Those 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.
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.
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.
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.