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'Degenerate' Exhibit Recalls Nazi War On Modern Art

Max Beckmann's biblical and political triptych <em>Departure</em> (right) hangs on the same wall as Adolf Ziegler's <em>Four Elements</em><em> </em>triptych, which Hitler owned.
Courtesy of Hulya Kolabas for Neue Galerie New York
Max Beckmann's biblical and political triptych Departure (right) hangs on the same wall as Adolf Ziegler's Four Elements triptych, which Hitler owned.

One of the most unsettling rooms in an important art exhibit at New York's Neue Galerie is a room in which numerous empty frames are hanging, with guesses about which paintings might have been in them. The paintings themselves were all lost or destroyed by the Nazis. Encouraged by Hitler, most Nazis (Joseph Goebbels was the rare exception) considered everything but the most hidebound, traditionally realistic paintings and sculptures to be "degenerate," a threat to the Aryan ideals of German culture. To bring this home, there was a series of "exhibitions of shame" designed to teach the German public to despise modernist art. This culminated in a major show in Munich in 1937, which later toured Germany and Austria. The public crowded to see it. That same summer in Munich, a counterexhibit called "The Great German Art Exhibition," which included at least one work owned by Hitler, showed what the Nazis thought art should be. The Neue Galerie's exhibit, called "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937," includes some 80 works from both of these landmark shows.

The Nazis considered Jewish art collectors and dealers a major force behind the success of modernist art. Works depicting outsiders — Jews or blacks (jazz was also considered degenerate) or anyone unhealthy, neurotic or suffering — were also targets of their disapproval. So even though there were only six Jewish artists in the original exhibition, such non-Jews as the Bavarian Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (an innovative colorist), the Austrian master Oskar Kokoschka and the fanciful Swiss artist Paul Klee were also the objects of attack. Their art was removed from museums, and thousands of so-called degenerate works were destroyed. Kirchner committed suicide in 1938. The strangest case may be that of the German expressionist Emil Nolde, a card-carrying Nazi who was a favorite of Goebbels'. In spite of his high-placed connections, the Nazis turned against him, forbade him to show his work and destroyed many of his paintings.

This show has more than just the art. One display is Volume 1 of a chilling, 482-page, neatly typed inventory of the works the Nazis confiscated from public museums and sold or destroyed. There are also information tags that indicate exactly where in the 1937 Munich exhibit each work was originally displayed. A five-minute film clip by the American photographer Julien Bryan, who was working for the "March of Time" documentary series, shows the crowds of German men and women walking stone-faced past pieces of expressionistic, abstract and Dada art. And there's that room with all the empty frames.

Some remarkable work is here: Kirchner's A Group of Artists (his painting of his famous colleagues in the German proto-expressionist movement called Die Brucke, or "The Bridge") and his stunning Winter Landscape in Moonlight. There's George Grosz's moving Portrait of the Writer Max Hermann-Neisse, Paul Klee's marvelous Twittering Machine, Nolde's daring Red-Haired Girl and a spectacular Wassily Kandinsky painting of what looks like outer space circles. Max Beckmann's powerful biblical and political triptych Departure is hung on the same long wall as the airless and inertly realistic triptych The Four Elements, which Hitler owned and which was prominently displayed in that officially sanctioned show of German art. In their arrangement, the curators here suggest the contrast between the way the degenerate art was chaotically jammed together and the more spacious display of the acceptable German works. So we get a more open view of the awful Four Elements and a sculpture called Decathlete, a life-size nude young man with an expression so dead you wouldn't want to be alone with him, clothed or unclothed, in a dark Munich alley.

This is the first major exhibit to deal with the subject of degenerate art since 1991, when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art mounted a re-creation of the original Munich show. But this is the first time some of these Nazi favorites have been on display in this country. It's a powerful and disturbing show, and of all things, it's been so popular you might have to wait in a long line to get in — just as people in Munich did in 1937 to see all that terribly degenerate modern art.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: June 1, 2014 at 11:00 PM CDT
The original photo caption incorrectly attributed Four Elements to artist Max Beckmann. The triptych is the work of Adolf Ziegler.
Lloyd Schwartz is the classical music critic for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross.
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