Degenerates

entartete_kunstThose artists wishing that the government would pay more attention to their work might drop by the Neue Galerie before June 30 for the exhibition Degenerate Art. The National Socialist party paid considerable attention to contemporary German art indeed, then at the end of the Expressionist period and in the midst of the New Objectivity school, and thought a great deal of it a smear upon the purity of Aryan men, women, and the natural beauty of the landscape of the German-speaking lands — for, thought the Nazis, “beauty” (as they ideologically defined it) was more valuable and good for the nation than the disturbing insights of Modernist music, theatre, painting, and sculpture. They collected much of the visual art for a touring exhibition, Entartete Kunst, which opened in Munich in 1937; at the same time, just down the street, they also opened the Great German Art Exhibition, featuring those artworks that exemplified the kinds of paintings and sculpture that had the Nazis’ stamp of approval.

Great crowds attended the Entartete Kunst show, considerably smaller ones the Great German Art Exhibition. The Neue Galerie’s Degenerate Art suggests just why this was — however stylized or disturbing the art of the Expressionists and the New Objectivity, it may have spoken most deeply to their condition. Curator Dr. Olaf Peters’ intent is not to recreate the original show of 1937 (an impossibility, since so many of the works were lost during the Second World War), but rather to present a meditation on the two shows, a comparison of the aesthetics that drove each one. There is also an implied invitation to consider the state, reception, and position of these Modernist paintings and sculptures (and of the Modernist tradition itself) today. Archival material that contextualizes this show is presented via unobtrusive videos (one of which is quite cleverly and insightfully projected straight down onto the top of a packing crate); in these videos you can see visitors to the 1937 show inspecting the very paintings surrounding you in this Fifth Avenue gallery in 2014, putting us in the shoes of these original visitors, many of whom no doubt are long dead, as are many of the artists collected in the exhibition.

Perhaps understandably, there is a heavy emphasis on big names: Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Oskar Kokoschka, and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff are all well represented (chief among the large canvases displayed are Beckmann’s Self Portrait with Trumpet and Kirchner’s Berlin Street Scene, undoubtedly among the great masterpieces of the 20th century); Otto Dix and George Grosz are less well represented, regardless of the greater disapproval that the National Socialists held for these artists, but this is, given the rich variety of the show, a quibble.

Max Beckmann, Departure (1932)

Max Beckmann, Departure (1932).

One room of the exhibition is perhaps the most instructive — on one side, a selection from Entartete Kunst, on the other from the Great German Art Exhibition. Differentiated by a slight shift in wall color, the selections demonstrate the disturbing spirit of the Expressionists and New Objectivity painters, as well as the monumental dreadfulness of government-sanctioned art. It is with not a little wit that Peters hangs Beckmann’s alterpiece-like triptych Departure next to Adolf Ziegler’s The Four Elements, which Hitler himself displayed in his home, the first a violent, painful depiction of historical sin and salvation, the second a wretchedly wrought depiction of four idealized nude goddesses that retain not a shred of life, let alone clothing. (A French critic in the 1930s said that the only element missing from the Ziegler work was “taste.” Oh, those French.) The Ziegler is accompanied by other samples of approved German art — a sculpture of a rippled, idealized Aryan superman, and huge renderings of Nazi workers and Aryan figures divorced from any kind of reality — ironically similar to official Soviet socialist realism, and a reminder that Hitler and Stalin may have had more in common than their status as insane tyrants.

Adolf Ziegler, The Four Elements (1937).

Adolf Ziegler, The Four Elements (1937).

Very few of the artists featured in Entartete Kunst, in both the original exhibition and this study, were Jewish, however much the Nazis imputed “Jewish decadence” to their work. (Among the highlights of the show is Schmidt-Rottluff’s series of prints, Life of Christ, worth a visit itself.) The show ends, however, with the still shocking The Damned (1944) by Felix Nussbaum, a Jewish painter who emerged late in the Weimar Republic and went into hiding in Brussels in 1934.

Felix Nussbaum, The Damned (1944).

Felix Nussbaum, The Damned (1944).

It is an exemplary work of the New Objectivity, a group of individuals (including the artist) drained of color and living in eternal fear and madness for a death which is just encroaching upon them, an urban world entirely devoid of hope. A hopelessness entirely justified — Nussbaum himself was tracked down in Brussels by the Nazis shortly after completing the painting and shipped off to Auschwitz on one of the last trains, there presumably murdered. The canvas is stunning — a slap in the face to the idealized “beauty” of the Nazi aesthetic, an aesthetic after all intended as an art, a popular culture, for the Volk. And — unlike Nazi art — Nussbaum’s canvas, as well as most of the work in Degenerate Art, testifies to the Modernist insistence on the truth of our condition, however dark and unacceptable fascists and their hired critical guns may find it.

Degenerate Art runs through June 30; more information here.

NOTA BENE: It was amusing to find in the New York Times on the day of my visit this interview with Glenn Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art. Randy Kennedy wrote:

“If we were being criticized for being timid, that would upset me,” Mr. Lowry said. “But if we’re being criticized because we’ve engaged spectacle or we engage popular culture in interesting ways,” then it does not worry him deeply.

I would only wish to remind Mr. Lowry that “engaging spectacle” or “popular culture in interesting ways” in an age of giant IMAX 3D screens and the grotesque pop culture emphasis on empty celebrity is perhaps the most timid way to run a museum these days. There is far more courage and insight in the few small rooms of the Neue Galerie this month than there has been at MoMA for the past ten years.

August Strindberg’s To Damascus

DeSean Stokes and Kersti Bryan in To Damascus. Photo: Jonathan Slaff.

DeSean Stokes and Kersti Bryan in To Damascus. Photo: Jonathan Slaff.

When August Strindberg’s plays are produced at all in the United States, they’re usually the plays of his early naturalistic and realistic periods — The Father (1887) and Miss Julie (1888) are landmarks of the “naturalistic” drama that Strindberg described in the preface to the latter play. But after 1890 his work took a turn towards the lyrical chamber play; both the texts and his stagings of the plays at the Intimate Theatre have been identified as obvious precursors to the German Expressionists. The later Strindberg has continued to affect the history of later drama in a variety of strange ways — a Paris production of the 1907 Strindberg play The Ghost Sonata in the early 1950s by Roger Blin convinced Samuel Beckett that Blin was the man to direct the premiere of Waiting for Godot.

Later in his career Strindberg founded the Intimate Theatre — a precursor of both the “pocket theatres” of Paris in the 1950s and today’s New York downtown theatre community as well. The Wikipedia entry (you have been warned) for Strindberg describes this theatre, which flourished from 1907 to Strindberg’s death in 1912:

He founded The Intimate Theatre in Stockholm in 1907. His theatre was modeled after Max Reinhardt’s Kammerspiel Haus. Strindberg had the intention of the theatre being used for his plays and his plays only, he also had the intention of the theatre being used mainly to perform chamber plays. For the theater’s opening, Strindberg wrote four chamber plays: Thunder in the Air, The Burned Site, The Ghost Sonata, and The Pelican. Strindberg had very specific ideas about how the theatre would be opened and operated. He drafted a series of rules for his theatre in a letter to August Falck: 1. No liquor. 2. No Sunday performances. 3. Short performances without intermissions. 4. No calls. 5. Only 160 seats in the auditorium. 6. No prompter. No orchestra, only music on stage. 7. The text will be sold at the box office and in the lobby. 8. Summer performances. Falck helped to design the auditorium, which was decorated in a deep-green tone. The ceiling lighting was a yellow silk cover which created an effect of mild daylight. The floor was covered with a deep-green carpet, and the auditorium was decorated by six ultra modern columns with elaborate up-to-date capitals. Instead of the usual restaurant Strindberg offered a lounge for the ladies and a smoking-room for the gentlemen. The stage was unusually small, only 6 by 9 metres. The small stage and minimal amount of seats was meant to give the audience a greater feeling of involvement in the work. Unlike most theatres at this time, the Intima Teater was not a place in which people could come to socialize. By setting up his rules and creating an intimate atmosphere, Strindberg was able to demand the audience’s focus. When the theatre opened in 1907 with a performance of The Pelican it was a rather large hit. Strindberg used a minimal technique, as was his way, by only having a back drop and some sea shells on the stage for scene design and props. Strindberg was much more concerned with the actors portraying the written word than the stage looking pretty. The theatre ran into a financial difficulty in February 1908 and Falck had to borrow money from Prince Eugén, Duke of Närke, who attended the première of The Pelican. The theatre eventually went bankrupt in 1910, but did not close until Strindberg’s death in 1912. The newspapers wrote about the theatre until its death; however, Strindberg felt it was entirely unsuccessful. He felt that he never had the opportunity to successfully stage a play the way he wanted to – which was the purpose of the theatre in the first place.

Opening this weekend is a production in New York that is bound to be reminiscent of this and provides a rare opportunity to see one of Strindberg’s most remarkable works, To Damascus, a proto-Expressionist play in three parts. At the Gene Frankel Theatre, 24 Bond Street, the August Strindberg Repertory Company production of Part 1 of this play (parts 2 and 3 will follow over the next few years) has its official opening tomorrow afternoon, Sunday, April 20, at 1.30pm.

August Wilson fellow Nathan James has provided a new adaptation of the play, updated to Harlem in 1962; director Robert Greer is directing a multi-racial cast in the production. A note from the Strindberg Company Web site provides the rationale for the dramaturgical vision:

The Harlem 1962 setting was chosen by artistic director Robert Greer and dramaturg Nathan James, a frequent actor in Strindberg Rep productions. It seemed appropriate to place this expressionist play into an era where, at least in Black neighborhoods, the pace of social change had accelerated nearly to the point of surrealism. Not only had the Civil rights era come to a boil during the early ’60s, but the first inter-racial couples had begun to appear in public. A partner in one of these couples was the literary artist Amiri Baraka. His parallels to The Stranger, the hero of Strindberg’s play, were poignant to James and Greer and influenced their vision for this character.

The company will produce Part 2 of To Damascus next year, and Part 3 in 2016. Ticket information and more information about the play are available here.

Simon Schama and Christiane Amanpour on “Degenerate Art”

Historian Simon Schama and Christiane Amanpour toured the Neue Galerie’s Degenerate Art exhibition for the below CNN report, which appeared this morning. It’s worth nothing that Schama sees quite clearly that the Nazi war against this art was very much a war against urban Modernism and its specifically German manifestation as Expressionism and New Objectivity itself. “Often the role of modern artists is to make you not sleep very well at night. It’s supposed to trouble you, to stir you up, to see things anew,” he says. And this, he adds, is what troubles ideologues of any stripe about it.

I’ll be visiting the show on Monday. Below is the preview from Christiane Amanpour, following a brief word from her sponsor.

Upcoming: David Rudkin’s The Love Song of Alfred J Hitchcock

Martin Miller in David Rudkin’s “The Lovesong of Alfred J Hitchcock.” Photo: Pamela Raith Photography.

Martin Miller in David Rudkin’s “The Lovesong of Alfred J Hitchcock.” Photo: Pamela Raith Photography.

Hard as it may be to believe, the plays of dramatist David Rudkin have not been seen in New York since Ashes, his study of a couple attempting to conceive a child, played at the Public Theater in 1977, winning an Obie Award for best play that year. The Brits Off Broadway festival at 59 E 59 Theatres will rectify that situation with their production of The Love Song of Alfred J Hitchcock, Rudkin’s meditation on the career of the illustrious film director, beginning on May 1 and running through May 25. Directed by Jack McNamara and featuring Martin Miller in the title role, the New Perspectives Theatre Company production of the play was hailed by Michael Billington, who said that “Rudkin’s darkly riveting play brilliantly demonstrates the way Hitchcock’s art is the key to his life.” Tickets and information are available here.

Rudkin first emerged on the scene in 1962, when his play Afore Night Come was staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company; that play and Edward Bond’s Saved led to an end to the Lord Chamberlain’s function as theatre censor. Rudkin has also written screenplays for Francois Truffaut (uncredited work on Fahrenheit 451) and Tony Palmer (Testimony), though he says his “main personal commitment has always been to original theatre-work,” which has included The Sons of Light, The Triumph of Death, and The Saxon Shore. Rudkin discussed his career in the below 20-minute interview broadcast by the BBC in 1999.

Incubator Arts Project to Close July 1

The Incubator Arts Project at St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery, which took over Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theater space several years ago, announced this afternoon that it will shut its doors for good on July 1. It marks the end of another chapter in this space as a prime location for avant-garde theatre — long before the OHT began its tenancy, the same space was the home of Theatre Genesis, which premiered Sam Shepard’s first plays, among others, back in 1964.

I enjoyed many evenings at the IAP over the past several years and offer my best wishes for the future to everyone who has been associated with it. The full press release is below:

As of July 1 2014, the Incubator Arts Project will close its doors at St Mark’s Church. It has been a long and wonderful ride in support of emerging work, dating back in some form or another to 1992. This room has had a long history of art warriors before then; we were not the first and we dearly hope we won’t be the last. We made the decision to end our lease and cease further productions, thereby releasing the future of the room. We wish nothing but wild success for our dear friends at St Mark’s, the Poetry Project & Danspace. We know that St Mark’s will be able to provide information about the future at the appropriate time.

In our humble opinion, the conversation is not that we’re closing or why–it ended like most things do, the timely result of a series of good intentions. The conversation we want to have is about what we now know. Let’s not forget all we earned along the way: the artists we fueled, the conversations we sparked, the history we honored, the accolades the work received, the grills we overflowed, the beers we drank, the companies founded, the companies shattered, the great VIP equalizer (our crappy folding chairs), the electric ghosts we wrangled, the honesty we encouraged, that charming AC unit, the riff raff we kicked out of the yard, the old as hell gear we kept running by some magic, the lure of inventive catwalk design, ever creative column use, the artistic freedom, and the comps with a wink. “No, Danspace is downstairs,” “Yes, Poetry Project is still here,” “No, Richard does not work here any more,” “Yes, this is still a functioning church,” “No, actually we’re the Incubator Arts Project–” and we had a hell of a time.

And we’ve learned this much: Go make your work. Stop being a dick. Be a seriously good person to everyone in that room spending any of their time to make your crazy fever dream a reality. Because none of us HAVE to be there and many of us won’t be soon due to circumstance or choice, so be the best you can while you’ve got the mic. No one is getting famous or paying off their MFA from this pursuit of happiness, and we’ll all fight so it can be otherwise, but in the meantime be one of the good guys. Maybe try to show up to a stranger’s show once in a while. Theater only works if you show up. Spaces only thrive if you empower them with your strongest work.

So let’s strike this show and make room for the next one. See ya at the Starr, the Brick, Dixon Place, The Kitchen, New York Live Arts, Abrons Arts Center, HERE, PS122, New Ohio, Roulette, Cloud City, Silent Barn, the Stone, the Chocolate Factory, Soho Rep, the Invisible Dog, La Mama, NYTW, Coil, UTR, Prelude, Irondale, Danspace, Poetry Project, and any number of places that we’ve neglected to mention and any number of places that will pop up to continue this work in the future.

It’s been good.

Thank you to everyone who supported us along the way, bringing their work or filling a seat or lending a hand. We will never ever be able to fully express our gratitude and respect to the fantastic and ferocious Mimi Johnson who is the only reason we could make that initial leap and stay as long as we did. Last but not least, a final, huge, unending thank you to Richard Foreman who had the bright idea to leave the kids alone in the room.

- The Incubator Arts Project

Manuscript remains