Artwork Detail

American, b. Germany, 1903–1972
Encaustic on canvas
62 1/2 x 40 "
University purchase, Kende Sale Fund, 1946
WU 3780
*** Recently conserved with funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. *** Karl Zerbe was a German realist painter who immigrated to the United States as a refugee in 1934, fearing Nazi oppression due to his Jewish ancestry. In works such as Armory he revived the use of encaustic paint, an ancient wax-based medium. Here a suit of armor stands amidst a delicately balanced composition of objects, each endowed with an oblique symbolism. As in the work of the German artist Max Beckmann, Zerbe’s compositions are suggestive, loaded with iconographic details that do not add up to a clear narrative. Pinned newspaper clippings throughout the composition recall current events, including World War II, which was at its height when Zerbe made this work. An eagle statue—perhaps a reference to Germany’s coat of arms—peers over the shoulder of the suit of armor, while a fallen paper airplane at bottom left alludes to a downed fighter plane. In addition, a picture frame strung with barbed wire may reference the Nazi party’s persecution of modernist artists. The Nazis removed several of Zerbe’s paintings from German museum collections and destroyed at least one, classifying the work as an example of “degenerate art.” Armory was purchased for the collection by H. W. Janson, a fellow German emigré who acquired important modern art for the Museum during his tenure as curator from 1944 to 1948. [Permanent collection label, 2016. Revised 2023]