How The Nazis Defiled Art, Then Lives

A cruel connection between artwork and the artists who made it lies at the heart of ‘Degenerate Art’ show.

03/25/2014
Culture Editor
Photo Galleria: 
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “A Group of Artists." Courtesy of MoMA/SCALA/Art Resource, NY
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s “A Group of Artists." Courtesy of MoMA/SCALA/Art Resource, NY

From the very beginning of the exhibition “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” the connection is made, and underscored, between the Nazis identifying artists whose work was unacceptable, destroying their art and wrecking their careers, and the Nazis (later) identifying people whose very being was unacceptable and murdering them. 

Visitors to Neue Galerie enter the exhibition by passing through a long corridor. On the right is a photographic mural of long lines of German people in 1938 waiting to enter the hall where the traveling exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (“degenerate” art) was displayed; their faces are visible. On the facing wall, a 1944 photographic mural shows a crowd of Jews from Hungary arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, facing away from the camera, not yet in line.

“It’s a harsh beginning,” curator Olaf Peters says, as he offers a tour of the well-designed exhibition that was three years in the making. Peters, a professor of art history in Halle, Germany and member of the board of Neue Galerie, also edited the substantial catalogue.

As part of the Nazi campaign to denounce modern art — including such styles seen as un-German, such as Expressionism, Cubism, Dada, as well works from the Bauhaus — they confiscated and then organized yearly exhibitions of works they labeled “degenerate” art. The Neue Galerie exhibition focuses on the infamous 1937 “Entartete Kunst” installation in Munich; the artwork was later shown all over Germany and Austria. Included here are more than 80 paintings, sculptures, works on paper, posters, photographs and memorabilia, with works by Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz, Paul Klee, Oscar Kokoschka and others. This is the first major U.S. museum exhibition devoted to “degenerate” art since a 1991 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

It’s a show of many questions, back stories and striking modern art, presented thoughtfully. More than 20,000 works of art were confiscated, and more than 5,000 were destroyed — many of the seized works ended up in the collections of top officials of the Reich. About 20 of the works here were seen in the 1937 show; others are by the same artists. A handful of the artists represented in “Entartete Kunst” were Jewish.

Peters explains that “degenerate art” is a slogan that now stands for “National Socialist cultural barbarism, for the destruction of modernism in Germany between the wars.” In an interesting twist, he traces the term back to Max Nordau, a social critic who wrote a successful book, “Entartung” (Degeneration) in two volumes, published in 1892 and 1893. Nordau was the pseudonym of a son of a rabbi from Budapest who wanted to appear to be a German author — he would go on to become an early Zionist leader. A trained physician, he diagnosed “degeneration” as a mental illness. While he wasn’t the first to apply it to art, he popularized the slogan and regarded modern art and literature as sick, in need of change. In the 1920s, the National Socialists picked up on his claim that “degenerates” don’t have a sense of morality — and then radicalized and racialized the term.

Ronald Lauder, president of Neue Galerie, writes in the catalog’s preface that by separating out artists, the Nazis made it easier for ordinary Germany to look the other way when their neighbors began to disappear. “By telling Germans what art is the right art and what art is subversive, the Nazis could move on to say what people are the right people, what religions are the right religions, and eventually who could live and who could die.”

He adds, “Just as art was defiled, so were truth, decency, and, ultimately, millions of lives.”

In the first gallery where Peters guides a visitor, “degenerate” art is juxtaposed with “acceptable” works displayed at the 1937 Great German Art Exhibition in Munich. That exhibition and “Entartete Kunst” opened a day apart, and the “degenerate” show drew larger crowds. Peters carefully arranged the work, so that Max Beckmann’s triptych “Departure, 1932,” a bold, deeply-colored narrative of escape and bondage, is adjacent to Adolf Ziegler’s triptych “The Four Elements” (1937), an academic painting of four nude women, that hung above Hitler’s fireplace. A bronze sculpture, “The Hungry Girl”(1925) by Karel Niestrath, faces, from across the room, Richard Scheibe’s “Decathalete” (1936), a model of Aryan German fitness.

While the German-approved art is hung formally here as it was in 1937, the works of “degenerate” art are hung close together, framed very simply. In archival photographs of the show, the art appears hastily organized, crowded into two-row hanging, with slogans marked on the walls. Silent footage of the Munich exhibition, taken in 1937 by American filmmaker Julien Bryan, shows crowds of well-dressed Germans examining the “degenerate” art. This is the only footage known to exist.

In another room of the current exhibit, photographic images of book burnings in 1933 are the backdrop for works on paper by several artists, including a series of light-filled watercolor portraits and landscapes by Emil Nolde. His works were among more than 1000 paintings and 3000 graphic works incinerated at Berlin’s main firehouse in 1939. They were considered “unsellable” by Propaganda Ministry staffers. Nolde joined a Nazi splinter group, but by 1941 he was forbidden from working as an artist.

Photographic murals of Dresden — a view of the “Jewel Box” city in 1933 and the bombed-out city in 1945 — bracket a gallery of paintings related to the German city, once a center of German expressionism with a group of artists who referred to themselves as Die Brucke, The Bridge. In 1933, local Nazis organized their own exhibition of the works by these artists, calling it “Shame.” The styles, subjects and palettes of the “Brucke” paintings seen here vary widely. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s large-scale oil painting “A Group of Artists” (The Painters of the Brucke) is a handsome and somber group, painted 1925-26. Lasar Segall, a Jewish artist, is represented here with his angular “Eternal Wanderers” (1919).

The exhibit’s final room is the most chilling, dealing with the fate of the art and artists. Featured are three George Grosz portraits rarely seen together, along with self-portraits by Beckmann, Kirchner and Kokoschka. Beckmann wears a striped shirt that looks like a prisoner’s garb and he holds a horn in one hand (1938). Kirchner’s self-portrait was painted in 1934 and then overpainted in 1937, when he eliminated part of his face and covered his hands with stripes that also look like prison garb, or perhaps the beginnings of a swastika. In 1938, Kirchner committed suicide. Kokoschka’s “Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist” (1937) seems to embrace the label as an honorary title.

Felix Nussbaum’s 1943-44 painting “The Damned” was not part of the “degenerate” show. The group portrait is a nightmarish scene, with one woman tearing out her hair, and another weeping as coffin bearers with skeletal heads approach. Nussbaum fled Germany for Paris and then Brussels, and was murdered in Auschwitz in 1944, the same year as the photo at the beginning of the exhibit. Bernhard Heisig’s “Two German Painters, Felix Nussbaum and Max Liebermann” (1992), which echoes “The Damned,” is placed next to it.

Postcards showcase some of the art that disappeared, including a painting by Otto Dix of war heroes — wounded German soldiers returning with no legs, or in wheelchairs. His realistic depiction of war was considered offensive. Jankel Adler’s portrait of his mother and daughter is also lost. The Jewish painter went into exile, but all of his siblings perished.

Elaborate, empty antique frames hang in the final room as placeholders for works that are no more, further markers of loss.

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” is on view at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Ave. (at 86th Street) through June 30.

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