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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



Paul Klee. b. 1879 d. 1940. The Angler, 1921. Watercolor, transfer drawing and ink on paper. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, John S. Newberry Collection. Digital Image © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA/ Art Resource, NY © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.
Suppose the Neue Galerie decided to stage an exhibition of German and Austrian Expressionism, the Bauhaus and Die Neue Sachlichkeit, and call it something like, “The Avant-Garde in Germany & Austria, 1907 to 1937.” Who would come? I might be moderately interested (although this is the kind of art that Die Neue Galerie usually shows, and they not infrequently exhibit the same works in different shows).

No doubt such a title would also attract some courageous souls who consider their tastes catholic, and would be willing to see painting & sculpture less familiar than the avant-garde French & American art of that same period. But I wouldn’t expect such a show to be mobbed.

On the other hand, suppose the museum decided to display the same art, but title it instead “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937.” Not only does this promise the heady spice of politics (which, as Ai Weiwei also knows) is of far wider interest than art—but, in addition, that magical word, “degenerate” promises all sorts of sin and evil. It is not unlike what Professor Higgins found so "irresistible" about Liza Doolittle, the fact that she was "so deliciously low, so horribly dirty!”

Choosing that alternate title (and injecting the show itself with a massive dose of politics) is just what the Neue Galerie has done. And, perhaps not surprisingly, crowds have been lining up to gain admission ever since the show opened on March 13. During the autumn of this past season, crowds were lining up outside the Frick Collection, to see Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” and “The Goldfinch,” by Carel Fabritius--both paintings which have had best-selling novels written about them, and both with movies in their recent past or future.

Show biz can be as much a tonic for the art biz as politics, but perhaps the crowds at the Frick were a tad more knowledgeable than the crowds at Die Neue Galerie. Or not. I will report that once, when I stopped by & asked what show the line was for, one lady in it volunteered that she was going to see the “deconstructionist” art show.

According to the NY Times’s Carol Vogel on May 9, about 32,000 visitors have already seen “Degenerate Art,” over two times the Neue Galerie’s average attendance for an exhibition. Tour bookings have more than tripled, and the $60 exhibition catalog has quadruple the sales rate of most other catalogs, with a second printing on order.

Responding to this surge of interest, the museum has extended the run of the show by two months (now closing September 1). By the time it closes, officials at the museum estimate that 115,000 visitors will have seen it—which should make it one of the top shows that the gallery has ever mounted.

“Degenerate,” of course, isn’t the Neue Galerie’s word for the German & Austrian avant-garde. Nor did Adolf Hitler dream it up. It’s famous because he and his fellow Nazis used it to designate the kinds of painting & sculpture that (we may perhaps surmise) had elbowed aside his own youthful efforts to impress the art world of Vienna before World War I.

After all, before Hitler went into politics, he wanted to become an artist himself. He even applied to the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna, but failed its entrance examinations twice (in 1907 and 1908). Undeterred, he went on to turn out quantities of academically-styled & saccharin little watercolors & postcards of picturesque buildings and quaint village streets. They seem to have sold quite well, but then came the intoxicating experience of serving in the German army during World War I, and the drastic career change that sprang from it.

As the New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl has suggested, Hitler knew how to capitalize upon modern graphic art & design (the red, white and black Nazi flag, with its ominous reversed swastika, being an effective example).

In painting & sculpture, though, he insisted upon the Greco-Roman body type of academic tradition, and the sentimental grandiosity that also characterized Soviet Realism. These preferences he became able to enforce & patronize after he became chancellor of Germany in 1933.

Modern art was deemed Jewish, non-Aryan, and/or foreign—because it destroyed or confused natural form, appeared to reveal an absence of adequate training and artistic skill, or portrayed inferior sexual, racial or moral types. All this made it degenerate art (entartete Kunst), though this final condemnation by the Nazis shouldn’t be seen in a vacuum. Modern art has always had its detractors—beginning long before the Third Reich.

More than 20,000 works of “degenerate art” were confiscated from German state-owned museums by the Nazis; more than 5,000 (mostly works on paper) were destroyed. Some were sold off to private buyers, and eventually found their way to museums in the U.S. and elsewhere beyond the Nazi sphere.

As to the artists who made them, their careers were ended (or, at best, put on hold). Although only a few were forbidden to practice their profession, galleries in Germany wouldn’t sell their work, and museums and private collectors were loath to buy it.

Some artists remained in Germany, on occasion under virtual house arrest. Among these were Emil Nolde, Otto Dix & Oskar Schlemmer. Exile was another option chosen, by, for example, Max Beckmann and Kurt Schwitters.

Paul Klee had already moved back to his native Switzerland when Hitler came to power, and Vassily Kandinsky had moved to France. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner had been living in Switzerland for decades, but (at least partly because of the situation in Germany) he committed suicide in 1938.

In 1937, the Nazis mounted a big exhibition of the work they so much despised. This show, too, was called “Degenerate Art,” and included 650 works of art by 112 artists. After its initial appearance in Munich, it toured Germany and Austria.

The thrilling prospect of “degeneracy” appears to have had much the same appeal to German-speaking art-lovers in 1937 that it has to Americans in 2014, for the show drew 20,000 visitors a day in Munich. During its 4-month run there, it attracted more than 2 million visits, plus a million more in its subsequent travels.

At the same time that “Degenerate Art” opened in Munich, the Nazis also opened “The Great German Art Exhibition,” with examples of the politically-correct art of that time & place. This was displayed in a new building, constructed for the purpose and known as “The Temple of Art.” This “temple” had large, bright rooms in which the Art of the New Order was presented with dignity.

Less than 1500 feet away, the art of the old order (which is to say, most recently chaotic Weimar Germany) was presented in cramped conditions and associated with swindling and lying. Yet--ain’t human nature funny? Many more presumably patriotic Germans went to see “Degenerate Art.”

One of the most riveting—and at the same time, most distracting --- sights of the current show at the Neue Galerie is the film footage showing visitors, including fashionably-dressed ladies in hats and overcoats, gazing raptly at the displays in the 1937 version of “Degenerate Art:”

Needless to say, there is no way today to display all of the art that was in the 1937 exhibition. Not only was so much of it destroyed, but even more is probably “present location unknown.” Moreover, the Neue Gallery, even though it has devoted far more than half of its display space to this exhibition, simply couldn’t accommodate 650 works of art—nor would today’s fainter-hearted museum-goers last out through them.

Thus, the current show, as organized by Dr. Olaf Peters, an art history professor in Halle, offers about 50 paintings & sculpture, 30 works on paper and several posters, as well as copious amounts of memorabilia and documentation..

Prominent in the narrow hallway on the third floor is a blown-up photo of well-dressed Germans lined up to see “Degenerate Art” in Hamburg on one wall. Facing it is another blown-up photo of Jews arriving at Auschwitz in 1944. The two together offer a telling observation or least suggestion: that destroying art precedes the destruction of life.

As to the art in this show, it’s a little hard to see, surrounded as it is by all the disturbing wall texts, film clips, memorabilia and blown-up photographs serving as wallpaper (to say nothing of the crowds of visitors). Art is supposed to give pleasure, but this show can’t quite deliver that, and I’m not the only visitor who felt that way.

While I was there, I ran into a married couple whom I know. I started to ask them if they had enjoyed the show, but then we rapidly agreed that “enjoyable” was not the right word for this experience. Maybe “worthwhile” was the best word to describe it.

If, however, you, gentle reader, can get past the problems raised by the installation of this show, there is a fair amount of honest-to-goodness art to enjoy in it as well. Wherever possible, the show includes works that were also in the 1937 show (though, as this has not always been possible, there are also quite a lot of substitutions, and a number of symbolically empty frames).

The big gallery on the western side of the third floor contrasts the kind of art Hitler approved of with “degenerate” art. The official art of the Third Reich comes off both better & worse in its paintings than in its sculpture, which is merely mediocre.

The worse is the large & mawkish allegorical triptych from 1937 of four naked women by Adolf Ziegler (1892-1959). Hitler actually owned it. Entitled “The Four Elements,” this monument to kitsch has already been inflicted upon New York audiences in “Chaos and Classicism,” which played the Guggenheim in the fall of 2010.

Considerably better – though still on a par with Soviet Realism – is “Worker, Peasants and Soldiers”(1941) an even larger triptych of populist heroes engaged in the aforementioned occupations by Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück (1907-1944?). It has some dramatic lighting effects toward the tops of the canvases, and I overheard an elderly, artistic-looking man saying to his companion, “This stuff is not bad—that lighting is very nicely done. “

I (surprise, surprise) preferred the “degenerate” art in the other half of the gallery including paintings by Beckmann & Nolde, among others, as well as sculpture by Rudolf Belling (1886-1972) and Wilhelm Lehmbruck (1881-1919), also among others. The Beckmann is another large triptych, the familiar “Departure” (1932-35), owned by MoMA and seemingly Aryan in subject matter, while also prophetic.

On its right and left panels, torture of various kinds is being inflicted, while in the center, some people in Viking-like costumers are about to go to sea in a Viking-like boat. I am not the only person who has assigned a political meaning to this painting, although the analysis at its MoMA html page implies that others have said it deals with sin and salvation, and Beckmann himself resisted all interpretation.

The second big gallery on the third floor (on the northern side of the building) emphasizes Die Brücke, with canvases and graphics by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Erich Heckel, and Kirchner (again, among others). The highest percentage of works also in the 1937 show appears to be here, and the painters of Die Brücke never looked better.

I went for Kirchner’s “Winter Landscape in Moonlight” (1919), and three canvases by Schmidt-Rotluff: “Village on the Sea” (1913), “Pharisees” (1912), and “Nude” (1914). I could also see in the emaciated outlines of “Nude” what amply-proportioned hausfrauen in Altes Deutschland might have found objectionable—and what a genius Hitler had for exploiting already-popular prejudices.

It is so easy for us to condemn the Germans for allowing him to come to power, but we tend to forget (or never considered) what an inflationary sinkhole Weimar Germany must have been in the 1920s and especially the early 1930s, after the Great Depression hit – and how we ourselves might not be immune to charms such as his, were circumstances not necessarily that different from what they are now.

The second floor of Die Neue Galerie has an additional gallery-and-a-half devoted to this show. This is where all the empty frames are hung, but I’m going to end my comments with the third gallery on the third floor (on the eastern side of the building). This one is devoted to the Bauhaus, and is the only gallery that looks neat, clean, fresh, and -- in its entirety --- truly modern.

Some of that may be due to the fact that the supplementary material is kept to a minimum, and the art is left to shine by itself. But this gallery also has some - maybe most – of the most advanced art to come out of Germany in the 20s and 30s, art that needed no apologies when it arrived in Paris and New York.

Here, for example, we had two classic pieces of furniture: the “Barcelona” chair (1928) by Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe and the B3 “Vassily” chair (1925) by Marcel Breuer. We also have a not-bad Kandinsky, “Several Circles” (1926), and a lithe little silver “Ornamental Sculpture” (1919) by Schlemmer (1888-1943)

Best in show for me is the row of three small, delightful pictures by Klee: “The Angler” (1921), “The Twittering Machine” (1922), and “Ghost Chamber with the Tall Door (New Version)” (1925). Goodness knows how many times I’ve seen “The Twittering Machine,” but this time I figured out that these were Klee’s shorthand version of little birds, sitting on a clothesline or something like that, singing their tiny hearts out. Less familiar, but almost equally charming, is the blue-tinted picture entitled"The Angler," which depicts a big-headed fisherman trolling off the end of a dock for watery denizens. The Nazis couldn't stand Klee because they thought his work looked like a child's: they were evidently blind to the wittiness and power of his shorthand style--almost among other reasons, no doubt, because they so dramatically lacked a sense of humor.

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