Amalie Seckbach was born in Hungen (Germany, near Frankfurt) on 7 May 1870, to the Buch family, who were wealthy Jewish merchants. Amalie's father traded in agricultural machinery and she had three older brothers.
In 1890 her father died and his business was sold the following year. Amalie and her mother moved to Frankfurt where Amalie received an education typical of a girl from a well to do family - in addition to reading and writing she studied piano, singing, painting and how to run a home.
In 1907 she married Max Seckbach, who was a well-known architect. They had no children. During the First World War, Amalie Seckbach, like many other women of her class, volunteered to do welfare work for which she received an award from the German Red Cross. Her mother died in 1918 and four years later, in 1922, her husband also passed away. Seckbach felt alone and she occupied herself with sculpture, an art form she had taught herself.
In Frankfurt, which was a city rich in museums, she was exposed to colorful Japanese and Chinese woodcuts. In 1926 she sat in on lessons at the University of Frankfurt's Institute of Chinese Studies and became an expert in the field of Japanese and Chinese woodcuts. She also collected them. The "Seckbach Collection" was exhibited in well-known German museums and acquired an international reputation. She also began to exhibit her own sculptures - small busts, which she displayed in glass showcases alongside her collection of prints. This combination aroused curiosity and great interest.
In 1930 Seckbach met the painter James Ensor in Belgium and he was very impressed with her work. They exhibited together at the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bruxelles, with Seckbach's work receiving excellent reviews. She was sixty when she began to exhibit abroad, mainly in the Salon des Surindépendants in Paris, and her works received a great deal of esteem and praise.
With the rise of the Nazis (1933), artists' works which were considered "degenerate art" were confiscated - especially works by Jewish artists. But Seckbach was still able to exhibit for several more years in Germany within the framework of the "Judischen Kulturbundes" (Jewish Cultural Association). Thanks to her international connections she continued, surprisingly, to exhibit abroad - in Madrid, Florence, Paris, Brussels and Ostende in Belgium. The works of this self-taught artist, who began to paint and sculpt at a relatively advanced age, were exhibited alongside sculptures and pictures by artists like Chagall, Bonnard, Vlaminck, Signac and Rouault.
In 1936 she was invited to exhibit at the prestigious Art Institute of Chicago, where her works were displayed alongside those of expressionist artists like Paul Klee, Max Pechstein, Otto Dix, Emil Nolde and Lyonel Feininger. Among those who bought her works were museums, galleries, famous people and lovers of unique culture.
In 1939 Sechbach was still living in a luxurious eight-room apartment in Frankfurt. Then, in 1941, like the other Jews of Germany, she was forced to wear the yellow badge. As she understood the gravity of her situation, Seckbach made last-minute attempts to get to the United States via Lisbon, but was unsuccessful.
On 15 September 1942, Seckbach was sent to Terezin. This was an extremely difficult period in her life, but somehow, despite her poor physical condition, the 72-year-old succeeded in producing works of art. Some of her paintings survived and can be found at Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum) in Israel.
On 10 August 1944 Seckbach died in Terezin. She was burnt in the crematorium, with no grave and no marker.
In Terezin, where one of her brothers had also been sent, Seckbach sometimes painted on paper she found in garbage cans. Unlike many other artists caught up in camps or ghettos, Seckbach did not portray life in the ghetto. This is what makes her works so surprising - at first glance they don't seem to have any connection with her circumstances.
Instead, the themes of Seckbach's works are sublime and timeless. She paints beauty in a world of death and suffering. Among her works we can find paintings of flowers, imaginary landscapes and surreal portraits. She concentrates mainly on portraits of beautiful and charming women, framed with imaginary flowers or grass. Sometimes the imaginary flowery frame becomes a kind of crown.
Is this type of art spiritual resistance? Yes it is, although it may not appear to be at first glance. Her portraits, on flat paper, are characterized by their intense gaze. In their large eyes we can glimpse the emotional processes - the suffering, mourning and emotional torture. They do not smile; their mouths are sealed. But there is a kind of nobility in them. They arouse respect with their solid and proud beauty. They may remind us of mythological or religious stories - but is she really referring to these subjects? In addition to the date and signature we find written, in large letters, the word "Theresienstadt"
(Dr Pnina Rosenberg)
Beit Thereseinstadt (Thereseinstadt House) archive, Givat Haim-Ihud, Israel.
Miriam Novitch. Spiritual Resistance: Art from Concentration Camps 1940-1945 - A selection of drawings and paintings from the collection of Kibbutz Lohamei Haghetaot. Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981.
Gabriele Reber. Amalie Seckbach. Unpublished research, Usingen, Germany, no date.