Sunday, March 30, 2014

Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937

Why is it so often that what or whom I want to see is somewhere else or somewhere I just left?  Two friends who had not been in Santa Fe for quite a while, one from New York and the other from Dallas finally came within the same 10 days that we were in New York.  When there is an opening in Santa Fe inevitably I will be in New York or somewhere else and so it goes.

Now, there is an exhibition that seriously interests me at the Neue Galerie in New York.  As you know the museum concentrates on late 19th and first half of the 20th century art from Austria and Germany.  The current exhibition is about what the Nazi’s referred to as Degenerate Art.  This was the avant-garde, the new art of the 20th century in Germany.  Like artists of every generation, they were trying to break the mold and produce something new.

Max Beckmann (1884-1950) "Departure" from MOMA New York    

Hitler, however, who had failed to make it into the Austrian Academy of Art  in Vienna, thought it decadent and only wanted to see classical and medieval art, He believed  paintings and sculpture should look like what they were supposed to represent and not be distorted.   He had no patience with abstract art nor atonal music for that matter.

This is the first major exhibition on the subject since the 1991 show in Los Angeles.  In 1993 Muse Film and Television, on whose board I served at the time, produced a film called “Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art)” directed by David Grubin.  The narrators included the art historian and curator Peter Selz and the author who made art and social criticism come alive, Robert Hughes.  It is based on the exhibition at the Los Angeles Museum of Art which endeavored to reproduce the exhibition that Hitler arranged to show the art that he felt was unworthy before selling or burning it.

The Neue Galerie goes a step further.  It looks at the time in which the original exhibition is set.  Hitler has just had his Museum called the House of German Art built in Munich to show the art that is healthy for the state.   Immediately thereafter he opened his degenerate art exhibition to contrast for the citizens what was good for them and what was not! 

The show lasted for 3 years starting in Munich in 1937 touring throughout Germany and Austria and by the time it closed it was the most viewed exhibition ever, totaling 3 million visitors. Of the total 16 to 20,000 modern works eventually confiscated by the 3rd Reich from the German people, 650 works were crammed together in small rooms and at the wrong heights.  One witness to the exhibition described graffiti with derogatory comments written on the walls.  The condemned art was not just that of the Expressionists but started in 1910 including all the isms, such as Fauvism, Cubism, Dadaism etc.

The Neue Galerie often has very dramatic exhibitions and this is no exception.  The curator Olaf Peters uses all sorts of juxtaposition, photographs, posters etc. in order to give full effect to the moment.  For instance, he shows on two sides of a gallery, examples of both 1937 exhibitions, both what Hitler disdained and what he approved of.  There are also dramatic examples of empty frames where the works have been ostensibly torn from their frames.  It is a propaganda exhibition to show the evils of the Nazism.  The sinister way they went about influencing the populace on what was good and what was bad art. 

Though we all have our own opinions, we are influenced, as well, by the authorities of the day.  Today it is usually the better-known critics and collectors, but since the critics were censored in 1937 Munich, and it was dangerous to speak out against the Reich, there was only Hitler and his henchmen to say what was acceptable.

The Neue Galerie is showing examples of all the greats of the period such as Max Beckmann, George Grosz, Erich Heckel's, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka's, Emil Nolde and a number of others.  It demonstrates the great art of Germany that was destined for destruction, just like the book burnings, which had already started in 1933.  It was a strange kind of luck that in 1939 Hitler decided to sell many of the paintings that he had stolen at auction in Switzerland in order to pay for his war effort. 

Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959) "The Four Elements: Pinakothek der Moderne"
from Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesammlugen

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) "Berlin Street Scene, 1913"
from Neue Galerie/Private Collection

Many of the artists left Germany when they found that their art was disdained and emigrated abroad.  One interesting fact is that of the 112 artists exhibited in the Degenerate Art show only 6 were Jewish.  Being a member and supporter of the Nazi Party was also not a free pass.  One such artist at the forefront of the Expressionist Movement was Emile Nolde, and though he did not leave Germany, he was relegated to the hinterlands to do small landscapes and paintings of nature.

In the light of all the works of art that were recently found in the possession of Cornelius Gurlitt, this exhibition gives hope that other works of art that were thought to be destroyed might again come to light.

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