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.
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.
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.
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.