Zerbe was born in Berlin in 1903, spent his youth and early career in Europe, and became a bonafide German Expressionist painter. He was instructed in rigorous craftsmanship and an expressionist aesthetic agenda at the Debschitzschule in Munich (a progressive forerunner of the Bauhaus) under Joseph Eberz and Karl Caspar, a follower of Edvard Munch. By the early thirties, Zerbe’s paintings displayed the influences of Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, and Georg Grosz, were collected by major German museums, and were shown by George Gaspan— Kokoschka’s dealer—in Munich. In 1933, he fled the Nazis, who would later include his work in their infamous 1937 Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition.18
When Zerbe arrived at the Museum School, he found an institution adrift. The drawing and painting program had been mired in stultifying, nineteenth-century academic pedantry and had not at all felt the effects of Modernism. Indeed, the visual arts in Boston as a whole were stuck in the past. The 1913 Armory Show, which introduced the radical avant-garde to American audiences, had a profound art historical impact in New York, where it was first exhibited, but its Boston showing provoked little response save generally hostile press. 19 Aside from the works of Bloom and Levine, painting in Boston in the twenties and thirties was dominated by an academic impressionism practiced by the followers of turn-of-the-century painters Edmund Tarbell, Frank Benson, William Paxton, and John Singer Sargent. Zerbe, Bloom, and Levine changed all of this, and their leadership made Boston Expressionism—at mid-century—the first truly Modernist art movement in the city’s history.
Zerbe took matters in hand immediately. He abandoned the school’s denatured Beaux-Arts instructional system in favor of the lessons he had learned in Germany.20 While he stressed discipline of technique and formal rigor, he also encouraged experimentation with painting media and expressive imagery. Like Zimmerman, Bloom, and Levine, Zerbe placed high value on individual expression and drawing from the imagination. And he preached respect for art historical tradition while lecturing with authority about the branches of Modernism that had informed his own work. These included the Cubism of Picasso and Braque and the German Expressionism of the Blaue Reiter group, Kokoschka, and Max Beckmann, all of which came as exciting revelations to his students.21 Yet Zerbe was never willing to abandon the figure and looked on the rise of Abstract Expressionism with disdain. At one point, Zerbe arranged for a show of Abstract Expressionist paintings at the Museum School but inserted into the otherwise legitimate exhibition a framed, paint-stained rag, labeled as the work of one P. T. Jackson—a conflation of P. T. Barnum and Jackson Pollock!22 And one of Zerbe’s star pupils, the painter Henry Schwartz, recalled that “In postwar Boston, expressionist painting was okay because the abstract movements sweeping the rest of the country were streng verboten, and those indulging in them were excommunicated.”23
In addition to his persuasive pedagogy, Zerbe was instrumental in bringing major expressionist artists to the Museum School to lecture and teach. In 1948, Max Beckmann visited the school, where an exhibition was held of his work. While there, he also delivered a talk on humanistic values in art and conducted critiques of students’ work. Zerbe also programmed a Museum School summer session at the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which was directed by major expressionist artists: Ben Shahn in 1947, Mitchell Siporin in 1948, and Oskar Kokoschka in 1949.
Zerbe’s own work was marked by a mastery of, and a constant experimentation with, materials. According to his student Bernard Chaet, he was “involved with looking for a magic medium.”24 By 1938, Zerbe felt that he had found one in encaustic, an ancient and difficult process in which pigment is suspended in heated wax, dries quickly, lasts long, and allows a deep luminosity of color.25 With encaustic, Zerbe painted landscapes, portraits, and still lifes that were deeply indebted to Beckmann’s style and odd narrative juxtapositions of objects. Art historian Frederick Wight remarked that “a dreamlike, casual, and mysterious interrelationship of things is basic in Zerbe’s painting, and the feeling which he releases or conveys ranges all the way from somber grandeur to whimsy evoked out of the odd.”26 By the mid-forties, Zerbe adopted the Modernist themes of the harlequin and clown, and he used them as symbols of both alienation and a deeply felt spirituality, what critic Nancy Stapen referred to as “the most salient characteristic of Zerbe’s art … Its interiority.”27 Sometimes these single figures were obvious self-portraits, and sometimes, like they were mysteriously masked. Zerbe left Boston in 1954 for the more salubrious climate of Florida, where he was appointed Professor of Painting at the state university in Tallahassee, a position he held until 1971. While there, his work became more colorful, more abstract, and more richly textured. These tendencies are all revealed in his Portrait of a Painter (Kokoschka) (1959), a tribute to his mentor, whose gesticulating image dissolves into a field of abstract shapes and broad brushstrokes.
At mid-century in Boston, Zerbe was not alone in his enthusiasm for expressionism. Art historian Judith Bookbinder has argued persuasively that cultural and educational institutions in Boston and Cambridge were marked by a pervasive germanophilia, and that this paved the way for the local embrace of Northern European Expressionist art.28 At Harvard University, for example, the Germanic Museum (renamed the Busch-Reisinger Museum in 1949) began collecting and exhibiting German Expressionist works in the thirties, with major shows of Georg Grosz in 1935 and 1941 and a Max Beckmann show in 1940. By 1950, it was the only area museum with an ambitious permanent collection of modern art, and it featured major works by Ernst Barlach, Otto Dix, Erich Heckel, Vasily Kandinsky, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, and Emil Nolde.29
Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), while not a collecting institution, was just as avid in its embrace of European Expressionism. Founded in 1936 as the Boston Museum of Modern Art—a regional outpost of its parent museum, New York’s Museum of Modern Art— the institution changed its name in 1939 to the Institute of Modern Art to reflect its non-collecting status and to distance itself somewhat from MoMA. The Institute of Modern Art mounted several important exhibitions that added fuel to Boston’s expressionist fire: Contemporary German Art in 1939, a Georges Rouault show in 1940, and during the war years, exhibitions on Chaim Soutine, Marc Chagall, James Ensor, and Forbidden Art of the Third Reich. In 1948, the ICA was born when Director James Sachs Plaut issued a somewhat confused manifesto that in effect changed the institute’s name yet again and posited a mission favoring Northern European Figurative Expressionism in counter distinction to MoMA’s perceived francomania and promulgation of abstract art. In the wake of this declaration, the ICA mounted major exhibitions of the work of Kokoschka in 1948, Munch in 1950, and Ensor, again, in 1952.30 Boston’s august Museum of Fine Arts was a bit late to hop on the bandwagon, purchasing works by Kokoschka, Munch, Beckmann, and Kirchner shortly after the ICA exhibitions.31
All of these local expressionist resources were eagerly sought out by Zerbe’s students at the Museum School, among them David Aronson, Arthur Polonsky, Henry Schwartz, Bernard Chaet, and Lois Tarlow. These artists, along with Bloom, Zerbe, and Mitchell Siporin (see below), formed the core of what was nationally recognized as the Boston Expressionist group in the early fifties. While the practitioners of Boston Expressionism did not establish a thoroughly cohesive style, they did share several salient characteristics. They all abjured non-objective painting and relied on representation, particularly on images of the human figure seen alone or in narrative vignettes. To these images they applied an expressionist formal vocabulary that stylized and manipulated reality to make eloquent visual statements about ineffable feelings and universal humanistic themes that included religion, spirituality to the point of mysticism, artistic alienation, history, suffering and redemption, existentialism, human foibles, and the emotional resonance of nature. These themes were often inflected by the Jewish cultural heritage and immigrant experience or several of the artists. The Boston Expressionists also prided themselves on their technical abilities, especially their facility with drawing and acute color sense. They respected tradition, admiring not only twentieth-century European Expressionists but also expressionist heroes of yore: Michelangelo, El Greco, Rembrandt, Blake, and Goya. This reverence for the past, rather than the wholesale dismissal preached by the strictest adherents of Modernism, set the Boston Expressionists apart and branded them in the avant-garde circles of New York as conservative and backward-looking.