Lining Up to Die

John Haber
in New York City

Degenerate Art and Nazi Germany

The most remarkable thing about "Degenerate Art" is that it took place at all. Almost as remarkable, people lined up to see it.

The first blockbuster?

Imagine that Jesse Helms in the Senate had not threatened to cut funding for the arts over Robert Mapplethorpe, but rather expanded it. Imagine that Rudy Giuliani had not denounced a display of Young British Artists at the Brooklyn Museum, but demanded that it tour all five boroughs, so that each and every tourist and New Yorker could share his moral outrage and absorb its lesson. That way, too, the Christianity covered with elephant poop, at the hands of Chris Ofili, could hang closer to the Museum of Biblical Art or to medieval art at the Met. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brücke) (Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 1926)Together, they would serve as literally object lesson in what what must be destroyed if culture is to live. No matter if Ofili sought only to show the depth of his piety or if Mapplethorpe had to die, and they did. No matter, too, if few might see their work ever again.

That last is obviously less likely. Auction prices continue to soar, and Mapplethorpe has become a fixture, to the point that one can easily lose sight of the tragedy and transgression underlying his work's beauty. Just weeks before the Neue Galerie revisited the shock of "Entartete Art," the exhibition that opened in Munich in July 1937, Mapplethorpe's prestigious gallery brought out yet again some of his best-known photographs. Sean Kelley displayed them in pairs, as "Saints and Sinners," against alternating black and white vertical bands on the wall. Yet Hitler staged much the same contrast. "Degenerate Art" opened within walking distance of "The Great German Art Exhibition," in a new museum meant to embody the triumph of the German nation.

Hitler's plans are still far more shocking than any art, but part of the shock is how seriously those plans took art and culture. He had already called for an exhibition of "Great German Painters of Their Time" in 1936, and its successor came with a "Day of German" art, including a pageant and parade. The House of German Art has the chilling mass of stone columns blown up to the scale of an empire. The Bavarian Ministry of Culture began work in 1933, when Hitler and the architect, Paul Ludwig Troost, posed in front of a model. Four years later, "Degenerate Art" toured eleven German and Austrian cities, starting with those four months in Munich's darker and more crowded museum of archaeology. With six hundred and fifty works, it might count as the first museum blockbuster.

And people did line up to see it, as they never would for the art that he loved. "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany" at the Neue Galerie has large wall photographs of the lines outside and the crowds within, and they still startle. Had the two million visitors come out of love or fear, and what lessons did they take home? Had they come because German Expressionism had been around for long enough to enter the canon, too late for the Nazis to erase—or did all Hitler's efforts backfire, making more of the artists than ever? Perhaps, but the Nazis confiscated twenty thousand works and destroyed five thousand. The Neue Galerie can manage only twenty from the original exhibition, along with other work and other shocks.

What it can manage is context, including large photographs not just of the crowds, but also of German troops outside the old halls and of more lines—those hoping to flee the country and Jews arriving at Auschwitz. Four of the show's five modest rooms surround a narrow corridor with a time line, so that one feels someone else's marching orders just coming in. (arrangement gives unanticipated meaning to a sign that "occupancy by more than 74 people is dangerous and unlawful.") The headline to a review in The New York Times played up the parallels: First They Came for the Art.

The headline may seriously belittle the fate of the Jews or the famous line by Martin Niemöller about the cowardice that precedes disaster. Still, it resonates, for "they" came for the art both early and often. Pressure built to fire other professors of art in 1932, the very year that the Nazis gained a majority in government, and book burnings were underway. The first Schandausstellungen, or "exhibition of shame," came and the Bauhaus and Bauhaus photography closed in 1933, the year that Hitler became chancellor. Much of the confiscated art lay in a warehouse, where he came personally to inspect it, turning the frames. What, though, did he see?

Giving a face to cruelty

Much of the show's interest lies in what he saw and despised, and that, too, comes with its shocks. Of course, one enemy for Hitler was, as yet another display of Hitler's had it, "The Eternal Jews," although few of the artists were Jewish. At least one, Emil Nolde, was a Nazi, although he found himself forbidden to paint. Others lay low or fled the country, but sorting out winners and losers is harder than one might guess. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich minister of propaganda, actually thought of Expressionism as a fair expression of the new Germany—until, that is, Hitler made clear his wishes. Italian Futurism under Mussolini has much the same conflicted history of innocence, rebellion, and complicity.

The art, too, may not match the usual picture of German Modernism, with its harsh colors and a still harsher view of urban society. The curator at the Neue Galerie, Olaf Peters, devotes the first room to the first victims, the Bauhaus. It includes the clean lines and comfortable furniture of Mies van der Rohe, the Cubist planes and ample skies of the Hopfgarten for Lyonel Feininger, early abstraction by Wassily Kandinsky, and Twittering Machine by Paul Klee. German art was not always as highly pitched and humorless as textbooks may recall. It was also not necessarily as German, which was precisely what bothered Hitler, who dismissed the flat roofing of Bauhaus architecture as fit for an "Arab village." He had no interest in subordinating nationalism to an "international style."

The second room turns to Dresden, the site of a more expressionist art in Die Brücke ("The Bridge") and the New Objectivity, but this, too, presents an unexpected calm. Life of Christ by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, like Savior's Face in the room before it by Alexej Jawlensky, hardly pleads impiety. Cattle by Max Beckmann could easily have come to stand for the homeland and folk traditions, which indeed endeared the movement to Goebbels. The same goes for peasants in a room for drawings by Nolde and Ernst Barlach. Still, the draftsmen found their inspiration in travels through Russia and Siberia, and Hitler sniffed out every hint of "inferior races." He also looked primarily not to Christianity, but to a still earlier Greek and Roman past.

The lines stiffen in a still more ingenious room, with space for Hitler's New Order across from Modernism's new disorder. To one side stands a dreary standing athlete, in sculpture by Richard Scheibe, to the other a wooden figure by Nolde close to the primitivism of Paul Gauguin. There hangs as well a triptych by Hans Schmitz from during the war, ennobling workers, peasants, and soldiers in a style dreadfully close to Soviet Realism. To the other side hangs Nolde's red-haired girl in flaming colors. Even storm clouds take on a bright yellow. As documentation of the cultural divide, the room also includes copies of The Art Newspaper from 1939 and 1940.

And yet here, too, one can find strange affinities. Hitler's favorite, Adolf Ziegler, hangs near Beckmann's Departure. The first has as its Four Elements four vapid nudes (and, yes, Hitler did buy it and hang it over his fireplace). The other surrounds the anxiety and determination of a Viking king at sea with malicious cruelty, including a man with his hands sliced off, his face but not his pain half shrouded. A drummer in red parades by a man and a woman bound together, one upside down, and bound for death. Still, both paintings are monumental triptychs, now part of Beckmann in New York, and both invoke a mythic northern Europe.

Hitler could not give a face to the brutality that he himself brought forth. And Beckmann in 1932 saw more than he knew. Then, too, the former mediocre art student simply preferred mediocrity. (One artist called his "Temple of Art" and all it contained the "revenge of the third rate.") His relentless advance had no time for doubts or introspection, not even that of Jesus nearing death. His Germany did not look for heroes in a hungry child by Karel Niestrath, a reader by Barlach, or the head of a thinker by Wilhelm Lehmbruck—all the more so as the first two are girls.

Two culture wars

The contrasts speak more to the powers of horror than to a thorough history of art. Where the Met or MoMA might have tried to match the outsize scale of the original exhibition, at the price of deadening sensation, the Neue Galerie settles for insight. It does not have the resources to be any more explicit, especially since the Nazis worked hard to destroy them. A fifth room, for some of the eight thousand seizures of art from Jews alone, helps make the destruction explicit. It has an upper row of empty frames, for work that may well never be recovered, all from a fourteenth-century monastery. The Nazis took care in framing even what it destroyed.

The room also highlights the inner reflection that they sought to eradicate. It includes self-portraits by Otto Dix, George Grosz, Lovis Corinth, Beckmann, and Kirchner, who killed himself in Switzerland during the war. Oskar Kokoschka even styles himself, proudly, as a "degenerate artist." He ought to know, and Egon Schiele could make the same claim. Would Jesse Helms know, though, or Giuliani, even with an assist from the artist? Does the show have a lesson for art's run-ins with authority now?

The Nazi past has to seem one of a kind. Even to challenge its uniqueness may diminish its horror. Sure, history has had one style of official art after another, as well as a price for those who refuse to play along. From Veronese before the Inquisition to Ai Weiwei in China, though, that price has been censorship. It is hard to imagine another regime doing so much to stage manage the opposition. Historians have cited that strategy as a hallmark of the Nazi era, focused not so much on the private realm of thought police as the society of the spectacle.

Still, Hitler was engaging in something familiar—and not from the culture wars alone. When art makes headlines, it is usually in trouble. Conversely, when people denounce art, they are usually looking for headlines. In at least one case, art about the war in Iraq made enemies only when it landed in The Daily News. That makes sense, too, since art exists between private urges and public audiences. Those torn agendas help to give political art its power when it, in turn, gives a human face to cruelty.

Did Hitler's strategy backfire? What about all those lines? Ruth Heftig, in the Neue Galerie's catalog, argues that "Degenerate Art" gave Modernism legitimacy. It led to audiences for Abstract Expressionism in America and (yes) an eventual Neo-Expressionism in Germany. It is even, she writes, "partly responsible for the current boom in modern art." Others before her, like Serge Guilbaut, have seen abstraction as a weapon in the Cold War, although its proponents in the arts were hardly Cold Warriors. Yet I wonder.

Abstract Expressionism arose with artists fleeing more than the Nazis, like Arshile Gorky, and with their models in Surrealism. It also arose in an era that knew nothing of today's art celebrities, markets, museum expansions, and blockbusters. It arose as well with a narrative of modern art that marginalized German Expressionism, in favor of a relentless march from Cubism to color fields. Neo-Expressionism in the late 1970s and 1980s, whether with Sigmar Polke or Maria Lassnig, ushered in a reversal of that narrative, along with the critical constructs of Postmodernism. Hitler could hardly sort out all of art's mixed allegiances, no more than mainstream criticism now. All he had for certain were the lines—for both the spectacle and the damned.

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"Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937" ran at the Neue Galerie through June 30, 2014.


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