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Karl Zerbe

Around the Lighthouse

A native of Berlin, Karl Zerbe studied chemistry at technical school in 1920 in Friedberg, Germany, before moving to Munich, an active center for modern art in the decades before World War II. There, he shifted his educational focus to painting and, by 1922, held his first solo exhibition in Berlin. By 1937, he had fled Germany and resettled in the United States, where he taught painting.

In particular, Zerbe’s paintings recall compositions by a fellow German, Max Beckmann, who depicted his society’s disillusionment in the aftermath of a great world war. Around the Lighthouse, created in the wake of a second world war, employs a Beckmann-like compression of space and a similar somber mood. The painting’s ambiguities in scale and spatial position, knotted together by a unifying black line, flatten Zerbe’s array of fishing motifs into a kind of pictorial rebus, the exact meaning of which is difficult to decipher. An angler’s display of fish, lure, and fisherman provokes questions concerning object versus artifice. Zerbe confounds a simple reading of his still-life through disconcerting elements such as the shadow from a spinner bait cast across a “distant” landscape view. A figure holding a live fish seems at first to belong to the same plane of the lighthouse poster image, yet the fish’s caudle fin extends beyond the lower margin of the picture within a picture, as does the boy’s form—again casting doubts on what is real and what is illusory.

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