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The Artful Traveler: What Hitler Hated – and Loved

Paul Klee (1879-1940) The Angler, 1921 Watercolor, transfer drawing and ink on paper 18 7/8 x 12 3/8 in. (50.5 x 31.8 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. John S. Newberry Collection Digital Image © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/ Art Resource, NY © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Paul Klee (1879-1940)
The Angler, 1921
Watercolor, transfer drawing and ink on paper
18 7/8 x 12 3/8 in. (50.5 x 31.8 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. John S. Newberry Collection; Digital Image © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/ Art Resource, NY
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

By Bobbie Leigh

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” is one of the most compelling and timely presentations the Neue Galerie has mounted since it opened in  2001. It is as much about politics and culture as mid-century art. According to Hitler, modern art demonstrated  the cultural decay threatening the German public.

Just two days after Hitler’s new government was sworn in in February 1933, a Nazi newspaper  published  an article about an “art swamp in Germany.”  Its purpose was to draw attention to the “Jewish domination” of  the Dusseldorf Academy. From then on, the campaign against modernist art  became more widespread.

The chilling story of using art to instill a new political order in Germany culminated in “Entartete Kunst,” or degenerate art, an exhibition the Nazis mounted in Munich in 1937 which after its opening traveled to German and Austrian cities until  1941. Through meticulous research the Neue has managed to borrow about 50 paintings and sculptures, 30 works on paper which were in the original 1937 show.

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938) A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brücke), 1925-26 Oil on canvas 66 1/8 x 49 5/8 in. (168 x 126 cm) Museum Ludwig, Cologne Photo: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne
Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938)
A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brücke), 1925-26
Oil on canvas 66 1/8 x 49 5/8 in. (168 x 126 cm)
Museum Ludwig, Cologne; Photo: © Rheinisches Bildarchiv Cologne

As  curator Dr. Olaf Peters explains in the must-read catalog: “Modernism… was depicted here as a pathological undertaking that had been strategically pushed through by a small, Jewish clique at the cost of German art.”  Hitler called  modern art “monstrosities of madness.” The art he admired was inspired by the past, by  classical Greece and the Italian Renaissance.  In contrast, Hitler  referred  to the works of   such artists as George Grosz, Paul Klee, Oskar Kokoschka among many others on view at the Neue show  as degenerate, “subhuman” or “insane.”

It is estimated that from  about 1935 the Nazis  purged  German and Austrian museums of  some 20,000 works many of which ended up in the 1937  Munich Degenerate Art show.  Roughly one-third of those works were sold at auction and elsewhere to generate funds for the Nazi government. Others were destroyed in a Berlin bonfire, and the rest have for the moment, disappeared.

Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959) The Four Elements: Fire (left wing), Earth and Water (center panel), Air (right wing), 1937 Oil on canvas; 66 7/8 x 106 ¼ in. (170 x 270 cm); Pinakothek der Moderne, Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Munich Photo credit: bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, NY
Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959) The Four Elements: Fire (left wing), Earth and Water (center panel),
Air (right wing), 1937 Oil on canvas; 66 7/8 x 106 ¼ in. (170 x 270 cm); Pinakothek der Moderne, Bayerische Staatsgemaeldesammlungen, Munich; Photo credit: bpk, Berlin/Art Resource, NY

What exactly did Hitler hate?  Art tainted with Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Dadaism, and Constructivism (but not all of the latter) as well as Bauhaus modern architecture and furniture.  (It was  not made of wood from good German forests, but leather and steel.)   And what did he revere?  The best example of Hitler’s taste in art is  in the Neue show in a gallery juxtaposing  so-called good and bad art.  On one wall is a painting that ended up  above the mantelpiece in Hitler’s  apartment. It is  Adolph Ziegler’s triptych,  The Four Elements, featuring four youthful,  classic blond nudes, personifying the four elements, fire, water, earth, and air. Ziegler was one of Hitler’s favorite artists in  the “Greco-Nordic” tradition.

Max Beckmann (1884-1950) Departure, Frankfurt 1932, Berlin 1933-35 Oil on canvas 84 ¾ x 39 ¼ in. (215.3 x 99.7 cm) The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously (by exchange) Digital Image © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/ Art Resource, NY © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn
Max Beckmann (1884-1950)
Departure, Frankfurt 1932, Berlin 1933-35
Oil on canvas 84 ¾ x 39 ¼ in. (215.3 x 99.7 cm)
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Given anonymously (by exchange)
Digital Image © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/ Art Resource, NY
© 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

In the same gallery hangs Max Beckmann mystifying triptych, Departure, depicting a crowned king and queen in a boat  at sea  flanked by  panels of suffering, tortured prisoners. Beckmann, whom the Nazis fired from his professorship at the University of Frankfurt, called the center panel “The Homecoming.”  According to the artist, the queen carries the “greatest treasure –Freedom as a child in her lap.”  After his exile from Germany, Beckmann said…”Freedom is the one thing that matters—it is the departure, the new start.”

Along with Beckmann, the Nazis drove many artists to exile, suicide and  early death.  According to Hitler, “being German meant being clear.” He demonized modern art and orchestrated a state campaign against distorted or primitive forms, muddy colors, complexity, and ambiguity. Aerial shots of  Dresden before and after the war along with two photo murals sum up the show: On one side of a narrow corridor outside of the galleries we see German people lining up to see the  Degenerate Art  traveling  exhibition when it was in Hamburg from November 11-December 30, 1938.  On the other side,  we see  an equally long line of Jews  arriving at the Auschwitz-Birkenau  railroad station.

The Neue Galerie; www.neuegalerie.org  On view through June 30, 2014.

 

bl Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

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