actively painting at the time. Their friendship continued when they both moved back to Florence, where they lived in Piazza Santo Spirito at the Sorelle Bandini pensione (boarding house) with other artists until Levy was arrested by German soldiers in 1943. Bargheer also aided in the protection of a handful of Levy’s artwork that was left behind. Klaus Mann was the son of the famous author Thomas Mann and was also a friend of Rudolf Levy. Despite being from Germany, Mann fought for the United States in World War II, after the Nazi regime revoked his German citizenship. He arrived in Florence with the U.S. Fifth Army in 1944 and became acquainted with Bargheer, who remained in Florence until 1947.

The first section of the exhibition displays Levy’s early works clearly influenced by the styles of Matisse as well as Cezanne, which were created before the First World War. The second section is comprised of Levy’s paintings from 1919 to 1933, during which he was still inspired by Matisse, in addition to other avant-garde styles of that period. The third and final installation (1933 -1943) showcases his later works, created mainly during his travels and his exile from his home country. This segment typifies the style of German Expressionism, which realistically portrays heightened emotion and psychology. Many of the pieces are on loan from private and public collections, mainly from Germany. A number were exhibited in retrospectives in Florence in 1946 and 1950. Additionally found in the third segment are documents, photos, letters, and exhibition catalogues, as well as documents which were issued by the Italian government to Levy.

The current retrospective not only displays many of Levy’s paintings from different stages of his career, but also highlights his incredible life. He was born in 1875 in Szczecin, a city under the German empire at the time of his birth but is now part of Poland. In 1897, he moved to Munich where he studied under the painter Heinrich von Zügel before moving to Paris. In Paris, he met and began to study with Henri Matisse at Académie Matisse. His early works are very clearly influenced by Matisse and the post-impressionist style of painting.

After his time training in Paris, he moved back to Germany at the start of World War I and volunteered to fight. After the war, he moved around to different cities in Germany before settling in Berlin with his wife Genia until 1933, when he went into exile due to the Nazi Regime taking power. During his time in Berlin, he was a celebrated artist, and many of his paintings were featured in galleries around the city.

In 1933, when Levy was went into exile, he moved around among Nice, Rapallo, Majorca, and Marseille, until 1936 when he decided his safest option was to move to America. However, this decision only lasted until 1937 when he felt he had to return to Europe to feel at home again. He arrived and lived on the coast of modern-day Croazia for a short time before moving once more to Ischia in Italy. In 1940, Levy was forced to move to Rome due to problems with his residence status, before living-in-hiding in a Piazza Santo Spirito boarding house from 1941 to 1943. At this time, Levy began to paint still lifes and portraits of people close to him, many of whom had very bleak expressions. His paintings seem to reflect the world he was living in and the danger he faced each day.

In 1943, Levy began his last existing painting titled Woman Playing the Guitar. On December 12, 1943, after the German occupation, he was arrested and imprisoned at Le Murate, then transferred to San Vittore in Milan. On January 30, 1944, he was put on a train for Auschwitz, in the same transport as current Italian Senator-for-life Liliana Segre. Once arrived at Auschwitz, he was presumably immediately sent to the gas chambers because he was considered too old for slave labor. His presumed date of death is the same as the arrival of the convoy in Auschwitz, on February 6, 1944.

Levy was a remarkable man whose story deserves to be heard, and his art seen.  (Sofie Refojo/additional reporting by Rosanna Cirigliano)