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 Jacques Ochs  (1883 - 1971)

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Lived/Active: France/Belgium      Known for: portrait and figure painting, caricatures

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BIOGRAPHY for Jacques Ochs
1883 (Nice, France)
1971 (Luik, Belgium)


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portrait and figure painting, caricatures

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

Jacques Ochs (18 February 1883 – 3 April 1971), was a Jewish Belgian artist and dueling sword and foil fencer.  He was born in Nice, France. In 1893, his family moved to Liège, Belgium, and Ochs studied art there at the Royal Academy of Art, graduating in 1903. He won the Donnay Prize that year. Afterwards, he continued his studies at the Académie Julian in Paris until 1905.

Ochs volunteered for the army in World War I, and was seriously injured in an air attack.

In 1920 he became a professor of painting at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Liège, and in 1934 he was appointed Director of the city's Musée des Beaux Arts.

In addition to being a gifted artist, he was an Olympic fencing champion, becoming Champion of Belgium in fencing in 1912. Ochs was a member of the Belgian fencing team at the 1912 Stockholm Olympics, and won a gold medal in the team épée event. He was World Champion in fencing in 1914.

He was also a caricaturist, who published his sketches, illustrations, and caricatures in various newspapers including the French daily, Le Figaro, and a satirical magazine published in Brussels called Pourquoi Pas? (Why Not?).  He at the same time worked at the newspapers Newspaper of Liege, Small Parisian, and the Belgian Nation.

In early April 1938, Ochs, who was himself Jewish, depicted Hitler on the cover of Pourquoi Pas? with a swastika on his head and a sceptre in the form of a headless Jew. An artist with right-wing tendencies who envied Ochs' success informed on him, and Ochs was arrested at the Academy in Liège on 17 November 1940.

A month later, on 17 December, Ochs was imprisoned in the Breendonk camp, to the south of Antwerp on the Brussels-Antwerp highway. The camp's prisoners suffered starvation, grass eating, tortures, hangings, and shootings. Since September 20, Breendonk had been used as a police internment camp holding mostly political prisoners and foreign Jews before their transport to Germany. Ochs used caricature to document the life there, drawing portraits of his fellow inmates on paper. When the commandant, Sturmbannführer Philipp Schmitt, who was very proud of "his" camp, became aware of Ochs' artistic talents, he ordered him to make him drawings of the camp and its inmates – a gallery of victims. Among them was a portrait of Antwerp's shochet (Jewish ritual slaughterer).

Ochs was obliged to obey the demands of the SS, but tried to ease the suffering of his fellow inmates. He would drag out their portrait "sittings" to provide them with as much rest as possible. Professor Paul Lévy, who today serves as the president of the Mémorial National du Fort de Breendonk, and was interned with Ochs, has said that although the inmates did not have mirrors, they knew what they looked like through Ochs' works.

A Flemish SS man who had known Ochs previously succeeded in smuggling him out of the camp in February 1942. This same man was also able to smuggle out some of the drawings Ochs had made for Commandant Schmitt.

In 1944 Ochs was re-arrested and interned again, along with his sister, in Mechelen transit camp. He continued to draw and managed to avoid deportation through a "medical" opinion confirming he had been baptised as a Protestant, and so could not be Jewish. He was liberated from the camp by the British forces.

Only a small number of the characters he drew survived. After the war, Ochs used his drawings to reconstruct scenes from the camp. He published these in 1947, in a book called Breendonck – Bagnards et Bourreaux [Breendonck – Slave Laborers and Hangmen].

SS-Sturmbannführer Schmitt, the commandant of Breedonck camp and, later, of Mechelen transit camp, was tried in Antwerpen in 1950 and sentenced to death. He was the only SS man sentenced in Belgium, and his was the last execution before the country abolished the death penalty.

After the war Ochs returned to work as a lecturer in the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, and even though his sight had been damaged during his internment, he continued to paint and draw. In 1948 he became a member of the Académie Royale des Sciences, des Lettres et des Arts de Belgique [The Royal Academy of Science, Literature and Art in Belgium] and a member of the Commission d'Achat des Musées Royaux d'Art Moderne [Acquisitions Commission of the Royal Museums of Modern Art].

He exhibited in many exhibitions, among them group exhibitions of the "Circle of Fine Arts", and a retrospective exhibition was also held for him. Ochs received many awards in recognition of his artistic talents, among them a gold medal at the second Biennale in Menton [Médaille d'or de la deuxième Biennale de Menton] in 1953, and a gold medal for art, science and letters in Paris [Médaille d'or des Arts, Sciences et Lettres, Paris] in 1959.

Ochs died in Liege in 1971, 88 years old.

A number of his drawings from Mechelen were donated to the art collection of Beit Lohamei Haghetaot (the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum) by Irène Awret, who was interned with him in this camp.


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