(noun) nonchalant absurdity with a dash of embarrassment.

(verb) to be shark bitten.

(adverb) in a manner that is nonchalantly absurd and embarrassing.


15 April 2014

"Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937" at Neue Galerie

Hitler touring the Degenerate Art Exhibition, July 16, 1937 
“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” opened at the Neue Galerie last month and it runs until June, so you have a bit of time to get there, but I’d suggest sooner than later, as this show is a must see. It’s not a blockbuster like James Turrell and Maurizio Cattelan at the Guggenheim or Carsten Höller at the New Museum, it is a gem---a time in art history which is spoken about less often, yet holds great importance in terms of its place in time and what freedom of expression means for the artists of the past and those of today. The freedom to express oneself is still limited in many parts of the world. Take, for example, the Yellow Dogs, and the tragic circumstances that involved the band last November in Bushwick, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. The murder of three Iranian immigrants highlighted the musicians need to apply for political asylum in the United States under the grounds that their freedom of expression was curtailed in Iran. And then there is India, which Salman Rushdie refers to as a “cultural emergency.” According to a NY Times article written last year, “writers and artists of all kinds are being harassed, sued and arrested for what they say or write or create.” Art crime, under many different guises exists today, in many countries, under different types of governmental rulings.

In his beautifully curated show, Dr. Olaf Peters uses the 1937 exhibition “Entartete Kunst,” or “degenerate art,” and, compares it to works shown in the “Great German Art Exhibition.” The painstaking process of requesting works for loan was years in the making. The paintings, sculptures, drawings, posters, and photographs inform the viewer of the persecution and exploitation of modern artists under the rising power of Hitler and the National Socialists.

Adolf Ziegler, The Four Elements, 1937
Dr. Peters uses two triptychs to clearly define the contrasting styles of the modernist work that what was shown in “Entartete Kunst” and the more classical style favored by Hitler and his party in the “Great German Art Exhibition.” The room is split down the middle by a subtle line accented by different shades of paint on each side: to the left, is the Nazi sanctioned art, and to the right, works that were defined by the National Socialists as “degenerate”--the slogan that stands for what the party considered “cultural barbarism.” On the back wall, to the left, is Adolf Ziegler’s The Four Elements, the left panel representing fire, the center panel, water and earth, and the right, air. This triptych, so loved by Hitler himself, it hung above his mantle, and, for Peters, it serves as part of a centerpiece to explain the juxtaposition between what type of art was acceptable under Hitler’s regime and that which was not.
Max Beckmann, Departure, 1932-35
Ziegler, the President of the Reich Chamber for the Visual Arts, was part of the propagandistic machine. In his speech at the opening of the “Entartete Kunst” he shows his deep despisal of modernism: “You see around us monstrosities of madness, of impudence, of inability and degeneration. What this show has to offer causes shock and disgust in all of us.” The disdain in Ziegler’s speech was directed at the creative avant-garde, and his job was to eliminate artists like Max Beckmann, whose triptych Departure hangs to the right of Ziegler’s. At the time the work was created, 1932-35, a national political and personal crisis cast a societal shadow upon Beckmann and other modernists with successful careers in Germany and abroad.

Lasar Segall, Eternal Wanderers, 1919
The Nazis, haters of all things ism, clearly defined work made after 1910 as modern, and, therefore, degenerate. Cubism, Modernism, Futurism, Dadaism, and so on were not in line with the National Socialists’ new vision of Germany. Most work in the exhibition falls within an ism, such as, Lasar Segalls’ Eternal Wanderers, painted in 1919. Olaf Peters again uses clever juxtaposition to show aerial views, on opposing walls, of Dresden: on one wall is the city before World War II, when it was considered the “Florence on the Elbe” and the other, a city in crumbles, after the Allied bombings in February 1945. Hanging over the wallpapered photo of Dresden after the bombings, is Karl Schmidt-Rotluff’s The Life of Christ, a suite of ten woodcuts, a distinct brand for early German modernism. Dresden, the birthplace of modernism in Germany, was one of the first cities to host an “exhibition of shame,” starting as early as 1933, traveling from city to city and eventually making its way back to the city in 1935.

Paul Klee, The Angler, 1921
Nazis felt the same sort of contempt for the Bauhaus as they did for the isms---from they way they used steel in their furniture design to the childlike nature of Paul Klee’s The Angler, an oil transfer drawing, watercolor and ink on paper. On loan from the MoMA, and according to “The Provenance Research Project” the work was acquired by Nationalgalerie, Berlin, in 1923 and was removed by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda in 1937. From here it was on consignment to Karl Buchholz until 1939 and, shortly after, made its way to Curt Valentin at Buchholz Gallery in New York. In Hamburg, the Buchholz Gallery was really two businesses: in the front it was a bookstore, and, in the back, it operated as a gallery, selling modern art the Nazis deemed unacceptable. It was sold to John S. Newberry of Grosse Pointe, Michigan in 1940 and acquired by the MoMA in 1961, as part of the John S. Newberry Collection. Many works were sold, others lost, or presumed destroyed. Vanity Fair’s Alex Shoumatoff writes an incredible article about the life of Cornelius Gurlitt and his father, Hildebrand Gurlitt's connection to the Nazi Party. The 81-year-old lived alone with 1,280 paintings, drawings, and prints worth more than one billion dollars in his Munich apartment. For years, these works were presumed destroyed, however, the recent events make us realize, there are many works circulating through the black market, or hidden in an attic, historians and families unaware of their location.

I cannot fully compare the socio-political turbulence of Germany in the years leading up to World War II to that of countries policing artists of today. There are similarities, however, I didn’t live in Germany practicing modern art in 1937 and I don’t live in China working under a police state like Ai Weiwei. The importance and educational merit of a show like “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” reminds us of the monstrosities of the past, the iconoclasts we read about in texts, those that have left a lasting impression on art history, their lives not easy, yet they continued to work in a style they believed in. Pussy Riot keeps pushing Putin’s buttons, but does so to show the world what’s really going on under his ruling. Even in the most liberal of states, freedom of expression is questioned, but those who push the limits find themselves with articles written about them circulating the Internet, which, in turn, goes into text, which thus becomes art that is endured. In the words of Pussy Riot to Ai Weiwei: “I don’t see myself as a dissident artist, I see them as a dissident government.”

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