AFC Critics Talk About Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany

by Corinna Kirsch and Whitney Kimball on April 11, 2014 Reviews

Installation view of Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937. Image courtesy of the Neue Galerie.

Installation view of Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937. Image courtesy of the Neue Galerie.

Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 (Through June 30, 2014)
Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue

What’s on view: Artworks from the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, alongside more traditional Renaissance-style works from the Great German Art Exhibition

Whitney: Disturbingly, this show paints a pretty clear picture of the Nazi mindset. On view are objects of Nazi hatred, art which deviates from the white Eurocentric track. This is clear in a montage from “The Eternal Jew” (1940); Greco-Roman palaces and Botticelli paintings jump-cut jarringly to African sculptures and jazz music. You can see how a delicate, classical art history was supposedly cut off by abrasive non-Aryan shapes.

The show also reminds you how swiftly things can devolve, and from Neue Galerie’s version of events, it seems like art was central to that process. The show’s timeline marks events like Goebbels’ closing the Bauhaus (later used as a Nazi training center) and Paul Klee’s fleeing the country, along with the officiating of the Nazi flag. The comparison gets sickening in the hallway’s parallel blown-up photos; one photo of people lining up outside the 1937 Degenerate Art exhibition, and the other, a 1944 image of prisoners getting off the train in Auschwitz. It draws a very clear parallel between tolerance for new ideas and tolerance for other people.

Adolf Ziegler, "The Four Elements," 1937.

Adolf Ziegler, “The Four Elements,” 1937.

The Nazi paintings are pretty bland. Adolf Ziegler’s “The Four Elements“—Renaissance-style nudes with chalky, dull skin—shares a similarly corny sense of self-importance as Thomas Kinkade. By comparison, Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück’s huge, lifelike triptych “Workers, Soldiers, Farmer,” like a Nazi Rockwell, has a scale and fervor that’s chilling.

A darker room includes artists’ names with subtitles like “Was subject of Nazi contempt, despite being apolitical.” It showed how in horrible times, your political allegiance is going to be remembered, even if you do nothing.

Anyway, it was refreshing to spend some time in a thoughtful, well-researched show.

Corinna: I see where you’re coming from: This was thoughtful and well-researched. God forbid we never see that anymore in museums! I recommend the show, but I left with more questions than answers about this exhibition, which was organized more like one you’d see at a natural history museum than at an art museum.

For one, when you walk in to the exhibition you’ll see photographs of Germany in 1937 blown-up against the walls. To add atmosphere, I guess?

Wall labels throughout the exhibition describe how the artworks in the original Degenerate Art exhibition were “un-German.” We’re not exactly told why they’re not living up to being German, although the mention of artists making work that looks like it came from other cultures is mentioned. But for the most part you just have to guess. In the second gallery (on the left when you enter), we’re shown work by artists like Emil Nolde who were even supporters of the Nazi party, but whose work was deemed un-German. We don’t get much deeper than that, but seriously, if Nolde thought he was being a good German, I’d like to know why.

Honestly, the Germans were quite systematic about everything they did during the Second World War; I’m sure there’s got to be a shopping-list of reasons why some artists were reviled by the Führer, while some went on to gain praise. Instead, we just get the feeling that the Nazis were just bad people—not only did they lose the war, they couldn’t tell that Impressionism and Modern art would now become standard fare for the arts. Sucks to be them!

The third gallery looks the most like a natural history museum, but in a good way, unlike the blown-up photographs-cum-wallpaper. On one side you see “good” Nazi art and on the other side you see works that were deemed “degenerate.” Like chess pieces, the sculptures stand across from each other. This type of categorization is unusual for art exhibitions—usually the order is chronological or thematic, so you don’t see art next to its “opposite.” Not a bad decision, and I wish more museums would embrace some non-art exhibition models.

As for the quality of art: There’s some good, classic works of Modernism (many on loan from the Guggenheim and MoMA). When I was an undergrad, I had Paul Klee’s “Twittering Machine” as a desktop screensaver for a while and seeing it for the first time in a gallery made a 19-year-old me very happy.

Still, I wish there had been a clearer sense of why certain works were deemed degenerate and others not. Also, I’d like to mention that art criticism was banned during the Third Reich. Nobody ever talks about that, but let’s give the critics some credit!

Whitney: I disagree. I think that clip from “The Eternal Jew,” the wall texts, the Nazi’s preference for the Renaissance, and the original centerpieces of Degenerate Art (an Expressionistic version of Jesus, an Easter Island-like head) makes it pretty clear that anything reductive, tribal, or expressionistic was hated because it wasn’t in line with German traditions. I guess there could be more explanation of the conditions which led to Naziism in the first place, but I think the show set out to demonstrate how fascism was expressed through visual culture, and it accomplished that.

Corinna: True, it’s just difficult to tell what those “German traditions” are based on the art we’re given. That Adolf Ziegler The Four Elements triptych you mention looks more Italian Renaissance, and to that end, Greek-inspired, than “German,” for instance. If that’s the case, that Germans are looking back to a more classical past, it’s not one that’s specifically German. Where was the celebration of Germany, and its romantic landscapes, for that matter.

There’s this really great Kandinsky in the show, “Several Circles,” that I spent some time with; it’s not entirely difficult to tell why it wasn’t lauded by the Weimar Republic. It’s abstract, they didn’t like abstract art. But I wonder if there’s something deeper than “they just didn’t like abstraction because it wasn’t representing a positive view of Germany.” Kandinsky presents what looks like a chaotic scene of the planets in orbit. Perhaps this shows a belief in the world as in flux, and that didn’t align with the philosophical underpinnings of Nazism. That broader worldview wasn’t so much talked about in the show, but it’s one of the questions I was left with.

Overall, I’m glad the Neue Galerie gave me a reason to visit; I haven’t been there in almost 10 years. And I’ll go again. Unfortunately, Neue has got some visitor rules that I do not for the life of me understand. You are not allowed to carry a coat around with you for some reason. What? Am I going to knock over a sculpture with my coat? Hide a painting under there? Carrying bags is totally fine, though.

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