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Karl Zerbe

Columbus Avenue

When Karl Zerbe created Columbus Avenue, south Boston had become a thriving immigrant community. He was an émigré from Germany, having settled in the United States in 1935 after the Nazis declared his expressionistic style “degenerate.”2 As an artist belonging to the German Expressionist school Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”), Zerbe sought to “tear the objective form of the world of contemporary facts and represent current experience in its tempo and fevered temperature.” Like his friend Max Beckmann, an artist commonly associated with New Objectivity, Zerbe attempts to communicate pathos clearly through composition and brushwork rather than through conventional narrative. Similarly, his iconography is often so personal and specific that the audience struggles to identify meaning.

Zerbe’s fantastical rendering of Boston’s Columbus Avenue resists easy interpretation. Set against the deteriorating grandeur of a sedate apartment block are objects that one might pass without a second glance, but through his use of eerie color, Zerbe imbues this ethnic neighborhood with mystery, elevating it from the mundane to the metaphorical. Zerbe’s empathy for the immigrant residents of Columbus Avenue is palpable. He captures the sense of alienation one feels as a foreigner, the acute sensation of constantly feeling out of place, surrounded by incomprehensible words and vague symbols.

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