Beginning tomorrow, New Yorkers will be able to contrast early 20th-century art officially reviled by the Nazis with party-approved work from two 1937 exhibitions in Munich. "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937," at New York's Neue Galerie (through June 30), follows the February release of George Clooney's feature film The Monuments Men, about the team tasked with recovering artworks stolen by the Nazis, and the revelation last year of a trove of around 1,400 Nazi-looted artworks, uncovered in the Munich apartment of Cornelius Gurlitt.
The first major U.S. exhibition since 1991 devoted to now-canonical art once pathologized by the Nazis, the show comprises about 50 paintings and sculptures and 30 works on paper. Some of these pieces were in the notorious 1937 "Degenerate Art" show organized by the Nazis in Munich, one day after Hitler personally opened an exhibition of "official" art nearby. Other works appeared in earlier "exhibitions of shame" or later iterations of the traveling "Degenerate Art" exhibition. Posters, photographs, two short films and a video add historical context, along with a rare, original inventory book of art that passed through Nazi hands in a key loan from London's Victoria and Albert Museum, secured within recent weeks.
The exhibition's curator, German art historian Olaf Peters, gave A.i.A. a preview of the show. Peters highlighted five canvases by Max Beckmann, who fled Germany the day after Hitler's speech kicking off the official exhibition, and four by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who committed suicide less than a year later. Peters pointed out Hitler's favored triptych, The Four Elements (1937), which hung above the Führer's mantelpiece and features nude young blondes. The artist, Adolf Ziegler, helped to organize and gave an opening polemic at the "Degenerate Art" exhibition.
At the Neue, Ziegler's painting hangs beside Beckmann's "degenerate" triptych Departure (1932). These two artists' trajectories exemplify how upside down their world was. Beckmann, even in exile, was sought after by connoisseurs worldwide, including Nazi collectors. Hitler's onetime pet, Ziegler, ended up in a concentration camp in 1943 after saying Germany would probably not win World War II.
TRACY ZWICK How much work from the 1937 "Degenerate Art" show in Munich remains extant, and what of it has been found in the Gurlitt cache? Has any of the art in your exhibition been the subject of reparations claims?
OLAF PETERS All the work at the "Degenerate Art" show in Munich was taken from state collections. None of it came from private collections, so restitution is not an issue in this show. Some of the pieces were sold, some were exchanged and we know that 5,000 pieces were destroyed, burned in 1939. Between 300 and 400 of the Gurlitt works were part of the Nazis' degenerate art action, but these are not the really important works and probably weren't exhibited at all. I'm not a policeman, though; I'm an art historian. I want to talk about the art, and I want to show great art.
ZWICK Yet you've called Ziegler an "unimportant artist."
PETERS We are taking the Nazi-approved art seriously and allowing viewers to compare for themselves. I hope visitors see how fantastic and extremely complex the Beckmann triptych is, and that the Ziegler triptych is boring!
ZWICK The German Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch wrote in the 1930s about Expressionism as art that anticipated the future rather than representing the past or the present. Is this what made "degenerate art" so vile to the Nazis? It was non-normative, envisioning a future different from the Nazi ideal of a totally controlled society.
PETERS What the Nazis hated was new art that had nothing to do with formal training or older art. They were not intellectual; they did not understand what was going on in Expressionist painting. And much of this came down to taste. They despised it because it was not Hitler's personal aesthetic.
ZWICK On the Neue's third floor, there's a hallway covered on one side from floor to ceiling with an image of people queuing to enter the "Degenerate Art" show. Across from it, you have an equally large image of people waiting on line to be killed at Auschwitz. You write in your catalogue essay that the "Degenerate Art" exhibition led "to the reality of mass murder." How?
PETERS The Nazis made films comparing Jews to rats, which can be seen on the second floor at the Neue. If you are connecting the image of the Jew to what Nazis considered offensive modern art, if you are stigmatizing the Jew, and expelling him from society, it becomes more and more likely you will start to kill these people.
ZWICK At the end of the hallway, visitors enter a jewel box of a room holding small-scale marvels, like Emil Nolde's gorgeously colored "Unpainted Paintings" (1938-45). He made them using watercolors after he was prohibited from painting in oil, hoping he might realize them in oil after the war. Why was it important to include these works?
PETERS In this room are complicated artists: Nolde, Ernst Barlach and Paul Klee. The work here is political. Barlach is interested in physiognomy, type and race. Nolde became part of the Nazi party. It was important for me to make the story a little more complex.
ZWICK The show's ultimate gallery focuses on the fate of artists and artworks. You juxtapose Oskar Kokoschka's proud Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist (1937) with Beckmann's Self-Portrait with Horn (1938), in which he appears waiting for a signal. Kirchner's Self-Portrait (1934/37) exudes despair and claustrophobia; his hands are blocked—he's forbidden from working. Half of his face is obscured. There's a red swastika in the background. And you display empty picture frames. Are these signifiers?
PETERS The empty frames describe the many missing or destroyed works. The empty fields let the viewer experience that loss. Felix Nussbaum's painting The Damned (1944) hangs in the same room. Nussbaum was murdered in an extermination camp. And there's a Bernhard Heisig painting that cites Nussbaum. Finally, there are three George Grosz portraits we've brought together, including his Portrait of Max Hermann-Neisse (1925), which was confiscated from a German museum as degenerate, then purchased back by the same museum after the war. That has not happened often.