"Degenerate art" was a term applied by the National Socialist regime in Germany to artworks deemed, for whatever reason, un-German and intolerable. Modern artworks were pillaged from museums and private galleries for straying from Nazi values of obedience and militarism. Deemed weak, decadent and impure, pieces by modern masters including Paul Klee, Marc Chagall and Ernst Kirchner were looted by the Nazi regime, to be collected and shown in a traveling exhibition also titled "Degenerate Art." Over 5,000 works were stolen in two weeks.
An original exhibition of "degenerate" artworks opened in July 1937 and journeyed throughout Germany and Austria. Works were deliberately hung askew to minimize their importance to both artistic evolution and the ideas of modernism. Over the show's four month run, over two million visitors attended. In the years since, many of these "degenerate" works have been presumed lost, sold or destroyed. Yet The Neue Galerie has compiled a stunning new exhibition of works that remain, revisiting this horrific moment in art history and reappropriating Hitler's own language for further dialogue and understanding. The show features paintings, sculptures, drawings and posters deemed unworthy, with one room of the show presenting them in conversation with the works sanctioned by Hitler himself.
One example of a Nazi-approved artwork is Adolf Ziegler's "The Four Elements," which was in Hitler's personal collection, depicting four blonde and beautiful women, each representing a season. Not only do the subjects' physical forms embody the German ideals of attractiveness and ethnic purity, but the painting style itself follows such rigidly figurative guidelines. This classical representation of classical form is worlds away from Lasar Segall's denounced work, "Eternal Wanderers," in which geometric, mask-like figures float through darkness.
"I wanted to compare what was considered official art and what was degenerate," Olaf Peters, the art historian who organized the show, told the New York Times. "And to examine the role modern art played in anti-Jewish policy, seeing how official art looks after 80 years.”
"Degenerate Art" contains 50 paintings and sculptures and 30 paper works, as well as other memorabilia. The exhibition lands at an especially relevant time, considering the recent discovery of hundreds of Nazi-looted artworks stashed in a Munich apartment. Also, the upcoming release of "The Monuments Men," George Clooney's film chronicling the World War II platoon assigned to rescue endangered artworks, is sure to incite conversation regarding this regrettable and fascinating historical moment.
"Degenerate Art" doesn't open until March, but in the meantime, you can see a preview of the artworks below. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
"Degenerate Art" will run from March 13 until June 30, 2014 at the Neue Galerie in New York.
On weeks like the fair- and biennial-filled one New York just had, there is a citywide welcoming of new art. “Degenerate Art” reminds us that in mid-20th-century Germany and Austria, some avant-garde artists, far from being embraced, were systematically persecuted. Olaf Peters organized this exhibition on German and Austrian modernist art and the politics that labeled many of its makers untermenschen (subhuman), destroyed their paintings and drove them to exile or suicide.
The story of a generation of lost art is told through less than a hundred artworks, as well as a dozen empty picture frames representing paintings lost or destroyed. Opening the show is a generous clutch of Paul Klee paintings, banned for being “childlike.” These, along with some Barcelona chairs and Vasily Kandinsky’s Several Circles, stand in for the famous WeimarBauhaus school. By 1932, the German government had closed the Bauhaus, and by 1933, Jewish professors were kicked out of art academies. Many prominent artists, Kandinsky and Klee among them, fled to Paris or Switzerland. A room of Dresden’s 1920s Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) artists has vivid paintings of contemporary life and Expressionist works in colors that authorities later deemed symptoms of insanity—an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner landscape features pink trees, blue mountains and a red night sky.
The heart of the show is Munich’s 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition, a traveling piece of propaganda contrasting state-sanctioned art with “degenerate” works. The Neue Galerie reimagines it handsomely. Batting for German art is Adolf Ziegler’s triptych The Four Elements, 1937, which once hung over Adolf Hitler’s mantle. It’s an assortment of insipid, perky blondes fondling flames and bowls of water. They could be the sisters of John Currin’s button-nosed nudes. Udo Wendell’s dry painting prefigures Norman Rockwell’s sentimental realism.
On the degenerate side are expressionistic paintings, including Emile Nolde’s Milk Cows, 1913, a gloppy look at sun-splashed clouds and cows on a green field. Also by Nolde are a set of lapidary works on paper in saturated orange and reds. Ironically, Nolde, who was the member of a Nazi splinter group, was forbidden by the Nazis from making art; he painted these in secret.
Downstairs, a ledger book shows an inventory of more than 16,000 artworks, documenting the systematic ransacking of German institutions by Joseph Goebbels’ Commission for Disposal of Products of Degenerate Art. An “X” marks a work destroyed, a “V” sold and a “T” exchanged, presumably for art deemed acceptable. (The book is open to a page showing two Max Beckmanns sold to the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, whose son Cornelius was recently found to have hoarded a huge collection of missing art.) Frames that once contained paintings that are still lost, including Nolde’s Man and Woman, 1912, hang in this room. They were discovered in a salt mine, their canvases cut out.
Also here are a number of fine self-portraits that make the real case for seeing this show. Oskar Kokoschka’s defiant Self-portrait as Degenerate Artist, 1937, is a masterpiece: Square-jawed and burly, he appears as a proud “degenerate.” Kokoschka had already fled Austria for Prague when he painted this political statement and would travel on to Scotland. Another self-portrait, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, has the fussily elegant painter absentmindedly entertaining a kitten. A highlight of the show, it is pure 1937 Munich but evokes one of Alice Neel’s wiry outsiders from 1970s New York. These sympathetic figures stand in for all things officially condemned by Germany: jazz music, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and resistance to authority. Their fates run the gamut from bad to worse. Kokoschka didn’t regain his Austrian citizenship until the 1970s. Kirchner was forced to resign from teaching in 1933. In the following years, most of his work was destroyed. He committed suicide in 1938.
The Neue Galerie’s exhibition takes on a great topic at the perfect moment, but it might have pushed further. Although labels indicate which of the pieces were exhibited in “Degenerate Art” in 1937, it would be fascinating to see the politics behind individual artworks reappearing: who once owned them and how they arrived in museums or private collections. The show skips questions of contemporary restitution in favor of a blanket condemnation of German and Austrian policies of the time.
In the post-Fred Wilson age of artist-initiated installations that investigate archival histories in museums—Barbara Bloom’s fabulous 2013 show at the Jewish Museum comes to mind—the show could have been far more savvy. Ultimately, however, the real pleasure is getting to see long-lost works anew, and on this the show delivers. Hopefully, Cornelius Gurlitt’s newly discovered stash of artworks will provide the basis for a sequel.
(March 13-June 30, 2014)
“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” at the Neue Galerie, opens with a quietly devastating compare-and-contrast. The walls of the narrow hallway leading onto the first gallery are covered with facing photomurals.
The image in one dates from 1938. It shows the exterior of the of the Schulausstellungsgebaude in Hamburg where the traveling antimodernist exhibition called “Entartete Kunst” — “Degenerate Art” — has opened. The line of visitors waiting to get in stretches down the street.
The photo on the opposite wall is from 1944. It shows Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews newly arrived at the railroad station at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They are densely crowded together along the length of a platform that runs far into the distance and out of sight.
The message is clear: The event in the first picture led or contributed to that in the second. The show itself is one of the few in an American museum in the past two decades to address, on a large scale, the Nazis’ selective demonizing of art, how that helped foment an atmosphere of permissible hatred and forged a link between aesthetics and human disaster.
The basic facts of the narrative are familiar. Among Hitler’s grand plans upon coming to power as chancellor in 1933 was to purify German culture, to promote the Apollonian “classical” and eradicate the uncontrollably Dionysian “primitive,” a category that included, along with the mentally and physically deformed, avant-garde modernism, Bolshevism, and Jewish culture.
Hitler’s views on art were far from original; they had clear roots in 19th-century German sociology. Nor were they, at first, systematic. He was into big, divalike, Riefenstahlian gestures, but with no clear official philosophy. The problem was, of course, that while his speculative thinking was limited, his search-and-destroy powers were not.
One of his first moves as chancellor was to commission the building of a museum in Munich to showcase his version of an aesthetic ideal. He inaugurated it in 1937 with the first annual “Great German Art Exhibition,” which he more or less handpicked. Most of the art was locked into uplift-intensive academic styles of an earlier time. Even Hitler seemed disappointed with the results.
A day after the museum’s debut, a second, hastily assembled government-sponsored exhibition opened nearby. Titled “Entartete Kunst,” it was made up of work in vanguard modernist styles: Expressionism, Cubism, Surrealism, Dada, abstraction. The whole thing was pitched as a freak show, meant to demonstrate the threat the new art posed on everything German. Jews were implicated in the attack, even though only six of the 112 artists were Jewish.
The first room of the Neue Galerie exhibition gives an instant sense of the contrasting aesthetics and complicit politics of the two Munich shows through a side-by-side hanging of two large triptych paintings: Adolf Ziegler’s “The Four Elements,” from 1937, and Max Beckmann’s “Departure,” done from 1932 to 1935.
In Ziegler’s painting, the subject is obvious: Four blond academic female nudes decorously display themselves along with traditional symbols. Beckmann’s Expressionist picture is all mystery: Scenes of human torture fill the side panels, while at the center a cluster of stylized, possibly allegorical figures stand, as if waiting to push off, in a small boat.
Hitler loved Ziegler’s art. He chose “The Four Elements” for the big Munich show, then hung it over the fireplace in his home. Working through his minister of propaganda, the wily Joseph Goebbels, he also gave Ziegler the go-ahead to do a purge of modernist art from state-owned museums, a campaign that produced the “Degenerate Art” show but continued well beyond it. Eventually, some 20,000 pieces — Beckmann’s triptych among them — were confiscated, to be sold, hoarded or destroyed.
So the two triptychs broadly define the official view of good and bad (evil) art in the Nazi era. And they divide the Neue Galerie room into two corresponding zones. The “Four Elements” side is dominated by the life-size sculpture of a neo-Classical nude by Richard Scheibe, and two sculpted portrait heads of Ziegler by August Waterbeck, now forgotten. On the Beckmann side on the room is a small, violently twisting 1910 bronze Expressionist figure by Ernst Barlach titled “The Berserker,” and a 1911 still life of African sculpture by Emil Nolde that was in the “Degenerate Art” show.
But nothing is simple; paradoxes abound. Scheibe, after an early brush with censorship, worked steadily throughout the Nazi era without ever joining the party. An approved sculptural style seems to have been enough. At the same time, the much-touted Ziegler, who put Hitler’s aesthetic biases into catastrophic action, fell out of favor, was sent to Dachau, then finally allowed to retire.
Goebbels, who took over from Ziegler as degenerate-art prosecutor, started out as a big fan of modernism. There was even a moment early on when Expressionism was a candidate for becoming the official national art style. That ended when Hitler decided otherwise, and successful artists like Barlach and Nolde, whom Goebbels admired, fell into “degenerate” disgrace.
Nolde’s story, too, has its twists. Because of his disgrace, he emerged fromWorld War II as something of a hero, an artist who, forbidden by the Nazis to pursue a career, had painted small, brilliant watercolors in private — some are on view here — and kept a kind of creative resistance alive. But Nolde wasn’t resistant to Nazism. He had always embraced it and spent the war years trying to get back into the party’s good graces.
You’ll find all these complex stories related in detail in the engrossing catalog edited by the show’s curator, Olaf Peters, an art historian and Neue Galerie board member. But the exhibition itself works in very broad narrative strokes that gain impact through the astonishing work used to illustrate them.
A gallery devoted to art in Dresden takes us back a step in time, to the years just before and after World War I, when the city was home to a group of artists who called themselves Die Brücke, the Bridge. One of their goals was to translate great German art of the past — Albrecht Dürer, Lucas Cranach — into the language of present. In the process, they virtually invented Expressionism.
In the 1920s, they had success; you get a sense of this in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1925-26 painted portrait of himself and three Brücke colleagues, Otto Mueller, Erich Heckel, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, looking nattily dressed and self-confidently blasé. But under the Nazis, they were pariahs. Kirchner’s group portrait ended up in “Entartete Kunst” in 1937, as did all but one of the dozen Brücke paintings in the Dresden room. A year later, Kirchner, in exile in Switzerland, put a bullet through his head.
Harassment of Bauhaus artists began even earlier. In 1931, the National Socialist party, Hitler’s party, forced the school out of Dessau. It reopened to improvised quarters in Berlin, but closed there two years later. The clean-lined, functionalist Bauhaus style wasn’t “degenerate” exactly, but the school’s international — read, foreign — outlook was nearly as threatening. In the end, cosmopolitanism is what saved it. Most Bauhaus members felt comfortable enough in the wider world to leave Germany behind, and did.
What they left was inconceivable destruction, to lives and art alike. You get some grip on numbers in the show’s concluding gallery on the first floor, where a fat ledger book is on display filled with typed lists of “degenerate art” officially confiscated, mostly in 1937 and 1938, from German museums. Compiled in 1941-42 by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda — Goebbels’s department — the ledger is on loan from Victoria and Albert Gallery in London.
An X beside an entry indicates a work known to have been destroyed; empty frames hanging high on the wall in the Neue Galerie symbolize work still missing. But it’s the art in the room called “The Fate of Works, the Fate of Artists” that your eyes go to, and particularly to a group of self-portraits.
There’s Max Beckmann, in 1938, dressed in a red robe striped like a prison uniform and grimly eyeing a trumpet he holds in his hand as if wondering whether to sound it. And Kirchner, in 1937, sitting in a sun-flooded room with a little cat, staring straight forward, half his face left unfinished — or half obliterated. Context means a lot in the way you see art. You can’t know how specifically personal these portraits are, how they connect to history, until you know that Beckmann was painting his in exile in Amsterdam the year after hundreds of his works had been impounded by the Nazis. Kirchner, painting in Switzerland, would be dead within a year.
Nor can you know that Oskar Kokoschka, who depicts himself in 1937 as a lantern-jawed palooka, is a hero until you read the nose-thumbing solidarity-affirming title he gave to his likeness: “Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist.” You don’t even realize Felix Nussbaum has painted his until you look closely at his multifigure 1944 picture “The Damned,” and recognize his face, familiar from other paintings by him, in a crowd.
Nussbaum, a German Jew, wasn’t in the 1937 “Entartete Art” show. Three years earlier, sensing menace in the air, he had left Germany for Belgium. There, in 1940, he was arrested as a “hostile alien” and put in a detention camp so nightmarish that he begged to be sent back to Germany. But he escaped en route and spent the next several years in hiding, on the move, living with friends here and there, and continuing to paint.
“The Damned” is a carefully composed, exquisitely painted horror story. A dozen gaunt, exhausted people crowd together in the foreground, shut in by high stone walls. A woman screams; another weeps; everyone else looks dazed except Nussbaum, who pulls his coat collar up and looks out of the picture furtively and appraisingly. A procession of skull-faced pallbearers carrying empty coffins enters the scene from behind.
In 1944, the year he finished the painting, Nussbaum was found hiding in an attic by Nazi soldiers, arrested and send to Auschwitz where he was killed, age 39. The photomural of Auschwitz that opens the show was shot in the same year. Nussbaum could have — I’m guessing — arrived at the train station in the picture. He could have stood on that platform. And — because everything connects, always — he could have been a figure in a similarly horizon-piercing crowd.
Before entering politics Adolf Hitler was a painter. Twice rejected for a place at Vienna's Akademie der bildenden Künste (Academy of Fine Arts), he had strident views on the nature of art and its role in society – ones he did not abandon even in the midst of the Nuremberg rallies.
"It is not the mission of art," the Führer proclaimed to the assembled crowd in September 1935, "to wallow in filth for filth's sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength."
This quotation appears on a wall of a Munich art gallery two years later, when the Nazis displayed hundreds of seized artworks they declaredentartet (degenerate). Jews and communists, abstract pioneers, and especially the Expressionists of the Dresden-centered movement known as Die Brücke (The Bridge) were condemned as sick, poisonous artists in the Degenerate Art show of 1937. It was one of the most infamous exhibitions of the 20th century; it was also one of the best attended. And its effects are being felt even today – witness the contested cache of paintings hoarded by Cornelius Gurlitt, whose father sold numerous paintings in that show.
Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937, which opened this week at New York's Neue Galerie, reconstructs not just the Munich exhibition that destroyed so many artistic careers, but the rhetoric that made the exhibition possible. It's the first show since this museum of German and Austrian art opened in 2001 to reckon exclusively with the Nazi period, and it's a welcome step forward.
The Neue Galerie has devoted solo shows to many of the artists here, from Kandinsky and Kokoschka to Otto Dix and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and usually those exhibitions trailed off at the end of the Weimar period with a brief, dutiful reminder of the horrors to come.
This show pushes into the 1930s, and it features not just art deemed degenerate but also Nazi-approved painting and sculpture, party propaganda, and films such as the hideously anti-Semitic treatise Der ewige Jude (The Wandering Jew). The result is bracing, and if the exhibition is a little thin in parts – the 50 paintings exclude several major figures, such as Max Ernst and László Moholy-Nagy – the history of the works that are here makes up the difference.
Attacks on art began almost immediately after Hitler's accession in 1933, often in spontaneous, privateSchandausstellungen ("shame exhibitions").
Dix, who earned the Iron Cross as a soldier during the first world war, was a favourite target of these proto-Degenerate Art shows; his glorious grotesques such as War Cripples (1920), they claimed, were insufficiently patriotic. War Cripples was included in the later Munich exhibition and was subsequently destroyed. The Neue Galerie has a contemporary postcard of the lost work, as well as the painting's frame, hanging empty.
By 1937 a commission led by Adolf Ziegler, Hitler's favorite painter, was charged with purging German museums of unacceptable art. About 600 of those seized works were included in the Degenerate Art exhibition, which opened on 19 July 1937 – the day after Hitler's Great German Art show at the purpose-built, gruesomely fascistic Haus der Deutsche Kunst (renamed the Haus der Kunst, this gallery is now directed by the remarkable Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor and presented an admirable exhibition in 2012 on its Nazi history). Where the art in the Great German Art show hung in neoclassical style, the Degenerate Art show displayed paintings cheek-by-jowl on the walls, ringed with angry or derisive texts such as "madness becomes method" or "revelation of the Jewish racial soul."
The Neue Galerie show wisely refuses to recreate that 1937 hang. The art here has ample room to breathe; Nazi slogans are kept off the walls. Instead the curator, German art historian Olaf Peters, has included a short film taken at the two Munich shows. These show the galleries of the Degenerate Art exhibition crowded with visitors, but nobody looks shocked or disgusted. Many might have been seeing modern art for the very first time.
Only a small number of the artists in the degenerate art shows were Jewish. Felix Nussbaum, a surrealist who was murdered at Auschwitz, was not included; Emil Nolde, a Nazi party member whose autobiography is laced with anti-Semitism, was. Degeneracy was a fluid concept, applied to a wide swath of artists, and their fates varied as much as their paintings. Paul Klee, represented here by three exquisite watercolors that all hung in Munich, made it to Switzerland, but he couldn't obtain citizenship thanks to Nazi condemnation. Dix fled to the German countryside, Beckmann to the Netherlands and then America. Kokoschka, in Britain, proudly painted his "self-portrait as a degenerate artist". Kirchner killed himself.
However central aesthetics were to Nazism, Peters takes pains to clarify that the party's views of art did not come out of nowhere. The concept of degeneracy – the idea that artists could have pathological disorders, that their art could be not just bad but sick, even contagious – was widely debated during the era of Bismarck, most prominently by the Austro-Hungarian physician and critic Max Nordau, whose 1892-93 book Entartung ("Degeneration") warned that any society could be corrupted by decayed ideas of beauty and virtue. "Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists and pronounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists," Nordau argued. His theories on art and illness ripple through the writings of Nazi race ideology, including Mein Kampf – even though, in one of the most brutal ironies of modern art history, Nordau was not just Jewish but a committed Zionist, and he's buried in Tel Aviv.
For the Nazis, modernism was not just an inferior or distasteful style. It wasn't even just non-Aryan. Modernism was a swindle – a dangerous lie perpetuated by Jews, communists, and even the insane to contaminate the body of German society (they were fond of medical and corporeal metaphors, the Nazis). The stakes are clear in the largest gallery of this show, which features two triptychs side by side. On the right isBeckmann's Departure, a grand and enigmatic allegory of hope in the face of persecution. On the left is Ziegler's The Four Elements, a kitsch, insensate, classicised-to-death depiction of four nude, racially idealised women, their breasts round as grapefruits.
"German Volk, come and judge for yourselves!" Ziegler proclaimed at the opening of the Degenerate Art exhibition. The Germans of 1937, of course, had no such freedom of judgment. Departure, like all of Beckmann's work, was purged from the country and ended up in the Museum of Modern Art in New York by 1942. The Four Elements stayed in Munich – and hung in Adolf Hitler's house, over the fireplace.
They came by the thousands, the men in suits, the women in ankle-length dresses and brimmed hats. They peered somberly at wild primitivist paintings and twisted, expressionist sculptures. They read wall text that said "This is how sick minds viewed nature," "An insult to German womanhood" and "Madness becomes method." Some, perhaps feeling the need for an antidote to the diseased art, walked across the park to see an exhibit of heroic Aryan realism.
The scene was Munich, the year 1937. The first exhibit, called Entartete Kunst or "Degenerate Art," ridiculed such artists as Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and George Grosz – all revered today. The other show, the "Great German Art Exhibition," was curated by a failed realist artist named Adolf Hitler and offered a slew of academic painters who are mostly forgotten today.
Now, Neue Galerie, the Manhattan museum devoted to Austrian and German expressionism, has mounted a show that documents this Nazi war on modernist art. The Nazis hated many things, but this particular initiative grew out of theories that compared expressionism and surrealism to the art of the mentally ill. Such art, the Nazis insisted, undermined the sanity of the culture and had to be banned and eradicated.
One of the earliest targets was the famed Bauhaus school of design, whose form-follows-function "International Style" was said to be overly influenced by Jews and communists. The school was forced to move twice before being closed by the Nazis in 1933.
Hitler's men also had reason to dislike Bauhaus teacher Paul Klee for his childlike, stick-figure compositions such as "The Twittering Machine," on view here. Klee was hounded until he fled for his former Swiss home. Some 17 of his pieces were seized for the "Degenerate Art" exhibit.
Klee was more fortunate than the great expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a founder of the group Die Brücke (The Bridge), who operated in a style from Dresden that aimed to bridge modernism and the art of the past. They revived the great German tradition of woodcuts, expressionist versions of which can be seen here.
None of this earned Kirchner any points with the Nazis. His group portrait of Die Brücke captures their strange position in Nazi Germany – they are serious, professorial-looking artists, but painted in a dark purplish palette that conveys something of their subterranean status.
Kirchner's life was destroyed by the Nazis. He was forced to resign from teaching in 1933, saw most of his paintings destroyed and killed himself in exile in 1938.
Kokoschka, who was Austrian, seemingly had the healthiest response to being branded as degenerate. In the roughly painted "Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist," he looks strong and resolute, much less tormented than the way he usually rendered himself.
The gallery dedicated to the infamous 1937 Munich exhibit is presented as a duel of sorts, with "degenerate" works on one side and pieces of comparable motifs from the "Great German Art Exhibition" on the other. On the expressionist side is Beckmann's famous triptych, "Departure," with its images of dismemberment and torture flanking a panel showing a king on a sea voyage – an apparent allusion to Beckmann's flight from Nazi Germany (he found refuge in America). Its respectable opponent is another triptych, Adolf Ziegler's "The Four Elements," with four comely blonde nudes as allegorical figures representing earth, air, fire and water. The work hung above Hitler's mantelpiece.
One gallery's array of empty frames recalls all the confiscated works that are still lost. These labeled frames were discovered in an abandoned mine, their canvases cut out. Also in this gallery is a ledger showing the disposition of some 16,000 works confiscated from German museums and collections. The book is open to a page showing two Max Beckmann works that were sold to the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, one of four dealers authorized to sell confiscated art to foreign buyers. In 2012, German authorities seized a cache of art from the Munich apartment of his son, Cornelius Gurlitt, who had kept the hoard all these years.
Many other works are still unaccounted for today. Prior to the "Degenerate Art" exhibit, the Nazis seized 5,000 works from some 32 German museums, including 1,052 by Emil Nolde, 759 by Erich Heckel, 639 by Kirchner and 508 by Beckmann. Some 650 works made it into the infamous 1937 exhibit. Other works were sold into private collections. When buyers didn't materialize, the Nazis sometimes made bonfires of the art in order to stimulate demand. (The art thefts, and the later Allied attempts to recover the works, were the subjects of the recent film "The Monuments Men.")
One interesting fact about the "Degenerate Art" exhibit is that it attracted many more people than the show of sanctioned art. An incredible 2 million people came through between July and November of that year. Only 500,000 went to see the "Great German Art Exhibition."
NEW YORK— Paul Klee's small, poignant gouache-on-paper "Masked Red Jew" (1933) is a childlike, abstract portrait that also serves as monument and oracle. It is part of the Neue Galerie's informative and affecting exhibition "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937."
Klee's title refers to the Red Jews, a fabled nation appearing in medieval German texts, who were prophesied to invade Europe and threaten Christendom, events leading to the end of the world. Painted the same year that Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, Klee's stippled picture resembles an executioner's wall inscribed with a scrawled stick-figure, whose bowed head appears to be impaled on a cross. A yarmulke hovers like a bruised halo. And a large, looping X—as if branded, marching—flattens as it tramples the portrait.
"Masked Red Jew" is not the most prominent work among the show's approximately 80 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures, as well as films and several books, posters, photographs and photomurals—two of which juxtapose aerial views of Dresden, before and after it was destroyed by Allied bombs. (The devastated side is the backdrop for "The Life of Christ," a moving suite of woodblock prints by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. ) And Klee's "Red Jew" must compete here with other masterpieces by Klee, including the paintings "Mystical Ceramic (in the Manner of a Still-Life)" (1925) and "Gay Repast/Colorful Meal" (1928). Yet Klee's "Jew," like every artwork here—from Oskar Kokoschka's brushy and stalwart oil painting "Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist" (1937) to Ewald Mataré's beautiful little sleek bronze sculpture "Lurking Cat" (1928)—has a story to tell. Together they reveal the avarice, demonization, destruction and Philistinism rampant in Hitler's other war—the one he waged on Modern art and artists.
Klee's story is endemic to the larger narrative of the Neue Galerie's exhibition. Klee taught at the Bauhaus, which Hitler closed. In 1930, in what the Nazis referred to as "the cleansing of the museums," his and other artists' works were removed because they didn't convey the Nordic-German ideal of beauty. In 1933, Klee's home was searched by the Gestapo; he was derided as a "cultural Bolshevist" and was relieved of his professorship at the Düsseldorf Academy. Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Oskar Schlemmer also lost their teaching posts; Kokoschka resigned from teaching to protest the expulsion of Jewish artists. That same year, the Nazis mounted the exhibit "Cultural Bolshevist Images." Comprising 86 seized works by Beckmann, Dix, James Ensor, Klee, Emil Nolde, Schlemmer and others, it was a harbinger of the infamous 1937 exhibition " Entartete Kunst, " or "Degenerate Art," the subject of the Neue Galerie's show.
The 19th-century German term entartung, or degeneracy, was originally used in eugenics. It was adopted and intensified by the National Socialist regime, which used it to refer to art, music and literature the Nazis considered abnormal, childish, criminal, distorted, primitive, subversive, unhealthy and unpatriotic.
"Degenerate" art's starting date of 1910 covered Cubism, Expressionism, Fauvism, Dada, Surrealism, abstraction and Constructivism; Franz Kafka and jazz. The employment of the term was capricious, encompassing whatever Hitler and Joseph Goebbels —the Reich Minister for National Enlightenment and Propaganda—wanted to persecute on a day-by-day basis. Artists, artworks and even art movements such as Expressionism went in and out of favor, and Hitler tweaked his moral and aesthetic views as he went. Some artists, including Nolde—a sympathetic Nazi—were forbidden to buy painting supplies. Although Constructivism was officially "degenerate," the Neue Galerie's show contains German Constructivist-style posters that celebrated Hitler and the Nazis, and thus were allowed to be distributed. And while "degenerate" artworks were unfit for the general public, they remained suitable in Nazi officials' homes.
If the Führer wanted to purify German culture, he would need to make clear what was state-sanctioned and what wasn't. Visual art—a gateway target—was the perfect propagandistic tool. Once Hitler had established the "degenerate" in art and artists, he could attack all "degenerates." Overall, the Nazis confiscated more than 20,000 artworks of a "depraved" and "Jewish" nature. The Neue Galerie displays an original Nazi ledger book, which inventories and chronicles each work's fate: "V," sold; "T," traded; or—as happened one night in 1939 to 4,000 pictures (at the capable hands of the Berlin Fire Brigade)—"X," destroyed. If "Jewish" art was a threat—worthy of extermination—then genocide was the next logical step.
In 1933, Hitler commissioned a museum in Munich to enshrine his aesthetic ideal. Its inaugural show, the "Great German Art Exhibition," opened in 1937 and was contrasted with the "Entartete Kunst" show, mounted nearby. "Degenerate Art" comprised about 600 works (paintings, sculptures, drawings and prints, as well as books) by 112 artists—only six of whom were Jewish. The artworks were chaotically hung, cramped and accompanied by slogans such as "Crazy at any price," "Madness becomes method," "The ideal—cretin and whore," and "The Negro becomes the racial ideal of degenerate art in Germany." Promoted and installed as a chamber of horrors, the traveling show, among the first blockbusters, drew crowds of more than 25,000 a day.
The Neue Galerie's exhibition, organized by Olaf Peters, is not a reconstruction of "Entartete Kunst," which has been mounted before. Only about 20 works here were in the original. And this new show, unique in its mission, succeeds more on a scholarly and historical than aesthetic level. What's surprising is how tame and unappealing some of the work actually is—and not just on the Nazis' side. "Degenerate" pictures by Nolde, Alexej Jawlensky and Ernst Barlach feel like filler. Yet the exhibition ultimately leaves its mark.
Divided into five themed galleries on two floors, it spills out into the stairwell and has no single point of entry. This unifies the show—which leaps from intimate to theatrical—with a sense of free-form drama. Great paintings are included by Beckmann, Vasily Kandinsky and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Chilling photographs show Hitler and his trench-coated henchmen inspecting stacks of confiscated artworks; empty frames that once held pictures, hung high on the walls, drive home irretrievable loss; so, too, do two facing photomurals, which juxtapose a line of people waiting to get in to see "Degenerate Art" with a line of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. The comparison is bracing.
The most cohesive gallery, however, contrasts what Hitler deemed "Degenerate Art" with "Great German Art." The main event is an object lesson that pits Beckmann's Modernist triptych "Departure" (1932-35), a bold and enigmatic mix of regal ceremony and ritualistic torture, toe-to-toe with Adolf Ziegler's academic and allegorical triptych "The Four Elements" (1937), in which four blond female nudes display themselves in a neoclassical setting. Ziegler, an official artist who purged museums for Goebbels, was so popular with Hitler that "The Four Elements"—an exercise in Nordic-German kitsch—occupied pride-of-place above the Führer's fireplace. Aesthetically speaking, it's no contest: The room divides pretty clearly into "degenerate" winners and Hitler's "chosen"—losers. In matters of art, however, the Führer was fickle. No one was immune, as Ziegler would soon learn when he also fell out of favor.
We'll probably never know exactly how "Degenerate Art" was originally received by the public. The Neue Galerie's fascinating show, like Klee's "Masked Red Jew," invites us to look beneath the theatrical surface to uncover hidden truths. In the same room that squares off Beckmann and Ziegler is an excerpt from a silent film by Julien Bryan, an American who attended "Entartete Kunst" in Munich, along with two million other viewers. Bryan filmed visitors, who shake their heads disapprovingly as they walk through the galleries. Yet some of them look over their shoulders nervously, as if they're concerned more with being seen to denounce the work than with actually taking in what's on view.
Mr. Esplund writes about art for the Journal.
In Munich in 1937, the Nazis staged what they called the Degenerate Art Exhibition, which featured 650 artworks looted from museums around the country. Plastered on the walls and canvases were Nazi slogans like “Nature as seen by sick minds” and “Deliberate sabotage of national defense.” More than two million people attended the exhibition--far more than attended its counterpoint, the simultaneous Great German Art Exhibit, which showcased Nazi-approved works.
Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937, a new exhibition at New York City’s Neue Galerie, looks back on this Nazi-hosted exhibition, assembling artists that Hitler labeled "incompetents, cheats, and madmen." Decades later, these so-called "degenerates" are considered modern visionaries--among them are Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Otto Dix, and Marc Chagall, many of whom have previously been honored by solo shows at the Neue Galerie. “The artists showcased the officially sanctioned Great German Art Exhibit, on the other hand, have been all but forgotten,” exhibition curator Dr. Olaf Peters tells Co.Design.
Virtually any art that was unrealistic, abstract, experimental, or otherwise difficult to understand was deemed entartet--"degenerate"--by the Third Reich. They condemned paintings that supposedly showed qualities like "decadence," "weakness of character,” "racial impurity," or "mental disease." Such art, they thought, wasn't just aesthetically displeasing but was actually a threat to national security--potentially polluting minds and inciting rebellion. In a speech introducing the 1937 exhibit, Hitler declared a "merciless war" on cultural disintegration. "German Volk, come and judge for yourselves!" exhibition planner Adolf Ziegler announced at the show's opening--something the German Volk of the time were not remotely allowed to do.
What they did find acceptable was strict, wholesome realism in neoclassical style. "Above all, art had to be clear and easy to understand," Peters says. To illustrate this contrast, Peters chose to directly juxtapose "degenerate" works with Nazi-approved pieces. Max Beckman's dark, expressionistic "Beckmann's Departure," an allegory of hope in the face of political exile, hangs across from Adolf Ziegler's kitschy, classicized triptych of buxom blond nudes, which once hung above Hitler's mantelpiece.
Above all, art had to be clear and easy to understand.
After the traveling Degenerate Art Exhibit closed in 1941, most of the works were lost or destroyed. Peters chose to fill an entire room in the Neue show with ghostly empty frames, symbolizing the losses suffered at the hands of the Nazi campaign against modern art. In many cases, it wasn't just physical work that was destroyed but the lives of the persecuted artists as well. Many were forced into exile, including Oskar Kokoschka, who painted the rebellious "Self-Portrait as Degenerate Artist, 1937" in Prague after he had fled Austria. He didn’t regain Austrian citizenship until 1970. "Kokoschka was proud that the Nazis called him degenerate," Peters says. "For him, it was a sort of honor to be despised by them." But other artists weren't sustained by such proud defiance--after Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was forced to resign from teaching in 1933, the Nazis destroyed most of his work, and he committed suicide in 1938.
“What I do hope is that the exhibition will enlighten people about the present, too, and inspire them to ask questions about where contemporary art is in danger today. Where do we have censorship?” Peters says. “While you can’t directly compare the situations, it does make you think about how iconoclasm in Islamic cultures is persecuted, or dissent in Russia and China,” he says. “Even technical things like how Amazon offers ‘recommended for you’ suggestions--when does that make you stop thinking for yourself?”
The Neue exhibition comes on the heels of the shocking discovery of the Gurlitt Trove: 1,500 missing pieces of Nazi-confiscated artworks stashed in the humble Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt, an 80-year-old recluse. Also renewing interest in the Nazi attack on modern art is the George Clooney-directed film The Monuments Men, about a World War II platoon tasked with returning masterpieces stolen by Nazis to their rightful owners.
Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 is on view at the Neue Galerie until June 30.
Among the many imponderables of the Neue Galerie’s splendid Degenerate Art exhibition is an uncanny sense of repeating a forgotten ritual. After spending half an hour in a queue that curls on to Fifth Avenue, you find a wall-sized black-and-white photograph of a similarly orderly crowd in Munich in 1937, inching towards the original version of the same show.
You have waited patiently to see a collection of Klees, Kirchners, Dixes and Beckmanns. And so, all those decades ago, did those other viewers, perhaps to sneer or be repulsed, but maybe not.
The Nazis were barbarians with an erratically refined taste in art, and they seem to have loved even works that they loudly claimed to detest. They confiscated unsanctioned avant-garde art from German museums – then tucked much of it away in their homes. They deemed modernism worthless – and sold it to fund the Reich. They declared it toxic – and invited the public to see it.
Hitler, a failed artist and avid collector who dreamed of creating the ultimate museum, ordered up the Entartete Kunst exhibition, which toured various German cities. That anthology of contemporary masterpieces, presented in horrified mockery, turned out to be a spectacularly successful blockbuster. In Munich, 2m viewers filed through galleries filled with 600 works purged from state-owned collections. At the same time, a few blocks away, a lavish official display of muscular nudes and glowing soldiers, painted on heroic scale, opened in a new and chilly temple to Nazi aesthetics. Hardly anyone went.
The Neue Galerie show faces history’s paradoxes squarely. Curator Olaf Peters has reunited a bouquet of rarely seen painting and sculpture from the 1937 travelling exhibition, intermingling them with postcards, photos of the original installations, and films. He has also judiciously included the kind of kitsch that the Nazis favoured. The Entartete Kunst organiser, Adolf Ziegler, painted a triptych of the “Four Elements”, represented by a klatch of clunky nudes. Hitler hung this mess above his mantel; Peters deploys it as a foil to Max Beckmann’s harrowing and mysterious triptych “Departure”.
The show and its excellent catalogue sharpen plenty of questions and refuse simplistic answers. What, for instance, was degenerate art? The term was popularised by a doctor and rabbi’s son: Max Nordau published the bestseller Entartung (Degeneration) in 1892-93, diagnosing the condition as a mental illness caused by the traumas of modernisation. He prescribed a three-step treatment: “Characterisation of leading degenerates as mentally diseased; unmasking and stigmatising their imitators as enemies to society; cautioning the public against the lies of these parasites.”
The Nazis later refined Nordau’s formulation by giving it a racial origin. An incendiary pamphlet singled out the international avant-garde as the “poisonous flower of a Jewish parasitical plant, grown on German soil”. For the Nazis, degenerate art was not just foreign but urban, communist and anti-realistic – a fearsome conflation of aesthetic and political sins.
“Being German means being clear,” Hitler declared; ambiguity was considered a form of cultural treachery. And yet, even Nazis vacillated. The Neue Galerie has Ernst Barlach’s “The Berserker”, a small bronze of a chubby ninja swinging a fat sword that Goebbels adored. It nevertheless wound up on the “degenerate” list. A few artists had the distinction of being included in both the Entartete and Great German shows.
One of the most powerful artefacts is a short, slickly outraged propaganda film that purports to chronicle the sudden decay of a German culture in the grip of Jews. First come the golden ages: classical statuary, Roman gods, Michelangelo’s “Creation” – the whole lineage of what Hitler weirdly called the “Greco-Nordic” tradition – file by to a Bach toccata. The second part shifts to a soundtrack of jiggly jazz and a montage of modernist grotesques. The film is appalling but effective, because it taps into an emotional truth. Modernism was indeed belligerent, political, enraged and self-loathing. It did plumb mental illness; it did aspire to rattle the public and foment revolution. One thing that Die Brücke, the Dadaists, Grosz and the Bauhaus crew shared with the Nazis was a belief in the subversive power of art.
Thus the most fervent ideologues reacted to modern art with an almost erotic repulsion – condemning, hoarding and leering at it all at once. “If we were to identify the symbols that are expressed in the majority of paintings and sculptures from that time, they are the idiot, the whore and sagging breasts,” gasped Paul Schultze-Naumburg in his 1928 screed Art and Race. “It is a veritable hell of sub-humans spread before us here, and we exhale when we leave this atmosphere.” If Nazis held their breath in the presence of degeneracy, it was because “Entartete Kunst” bottled the stink of their subconscious. Nazis created art full of sunshine and purity and a real world of murder, mutilation, lunacy and chaos; modernists wanted it the other way around.
To its credit, the Neue Galerie tackles a topic that most museum exhibitions shy away from: money. The Nazis labelled each work in Entartete Kunst with the sum that a state museum had paid for it, the point being to demonstrate how the Jewish art world bilked German taxpayers at a time of widespread suffering. One of the most chilling objects here is a ledger documenting every item confiscated and subsequently sold or destroyed. That little tour de force of bureaucratic record-keeping begins to address the question that clings to each work on the walls: then what happened?
After 1937, the items that had appeared in Entartete Kunst entered a bog of murky laws and squishy provenances that is still being drained. Hitler’s government, which was venal but not astute, dumped such a large trove on the market that prices collapsed, and a collector could buy a modern masterwork for the cost of a pair of shoes. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, took advantage of the bargains to beef up MoMA’s fledgling collection.
The irony is that, while the Nazis effectively wiped out German culture by silencing composers, burning books and driving film-makers into exile, they saw art as a useful commodity. Their twisted connoisseurship and dumb philistinism preserved the works now at the Neue Galerie: horrified by all the era’s greatest art, the Nazis spat it out of the fatherland and thereby ensured its survival.
‘Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany’, to June 30. neuegalerie.org
"Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937", recreating part of the infamous Munich exhibit of seized paintings Hitler had termed "filth for filth's sake", is at New York's Neue Galerie through Sept. 1.
The current exhibit is especially timely, with the George Clooney film "The Monuments Men" about finding and recovering Nazi-looted artworks, plus the recent discovery of two caches totaling almost 1,500 such masterpieces by Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall and many German expressionists, valued at more than $1.5 billion.
The Neue (New) Galerie display is the first U.S. exhibition devoted to the infamous Munich "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") since a 1991 presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
The exhibit is so popular that the Neue extended its run by two months.
What Nazis termed "degenerate art" was created mostly by Jews and by abstract art pioneers, especially expressionists of the Dresden-based "Die Brücke" (The Bridge) movement co-founded by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel.
(Kirchner and the "The Bridge" artists are major focal points of a German modern art exhibit at Washington's National Gallery of Art now through June 29.)
Highlights of the Neue display include many works shown in the 1937 Munich exhibit, including:
Kirchner's "Winter Landscape in Moonlight". In 1937, Nazis confiscated more than 600 of his works from German museums, and either destroyed or sold them. Due mainly to this, Kirchner shot himself through the heart and died at age 58 in 1938.
Emil Nolde's "Still-Life with Wooden Figure", "Red-Haired Girl", and "Cows". Nolde belonged briefly to "The Bridge" and to the Nazi party. But the Nazis confiscated more than 1,000 of his works -- more than from any other artist. Nazis also prohibited Nolde from oil painting in 1941, so he worked secretly in watercolor, and termed them "Unpainted Paintings". Some are included in this show.
Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's "Pharisees". He introduced Nolde into "The Bridge", and also introduced the group to lithography. In 1937, Nazis seized Schmidt-Rottluff's work from German museums and art galleries, and in 1941, they forbade him to paint.
Max Beckmann's "Cattle in a Barn" and four others by this "Bridge" member are in the exhibition. They're among some 500 Beckmann works that Nazis confiscated. Beckmann fled Germany a few days after Hitler's speech opening the 1937 Munich exhibit.
Paul Klee's "Masked Red Jew", "The Angler", "The Twittering Machine", "Ghost Chamber with the Tall Door".
George Grosz's "Portrait of Max Hermann-Neisse". The German museum it was confiscated from bought it back after the war.
Oskar Kokoschka's "The Duchess of Montesquiou-Fezensac" -- and "Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist".
The display includes a Nazi inventory and destiny of the works, marking them sold, traded, of burned. In March 1939, some 5,000 "degenerate" artworks were burned along with thousands of books in Berlin.
Hitler was a failed artist. When he was 18, he moved from his hometown Linz to Vienna to study art. But he was rejected -- twice -- by Vienna's Fine Arts Academy. His drawing was deemed "unsatisfactory", and he failed the entrance exam. When he applied a second time, he wasn't even allowed to take the entrance exam.
Almost three decades later, the would-be artist proclaimed, "It is not the mission of art to wallow in filth for filth's sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength."
That quote was emblazoned on the Munich art gallery where the Nazis displayed hundreds of seized artworks.
Many of the thousands of artworks that Nazis looted remain missing. Some 1,500 of these pilfered works were found last November in Munich and last February in Salzburg, in the homes of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who dealt in stolen art along with Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.
For more info: "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937", Neue Galerie, www.neuegalerie.org, 1048 Fifth Avenue (at 86th Street), New York, N.Y. 212-628-6200 or email@example.com. Now through June 30. Catalogue published by Prestel-USA.
You might not expect much drama from “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Germany 1937,” a succinct historical show at the Neue Galerie. The subject—the propagandistic “Degenerate Art” exhibition, which presented modernist works for popular vilification—is familiar, and it ranks as scarcely a footnote in the annals of Third Reich infamy. But the nuanced treatment of the event, by the German curator Olaf Peters, shocks anew, even at a distance of seventy-seven years. Peters has done a lot with a little: only about twenty works that appeared in the show, along with others by the same artists. Apposite photographs and films accompany the works. One room features empty frames that once held large paintings—probably destroyed—by the likes of Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, George Grosz, and Oskar Kokoschka. The show decants an essence of Nazism’s malice and the mass hysteria on which it fed. Is the target only art? Art was no incidental matter for Adolf Hitler, whose designs on the world, keyed to the rightful dominance of a purified master race, were aesthetic at their twisted root.
The hate-fest of “Degenerate Art,” which travelled to eleven cities in Germany and Austria, commenced in Munich on July 19, 1937. On display, in the cramped quarters of an archeological museum, were some six hundred and fifty of the twenty thousand works that the Nazis eventually confiscated from German institutions and collections. Many were subsequently burned; others were sold abroad, for hard currency. Wall texts noted the prices that public museums had paid for the works with “the taxes of the German working people,” and derided the art as mentally and morally diseased or as a “revelation of the Jewish racial soul.” Only a handful of the artists were Jews, but that made scant difference to a regime that could detect Semitic contagion anywhere. Some months earlier, Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister, had announced a ban on art criticism, as “a legacy of the Jewish influence.”
“Degenerate Art” was a blockbuster, far outdrawing a show that had opened the day before, a short walk away, in a new edifice, dear to Hitler, called the House of German Art. “The Great German Art Exhibition” had been planned to demonstrate a triumphant new spirit in the nation’s high culture, but the preponderance of academic hackery in the work produced for it came as a rankling disappointment to Hitler, whose taste was blinkered but not blind. By official count, more than two million visitors thronged “Degenerate Art” during its four-month run in Munich. Little is recorded of what they thought, but the American critic A. I. Philpot remarked, in the Boston Globe, that “there are probably plenty of people—art lovers—in Boston who will side with Hitler in this particular purge.” Germany had no monopoly on philistinism.
“Degenerate Art” slandered every innovative style of the previous three decades—Hitler having dictated a starting date of 1910—but mainly, in an ironic emphasis, homegrown German Expressionism. Some leading Nazis had been enthusiasts for the movement—Goebbels considered it a fitly nationalist complement to the New Order, with parallels in German medieval, Renaissance, and folk art. He had his apartment in Berlin remodelled by the architect Albert Speer, who incorporated watercolors by the great Expressionist—and devoted Nazi—Emil Nolde. But Hitler idealized pre-Christian Greek and Roman art and countenanced no kind of painting more contemporary than nineteenth-century Bavarian genre scenes. The Führer paid a visit to the apartment and his rage, at the sight of the paintings, snapped Goebbels into line. (Political fealty cut no ice with Hitler in matters of art.) Further motivated by a determination to outflank anti-modernist radicals in the Nazi hierarchy, such as the bumbling fanatic Alfred Rosenberg, Goebbels became the driving force behind “Degenerate Art.” He well understood the political utility of organized loathing; the Munich show included thirty-six pictures by Nolde, the most by any one artist.
What might the culture of the Reich have been if it had embraced Expressionism? That amounts to imagining Nazism without Hitler. The failure of his favored artists to fulfill his expectations might have taught him that greatness in art cannot be willed, but, of course, it didn’t. He just willed harder. The most celebrated German moderns either fled the country, like Beckmann and Klee, or retreated into internal exile, like Dix, who painted anodyne landscapes in rural obscurity. Nolde spent the war years working in watercolors, so as not to risk a telltale odor of oils in his studio, because he was officially forbidden to paint. In 1938, the most prominent originator of Expressionism, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, committed suicide, in Switzerland. The Bauhaus, which is featured in one room of the Neue Galerie, had been forced to disband, in 1933, despite a pledge of political neutrality from its director, Mies van der Rohe.
Photographs blown up to mural size serve as backdrops for some works in the new show. Two aerial views of Dresden, before and after its devastation by Allied bombs, in February, 1945, dramatize the toll of war in a city that was both the home of the pioneering Expressionist cohort called Die Brücke (the Bridge) and an early site of anti-modernist “exhibitions of shame,” staged by Rosenberg’s Militant League for German Culture, which anticipated “Degenerate Art.” In a corridor hung with Nazi propaganda posters, a wall-spanning photograph of crowds lined up to attend “Degenerate Art” faces one of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. (This might seem heavy-handed, but its relevance is impossible to overstate.) The show climaxes with a comparison of “Great German Art” works and works that appeared, or might as well have, among the “degenerates.” Two triptychs are strikingly juxtaposed: a masterpiece by Beckmann, “The Departure” (1932-33), which escaped confiscation and was given a place of honor in the Museum of Modern Art during the war, and “The Four Elements” (1937), by Adolf Ziegler, who was the least bad aesthetically of the Nazi painters but one of the most vicious spokesmen among them.
The central panel of the Beckmann depicts a king in a boat at sea; in the side panels, enigmatic figures perform sadistic acts. In the Ziegler, which Hitler owned, four nude Aryan beauties repose on a long plinth and wield attributes of fire, water, earth, and air. They are kitschy enough, as confections of a trumped-up sensibility that Hitler had wishfully termed “Greco-Nordic,” but well done, in simmering harmonies of light-blue sky and delicately shadowed, effulgent flesh. The pleasure imparted by “The Four Elements” is disturbing. In presenting the work, and other, lesser but not entirely miserable examples of “great German art,” Peters plainly means to disrupt complacent assumptions about a moment when people, if untouched by the terror, might still have condoned some aspect of the Reich. Further complicating matters, not all the “degenerate” artists were first-rate, or even very good, as witness a cartoonishly grotesque sculpture of a head, by Otto Freundlich, that provided the chief image in publicity materials for the Munich show.
The art historian Ruth Heftig, one of eleven essayists in the Neue Galerie’s compulsively readable catalogue, states a crowning irony: that the “stigmatization of modernism caused by the National Socialists is partly responsible for the current boom in modern art,” having “created a canon, so to speak, that had not existed previously.” The glamour of martyrdom came to halo modern artists with political virtues that few of them either sought or merited. This set the stage, in Cold War America, for the public acceptance of Abstract Expressionism as, for all its esoteric aesthetics, a potent symbol of liberal democracy, versus Communist dogmatism. In Germany, the reaction spurred a revival of Expressionism and fuelled a spirit of purgatorial atonement, which found focus in the career of the former Luftwaffe pilot Joseph Beuys and led to the global eminence of the painters Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, and Anselm Kiefer. Divorcing our thinking about modern culture from the residual consequences of “Degenerate Art” probably can’t be done.
Those Nazis hated some excellent art.
When the SS first solicited bids for death-camp crematoriums, one manufacturer proposed a design resembling a Greek temple. It was rejected not because of its appearance, but because of its cost.
While such a juxtaposition of neoclassicism and mass murder seems unthinkable today, aesthetics played a key role in Nazism’s exterminist ideology. The perfection of the Aryan superman was contrasted with the perceived defectiveness of the Jew. The Nuremberg Rallies were visual spectacles, as were Leni Riefenstahl’s films. Indeed, Walter Benjamin defined fascism itself as “the aestheticization of politics.”
The Neue Galerie revisits a key point along this perversely arcadian allée to Auschwitz: the 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition. On view were Cubist, Expressionist and Dadaist artworks confiscated from public and private collections, hung alongside placards and wall texts mocking them. Some of the very same pieces have been collected here, alongside officially approved Nazi art, ephemera and posters related to the original show.
The exhibit was a huge hit with the German public. Even so, things weren’t always cut and dry. Some modern artists were viewed favorably by certain Nazis, while officially approved artists eventually ran afoul of the regime. One of the great ironies underlying Hitler’s assault on modern art was that the writer who first drew a connection between modernism and degeneracy was a Jew, Max Nordau.
Ultimately, it was Hitler’s exploitation of the German people’s deep devotion to kultur that enabled his rise and “Degenerate Art” to occur. Thus, the Neue Galerie show suggests that the question surrounding the Holocaust was never, “How could the nation of Goethe descend into barbarism?” but rather, “How could it not?"
As he had lived, Cornelius Gurlitt died at eighty-one early in May, in thrall to a trove of inherited art he kept hidden for decades mostly at a modest apartment in Munich. The announcement last year of the collection’s discovery by German authorities yanked the reclusive Gurlitt from the shadows. Stories about him busied the front pages of newspapers for weeks.
He seemed a figure out of Sebald or Kafka. He had never held a job, kept no bank accounts, was not listed in the Munich phone book. Aside from sporadic visits to a sister, who lived in Würzburg and died two years ago, he had had little contact with anyone for half a century. Der Spiegel reported that he had not watched television since 1963 or seen a movie since 1967, and that he had never been in love, except with his collection.
The art, nearly 1,300 works, some of which belatedly turned up in a second home in Salzburg, was mostly nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century European pictures, a good deal of it what the Nazis called Entartete Kunst, or degenerate art, who knows how much of it seized from museums and Jews. Cornelius’s father, Hildebrand Gurlitt, accumulated the collection. Under the Nazis, Hildebrand was dismissed from two museum posts—one in Zwickau, “for pursuing an artistic policy affronting the healthy folk feelings of Germany” by exhibiting modern art, the other in Hamburg, partly for having a Jewish grandmother. But then Goebbels handpicked him, among a few others, to sell abroad confiscated modern works. That is how Hildebrand spent the war years, placating his Nazi bosses while enriching himself, then afterward lying to Allied investigators about the destruction of his collection in Dresden.
He died in a car wreck in 1956. His widow, Cornelius’s mother, died a dozen years later, when Cornelius seems to have taken over the collection, selling the occasional picture to stay afloat but otherwise holding the art as a sort of sacrament. His father had written a self-serving essay shortly before his death describing the collection “not as my property, but rather as a kind of fief that I have been assigned to steward,” which Cornelius clearly took to heart, until his nervous behavior on a train from Zurich made Bavarian customs officers suspicious.
Early in 2012, police, customs, and tax officials descended on his Munich apartment and spent three days removing works by Picasso, Matisse, Otto Dix, Emil Nolde, and Oskar Kokoschka, along with older artists like Renoir, Courbet, Dürer, and Canaletto. Gurlitt was ordered to sit and watch. He told Der Spiegel that it was worse than the loss of his parents or his sister. By the time newspaper and television reporters discovered him and his story more than a year later, he was ill and bereft.
The usual media chatter focused on how much Gurlitt’s hidden art was worth, a noise that competed with the sound of slow, grinding wheels, justice belatedly turning toward restitution. “All I wanted was to live with my pictures,” Gurlitt said, but of course who knows how many original owners of the works would have said the same, had Hitler’s henchmen not stolen the art from them. In Gurlitt’s ruin, and the liberation of captive art, one could also make out the twisted echoes of families discovered hiding in attics, of fleeing refugees unmasked on trains.
A culprit, a figure divorced from time—far removed from a century of hedge fund investors buying $100 million paintings—Gurlitt loved the art he hoarded truly and too well. The pictures survived him, like Paul Celan’s bottles tossed into the ocean, suddenly returned from oblivion, inevitable tokens of lives lost and reminders of art’s endurance. Hitler couldn’t exterminate modern art—the great Jewish Bolshevik cultural conspiracy, as he saw it—whose daring and pungency, obscured by today’s babble about money, somehow gained new life in the story of Gurlitt and the Nazis’ degenerate campaign.
I suspect this partly explains the popularity of “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” at the Neue Galerie in New York, where lines stretched out the door as soon as the show opened in March. Seeing the exhibition, you can recover a sense of what was once radical and thrilling about pictures by Expressionists like Max Beckmann, George Grosz, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. A debased term, the avant-garde gets its jive back. Art matters again. The Nazis raised the stakes by stigmatizing modern art. As Genet once put it, fascism is theater. So modernism returns to its role as tragic hero in the show.
It is organized by Olaf Peters, an art historian and board member of the Neue Galerie, whose founder, the billionaire collector Ronald Lauder, was United States ambassador to Austria and outspoken on issues of Nazi repatriation. The exhibition retraces ground covered a generation ago in a 1991 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Far larger than this show, that one, put together by the curator Stephanie Barron, also revolved around the notorious 1937 “Entartete Kunst” exhibition in Munich that the Nazis mounted to coincide with the opening of the first “Grosse Deutsche Kunstaustellung,” or Great German Art Show, of approved Nazi art. Barron recovered nearly two hundred of the 650 works crammed into the original show in Munich, along with Nazi films and archives. The Los Angeles catalog provided a wealth of information, illustrations, and biographical details, many about German artists who had slipped down the memory hole.
The Neue Galerie exhibition condenses the same story into a handful of rooms. It is modest in size but ingenious, poignant, pointed. It traces the concept of degeneracy back to its well-known roots in the writing of a nineteenth-century rabbi’s son, Max Nordau, and connects the 1937 “Entartete Kunst” to smaller Schandausstellungen, Exhibitions of Shame, staged by extremists earlier in the 1930s in cultivated cities like Dresden.
The New York show brings together vivid propaganda and photographs, identifying the degenerate art campaign as a prelude to extermination. It recovers empty picture frames from paintings now lost, which speak volumes hung side by side. Artists like Paul Klee come across as genuine provocateurs. A suite of Klee’s twittering, toylike pictures, with their spidery symbols and scribbly shapes, whimsical and ingenious, indebted to children’s art and the art of the insane, were like Davids to the Nazi Goliath. And it’s hard to miss the heartbreak in a self-portrait by Kirchner, the artist staring straight ahead, face half in shadow, or more likely erased, a work begun in 1934 but finished in 1937, when Kirchner added yellow bands, like bars, almost forming a swastika, handcuffing his wrists. The Nazis had confiscated hundreds of Kirchner’s works that year and put dozens in “Entartete Kunst.” A fragile, sickly man, Kirchner committed suicide, an early victim of Hitler’s cultural cleansing.
The show’s opening room lays it all out, pitting works from “Entartete Kunst” against art from the “Grosse Deutsche Kunstaustellung,” or GDK, a clash encapsulated by the pairing of two large triptychs: Beckmann’s Departure (1932–1935) is a dark riddle about torture and loss; Adolf Ziegler’s The Four Elements (1937), an academic quartet of marmoreal, Teutonic nudes, as mundane as the Beckmann looks mysterious, exemplifying what Susan Sontag meant when she wrote years ago in The New York Review about fascist nudes being “sanctimoniously asexual.”
It was Ziegler who gave the opening speech for “Entartete Kunst” in 1937 (“monstrosities of madness, of impudence, of inability and degeneration,” he said, calling the artists “pigs”); and Hitler hung The Four Elements over his fireplace at the Führerbau in Munich, until Ziegler fell out of favor, for joining secret peace negotiations with the Allies in 1943. Dachau was his penalty.
The show also pairs works like Richard Sheibe’s bronze Decathlete (1936), a typically airless Nazi nude, with Karel Niestrath’s Expressionist Hungry Girl (1925), emaciated, streamlined, proud. Sculpture seems to have mattered more than painting to the Nazis because it could be large, outdoors, and lent itself to the glorification of the Reich and the cult of the body. But one still senses a fuzzy, almost arbitrary line that often divided banned from accepted art. Sometimes there’s hardly any difference at all. At the same time, the Nazis borrowed modernist graphics to vilify modernism. Peters has told me that he believes that the big public misconception is that there was, from National Socialism’s early days, a cultural master plan, an aesthetic agenda.
But there wasn’t. Culture’s role for the Reich was improvised, ad hoc. Here the catalog makes fascinating reading for its accounts of the organization of both the GDK and “Entartete Kunst.” Ines Schlenker, an art historian, in an essay about the GDK, writes how, when fire destroyed Munich’s traditional exhibition hall, a new building was commissioned for which Hitler laid the cornerstone. The Haus der Deutschen Kunst was one of the early Nazi monuments, a neoclassical temple of marble and light with a grand colonnade and a skylit nave, built to showcase the art Hitler liked. Its first big exhibition was to be the 1937 “Grosse Deutsche Kunstaustellung.” Some 554,759 people attended the GDK, fewer than the two million who saw “Entartete Kunst,” but as Schlenker writes, the Nazis inflated the degenerate figure by mass visits of party organizations, enacting rituals of derision.
The GDK number exceeded attendance at all other contemporary art events in Germany that year. In subsequent years, attendance for the annual GDK shows rose, peaking at 846,674 in 1942. Hundreds of works were sold out of these exhibitions to buyers seeking favor with the regime. The Nazis touted the sales as proof that Germans loved Nazi art.
But what was Nazi art? It was, from the start, whatever Hitler felt at the moment. For a while there was a chance it was going to be a kind of Nordic Expressionism, until the Führer decided it wasn’t. Beckmann, Kirchner, and Oskar Schlemmer imagined working with the state as late as June 1937, when Hitler ordered thousands of their works and others impounded from German collections. The Bauhaus had had hopes, too, until it didn’t. Organizers of the first GDK sent invitations to Nolde, Ernst Barlach, and Rudolf Belling, all of whom would simultaneously end up in “Entartete Kunst.”
Nolde, who had participated in an exhibition of young National Socialists in Munich, was infuriated. Along with Barlach and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, he had signed a loyalty oath to Hitler after Hindenburg died. More than one thousand of his pictures were confiscated from German museums, and twenty-seven included in the degenerate display. As for Belling, the Nazis were so confused and disorganized that a bronze sculpture he did of the boxer Max Schmeling made it into the first GDK while two other works of his simultaneously landed in “Entartete Kunst.” An open call to contribute to the GDK had been issued to German artists months earlier with the empty promise “to neither favor specific art trends nor exclude others in the selection of the works.” This elicited 15,000 submissions, whittled down by a jury for inspection by Hitler, whom Goebbels recorded in his diaries as “wild with rage” at the results.
Walter Klein, ARTOTHEK/Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast, Düsseldorf Karel Niestrath: Hungry Girl, 1925
“The sculptures are passable, but the paintings are in some cases outright catastrophic,” Goebbels noted. Hitler fired the jury and enlisted a friend, Heinrich Hoffmann, who shared his taste for nineteenth-century Bavarian kitsch: genre paintings, classical nudes, portrait busts, animal pictures. The exhibition opened on July 18, 1937, with nearly nine hundred works by more than five hundred artists. It was a mess.
Peters writes that “Entartete Kunst” was devised by Goebbels in part to obscure the failings of Nazi-approved art. An admirer of Expressionism before Hitler condemned it, Goebbels recorded the idea for an Entartete Kunst exhibition in his diary on June 4, 1937, just weeks before the show opened. He imagined an exhibition (at first in Berlin) of “works from the era of decay. So the people can see and understand.” The era was Weimar Germany, with its cultural prologue in the fin de siècle. Peters believes that Goebbels cooked up the degenerate display because he felt threatened by Hoffmann and fearful when two of his allies were among the jurors dismissed from the GDK. This was how he wanted to get back into Hitler’s favor.
The show was hurriedly crammed into the galleries used for the plaster cast collection at Munich’s Archaeological Institute, not far from the Haus der Deutschen Kunst. Walls were painted with mocking texts, to silence skeptical visitors. A crucifixion by Ludwig Gies was hung at the entrance, a provocation to devout Christians who couldn’t recognize the work’s clear Gothic debts, mobilizing what Peters calls “Catholic-tinged anti-Semitic resentment” against modernism—notwithstanding that the Nazis had risen to power on an anticlerical platform.
Much was made in the exhibition of modernist contortions of the human body, of antiwar art by figures like Grosz. Carl Linfert, reviewing the show in Die Frankfurter Zeitung in November 1937, could not fail to see “Entartete Kunst” as a diversionary tactic. “Goebbels and Hitler sought refuge in revenge and radicalization,” as Peters sums up Linfert’s argument. “If they could not establish anything significant themselves, they could at least manage to destroy the hated counterimage.”
It would be a few more years before modern art was used directly to justify mass murder, in propaganda films and literature, with Himmler pushing a concept of culture infecting the masses like a plague “against the healthy body.” Works by Otto Freundlich, who would be murdered at Majdanek, were juxtaposed with nudes by Josef Thorack in SS brochures. Degenerate art, Himmler wrote, spread through the culture; it had the same effect as the “mixing of blood.” From 1937 to the early 1940s, the notion of degenerate art underwent “a deadly transformation,” as Peters writes.
That transformation now seems inevitable, but clearly art had remained a moving target for the Nazis, an existential threat, which haunted Germany’s fate and still does. Sebald described in The Emigrants a forgotten Alpine climber whose bones suddenly turn up in a glacier decades after he had disappeared. “And so they are ever returning to us, the dead,” he wrote. A few years ago, workers digging a new subway station near City Hall in Berlin unearthed a rusted bronze bust of a woman, a portrait, as it turned out, by Edwin Scharff, one of those forgotten German modernists. Soon more banned sculptures emerged at the construction site, eleven in all; a couple of them had been exploited in one of the more notorious Nazi propaganda films. They were known to have been stored in the depot of the Reichspropagandaministerium, which organized “Entartete Kunst.” German authorities concluded that they ended up near City Hall because they came from a former building across the street. During the war, a tax lawyer and escrow agent, Erhard Oewerdieck, kept an apartment at 50 Königstrasse. He is history’s answer to Gurlitt, the Munich hoarder.
Oewerdieck is remembered at Yad Vashem. He helped the historian Eugen Taübler and his wife flee to America, preserving part of Taübler’s library. He and his wife gave money to another Jewish family to escape to Shanghai. He hid an employee in his apartment. German investigators today guess that, having somehow got hold of the sculptures from “Entartete Kunst,” he hid them in his office before fire from Allied raids in 1944 consumed the building, which collapsed, burying the office’s contents.
So the art remained for all these years until the workers digging for the subway turned up, like the police and customs agents at Gurlitt’s door, like the bones of Sebald’s Alpine climber.
Catalog of the exhibition edited by Olaf Peters, with a preface by Ronald S. Lauder and foreword by Renée Price, Prestel, 320 pp., $60.00