BWW Reviews: DEGENERATE ART Reconstructs Art History at Its Most Tragic
Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany draws out an irony that is quite simple, quite straightforward, and absolutely crushing: in dictatorships, the most original and most humane art is always considered degenerate. In 1937, the Nazis rounded up paintings and sculptures by modernists such as Vasily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, George Grosz, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner; the works of these artists were assailed with the usual anti-Semitic rhetoric and paraded in mockery through Hitler's Third Reich. As a reconstruction of a dark moment in 20th-century culture, Degenerate Art at the Neue Galerie doesn't need to persuade any reasonable human being that Hitler had a ghastly vision of art and of everything else. History already has.
No, the talking points behind the 2014 Degenerate Art are nothing new: of course the Nazis persecuted great art, and of course the Nazis celebrated art that was both hideous and inane. What makes this exhibition so valuable is that it demonstrates just how great, and just how hideous, the art in question is. Under the direction of Olaf Peters, Degenerate Art plays out as a pointed compare-and-contrast exercise: fluidly sculpted futurism versus facile Nazi realism, a blistering Max Beckmann triptych versus three panels from one of Hitler's favorite painters. The wall captions occasionally remind us who the real degenerates were, but they don't really need to, considering how well the art on display speaks for itself.
Peters's installation is also the latest entry in a genre--the "exhibition about an exhibition"--that has been making an emphatic showing in the New York arts scene. Last year the assured The Armory Show at 100: Modern Art and Revolution settled into the New-York Historical Society, and this year the faulty yet fun Other Primary Structures enjoyed its residence at the Jewish Museum. Like the Armory Show re-working, this year's Degenerate Art is a pared-down version of a historically revealing original: the Nazis pulled in 600 or so works, Peters a fraction of that. But as a work of scholarship, the exhibition extends beyond and improves upon past treatments. It builds off all-modernist reconstructions (most notably, the 1991 showcase at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) by featuring both totalitarian and avant-garde works, and it gives full attention to an idea that even highly conscientious exhibitions (such as Lyonel Feininger: From Manhattan to the Bauhaus at the Montreal Museum of Art) have only had time to sample.
Because of the setup of its exhibition space, the Neue Galerie produces oddly topheavy shows--a substantial gallery here, a more substantial gallery there, spindly corridors in between. Nonetheless, the offbeat formatting works especially well this time. Drama, buildup, and bursts of surprise are all part of this exhibition, and all part of the modernist ethos: a more classical layout might have called up uncanny memories of the stolidly classicizing architecture the Nazis prized. Throughout, Peters has foregone historical reconstruction in order to channel the modernist mentality, bulking out his displays with small yet scintillating canvases, expressionistic group portraits, photographic footage of Nazi officials, and a couple of Bauhaus designer chairs.
It is inevitable that Nazi art--which can succeed in being more emphatic, obvious, and stupidly menacing than Soviet Realism--rejected this kind of whimsy and eclecticism. It is just as inevitable that the Nazis' reasons for hating masters of whimsy, like Paul Klee and Oskar Schlemmer, are our reasons for loving these artists. The two Schlemmer sculptures in this Degenerate Art, Ornamental Sculpture and Grotesque, call to mind everything from Picasso to Art Deco to toy ships and building blocks; the magic is how lucid Schlemmer's forms are on their own. For his part, Klee works an odd, old-world magic no matter where you find him (yes, even on the crowded days at Degenerate Art) and no matter which painting of his you pick. His melancholy side, though, shines through in new ways here. Among the finest Klees in display is Ghost Chamber with the Tall Door, a goldenrod-colored canvas of phantom boxes and haunting perspective lines. Though an image rich with sorrow, it was only completed in 1925, years before the Nazis made such sorrow and beauty artistic taboos.