We know it’s Christmas. But this doesn’t look like a typical Christmas scene.
The woman in the lumpy red coat is clutching what looks like the top of a Christmas tree. Perhaps it is all she can afford. Her black hat is pulled down over her forehead, her thin legs and short boots stick out below her coat. Her nose is red from the cold, her lips curve downward; compared to the man selling trees she looks dour and small. Her spindly bit of Christmas tree contrasts with the tall, full trees leaning against the building wall. They contrast with the leafless, living trees behind the fence, beside the store.
The Christmas tree seller stands in front of his trees. He looks – kind? He’s warmly dressed too, britches, heavy socks, boots, a coat reaching past his hips. His coat is long enough for him to stick his hands comfortably into the pockets. His axe, perhaps just used, sticks out from one side. His hat sits crumpled on his head.
The snow around them is well trodden. On the pavement, further from us, a well-dressed man and girl, father and daughter perhaps, walk past a store that sells exotic fruit. Bags and packages dangle from the father’s hand; he wears his hat at a jaunty angle, hiding his eyes. His head is turned toward us, his body leans toward his daughter as if to shield her. A chimney belches smoke above them; the sky is full of smoky clouds.
It’s Christmas time in Germany in 1930 and Hans Baluschek was painting what he saw. What he saw was a Christmas divided – divided between well-off and poor, between people of different beliefs, between traditions rooted in the country and life in the city, between the green of trees and the smoke of industry. We see the trappings of Christmas – the trees, the packages, the winter snow. What we do not see is the anticipation of happiness.
Why present a Christmas scene this way? The son of a railway engineer, Beluschek had studied art in Berlin as a young man and lived there still. He saw the changing, industrializing city and found it dehumanizing. He lived through World War I and felt and saw disquieting political changes happening in Germany as World War II approached.
Here we see how his experience and ideas combined with his understanding of working class life and his desire to show their world. This is Christmas from a different perspective, not what we think of as a typical Christmas scene.
But we can still hope that having that little tree brought joy to the woman clutching it.