The show that is currently taking place at the Neue Galerie, ‘Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art’ is an excellent example of how politics can shape the way art is understood and appreciated. It would not be too farfetched to say that the fact that we could attribute artists such as Jackson Pollock having participated in a movement that opposed Soviet Realism, could not happen without what Hitler called ‘Degenerate Art’. What I am saying here is that art is visual expression many times organised in such a way that it becomes something else.
The show at the Neue Galerie focuses on the way modernista art was presented by the Third Reich as ‘degenerate’ and worthy of popular vilification. Curator Olaf Peters does a great job by turning no more than twenty works placed amongst others (not degenerate) as a contextualised way for understanding how Hitler’s understanding of art functioned.
One room features empty frames that once held large paintings -probably destroyed- by the likes of Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Oskar Kokoschka. The show decants an essence of Nazism’s malice and the mass hysteria on which it fed. Is the target only art? Art was no incidental matter for Adolf Hitler whose designs on the world, keyed to the rightful dominance of purified master race, were aesthetic at their twisted root.
The genesis of ‘degenerate art’ is a show that travelled to eleven cities in Germany and Austria commencing in Munich on July 19, 1937. The idea was to show what to hate. On display, the Nazis had gathered a catalogue of works confiscated from collectors and institutions which, as the signage stated, had been paid ‘with the taxes of the German working people’ and derided the art as mentally and morally diseased or as a ‘revelation of the Jewish ratial soul’. Only a handful of the artists were Jewish but that made scant difference to regime that could detect Semitic contagion anywhere.
By official count, more than two million people when it showed in Munich alone. ‘Degenerate Art’ slandered every innovative style of the previous three decades (modernism) but more specifically, German expressionism. This happened inspire of the fact that, at the very beginning of the regime, many Nazis had proactively supported the likes of Emil Nolde, for example. However, the moment Hitler sentenced his disapproval of this kind of art, they were all part of a black list of what opposed the pre-Christian Greek and Roman art that Hitler seemed to favour.
Alfred Goebbels was the factotum of that original Munich show because he understood the political utility of loathing and that show included thirty six pictures by Nolde. The show climaxes with a comparison of ‘Great German Art’ works and works that appeared, or might as well have, among the ‘degenerates’. Two triptychs are strikingly juxtaposed: a masterpiece by Beckmann, ‘The Departure’ (1932-33), which escaped confiscation and was given a place of honor at Museum of Modern Art during the war and ‘The Four Elements’ (1937) by Adolf Ziegler, who was the least bad aesthetically of the Nazi painters but one of the most vicious spokesmen of them. The central panel of the Beckmann depicts a king in a boat at sea, in the side panels, enigmatic figures perform sadistics acts. In the Ziegler, which Hitler personally owned, four nude Aryan beauties repose on a long plinth and wield attributes of fire, water, earth and aire. They are kitsch examples of that kind of art that Hitler wishfully termed ‘Greco-Nordic’.
I think that what this show demonstrates is how politics can shape an artistic canon and colabore with the stigmatisation of way of being. This is a truly possessed kind of art and this is an amazing show. Just a thought.