BWW Reviews: DEGENERATE ART Reconstructs Art History at Its Most Tragic

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.

Elsewhere, the works in Degenerate Art bristle against the Nazi image of strength and athleticism. That isn't to say that all the modernist images are raw or disturbing, though entries such as Beckmann's overbearing Departure and Karel Wiestruth's self-explanatory Hungry Girl certainly are. While there is much clarity of expression and much purity of form and line in Kirchner's paintings and in Ernst Barlach's sculptures, such purity and clarity operate in an ideological void, or at least operate devoid of Nazi ideology. After a time, the Reich would have none of this: painter Emil Nolde was initially embraced by no less a Nazi that propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, only to fall sharply out of favor by the early 1940s. Barlach too fell out of favor after a grace period, while the disoriented and distressed Kirchner committed suicide in 1938.

In order to show us precisely what the in-favor works were like, Peters has posed a few monumental Nazi-approved canvases against showstoppers like Departure. In doing so, he gives us the exhibition's best installation, and not simply because it contains a Beckmann masterpiece. In any other context--an all-inclusive survey of German art, a gigantic permanent installation--it would be possible to trot past Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück's Workers, Farmers, and Soldiers and Adolf Ziegler's The Four Elements without giving them a second glance or a first thought. They're that astonishingly mediocre. But here, because of the persecuted modernists right across the room, we are forced to stop and contemplate these canvases and sculptures. And the results are weirdly revelatory. Workers, Farmers, and Soldiers looks like a plodding piece of national pride, and would be just that if almost any other nation had produced it: here, it reads as a frightening bit of historical ignorance. That hearty pilot, that hardworking cowherd, those bare-chested miners--do they know anything about what they're helping to build? Then there's The Four Elements, a work that sat over Hitler's fireplace and that is supposed to evoke classical grace and refinement, but mostly evokes the off-kilter compositions and clammy nudes of John Currin, without any of Currin's saving irony.

Paintings like these are only the least of the horrors perpetuated by the Nazis. Yet since the larger horrors are perhaps beyond anything we can comprehend, we need minor monstrosities like The Four Elements. After all, it is from artworks that "an age derives its ideals of morality and beauty. If they are absurd and anti-social, they exert a corrupting influence on the views of a whole generation." The quotation comes from social theorist Max Nordau, an enemy of aesthetic modernism and a favorite of the Nazis. Nordau was right about corruption; it's just that the paintings Hitler patronized will always be symptoms of degeneration, never signs of a cure.

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Patrick Kennedy Patrick Kennedy serves as Lead Critic in the Visual Arts for BroadwayWorld. He regularly contributes reviews of museum and gallery exhibitions, performing arts events, and new art books. Active in the world of education and humanities scholarship, Patrick is also an Executive Editor at ILEX Publications and a professor at Kean University, where he teaches courses in international literature and research writing.