Nazis' attack on modern art in 1937 showed unerring accuracy in condemning era's best work


December 15, 1991|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Sun Art Critic

All around us you see the monstrous offspring of insanity, impudence, ineptitude, and sheer degeneracy. What this exhibition offers inspires horror and disgust in us all."

Thus spoke Reich chamber of visual arts president Adolf Ziegler, on July 19, 1937, as he opened an exhibition containing works by Max Beckmann, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, George Grosz, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian, Emil Nolde, Oskar Schlemmer and more than 100 other modern artists.

Titled "Degenerate 'Art,' " it consisted of 650 works confiscated from 32 German museums and brought together in Munich as examples of the art Hitler and the Nazis hated, condemned and sought to destroy: cubism, expressionism, abstraction, dada -- in short all that was modern about modern art.

And the 650 works in "Degenerate 'Art' " were but the tip of the iceberg. In the same year, more than 16,000 works were confiscated and removed from public collections. Braque, Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Gauguin, van Gogh, Modigliani -- the bloodhounds had a perverse genius for sniffing out what was good, and getting rid of it. Some works were sold abroad, some stored, many lost or destroyed. It was something like the art equivalent of genocide, for the Nazis sought no less than to annihilate modernism.

If the world has been aware of Nazi opposition to modern arts and letters, the full depth and virulence of it are revealed in "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" and itsaccompanying catalog. Please don't miss this brilliant, horrifying, necessary exhibition, now at the Smithsonian in Washington.

Organized by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it brings together about 150 works from the Munich show described above. That alone would make a fine exhibit, for the works themselves are generally of extraordinary quality and offer among other things a particularly compelling view of German expressionism.

But the exhibit and catalog do much more than that, thanks to curator Stephanie Barron and her colleagues. They have struck a balance between a logical organization of the material and the chaotic, insulting presentation of the Nazis. The material is properly installed, but presented in basically the same order as in the original exhibit, and each gallery contains photographs of the 1937 show with its ridiculous jumbles of works and the absurd remarks that accompanied them, some scrawled across the walls.

"Insolent mockery of the divine" accompanied religious works by Beckmann, Nolde and others. "Revelations of the Jewish racial soul" was thrown at works by Chagall, Jankel Adler and others (although the exhibit as a whole was not primarily an attack on Jews; only six of the artists included were Jewish).

"The ideal -- cretin and whore" was applied to nudes by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Mueller and others. The "dada wall" with works by Klee, Kurt Schwitters and others was subjected to a quote from that great artist and critic, Hitler himself: "All the artistic and cultural blather of Cubists, Futurists, Dadaists, and the like is neither sound in racial terms nor tolerable in national terms." And so on.

Moreover, the attack on art is put in context here with several introductory galleries dealing with the Nazis' war on books (by Mann, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Freud, etc.), films ("The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," "Metropolis," "The Threepenny Opera," "The Blue Angel" . . .) and music (from Kurt Weill to Arnold Schoenberg and particularly jazz).

And we're shown what the Nazis approved of, from folk tunes to nationalistic literature to art. At the same time that "Degenerate 'Art' " debuted in Munich, across the park Hitler opened the enormous "House of German Art," the first major work of Nazi architecture, with a "Great German Art Exhibition" chosen in part by himself. It consisted largely of pseudo-classical male and female nudes and sentimental genre paintings.

The great irony that underlies "Degenerate Art," as its scholars point out, is that there was so much modern art in German museums for the Nazis to confiscate. For decades directors of museums in Berlin, Hannover, Dresden, Mannheim and many other cities had championed modern art, from the impressionists on, by showing and acquiring it. In the 1933 catalog of his Museum of Modern Art exhibition, "Modern German Painting and Sculpture," Alfred Barr wrote, "Museum directors [in Germany] have the courage, foresight and knowledge to buy works by the most advanced artists long before public opinion forces them to do so."

It didn't take Hitler four years to begin his campaign against such art. Exhibits of "degenerate art" were organized as early as 1933; the 1937 one was merely the most prominent, the most popular, the most widely traveled.

It must be at the very least one of the most popular art exhibits of all time. More than 2 million people saw it in Munich in four months -- as many as 36,000 on a single day -- and another million more attended its subsequent three-year tour through Germany and Austria.

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