“DEGENERATE ART”: THE FATE OF THE AVANT-GARDE IN NAZI GERMANY
at the Art Institute
The modernist art of our century is largely about the ways in which each individual is unique. Artists, free to reinvent artistic form and language in whatever terms they wish, create unusual and unique worlds. The viewer, confronted with imagery unlike any previously seen, finds his eyes and imagination challenged, finds his own uniqueness appealed to. Becoming absorbed in the fully realized personal vision of another inevitably makes each viewer more aware of his own particular ways of seeing and thinking.
Political struggles are often decided according to which group is strongest rather than on the merit of ideas. The individuals in many political groups are encouraged to think and act alike, to subsume their individuality to the will of the crowd. In the most extreme cases one’s identity is determined first and foremost by the group.
It should come as no surprise then that a totalitarian regime would mount an attack on modern art. If the goal of such regimes is a populace that does not think for itself and is easy to control, any expression that reminds a person of his existence as a particular individual with particular traits, rather than as a member of the group, is a threat to the power and authority of the state.
The Nazis began their attack on modern art early, in 1933, the year they came to power. They had a special interest in art and culture; some high officials were artists and collectors, and Hitler himself was a failed painter. In his documentary The Architecture of Doom (at the Film Center through the middle of August in conjunction with this exhibit), Peter Cohen argues that the Nazis saw their mission as essentially hygienic–there were certain “diseases” of the “body of the Volk” that needed to be eradicated. So they murdered many millions of their own citizens and banned modern art, firing its practitioners from their jobs and sometimes forbidding them to work.
A five-man commission toured German museums, confiscating modern works; more than 16,000 were seized, some to be put in storage, some sold abroad, and many thousands burned. In 1937 about 650 such works were presented in an exhibit in Munich titled “Degenerate Art.” They were hung in a cluttered and haphazard manner; derogatory slogans (“German farmers–a Yiddish view”) were written on the walls; some abstract pictures were hung sideways. More than two million people attended in Munich, where the show was free, after which it toured other German and Austrian cities. It was probably the best-attended exhibit of modern art ever.
Stephanie Barron, a curator at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, has located about 200 of the works in the Munich show. Some 175 of these are included in the exhibit she organized, which is at the Art Institute through September 8. A series of rooms documenting various aspects of the original exhibit and its period leads to rooms in which the artworks are installed. No attempt has been made, thankfully, to replicate the original installation. Instead, the works are mounted reasonably far apart against plain walls so they can be viewed with the respect they deserve.
And they do deserve respect, for this is an exhibition whose aesthetic quality is extraordinarily high. Credit is due not to the Nazis but to the German museum curators who preceded them–and who were dismissed from their jobs by the Nazis. Here are the best of famous German artists (Beckmann, Kirchner, Marc, Nolde), equally famous foreign masters who worked in Germany for many years (Chagall, Feininger, Kandinsky, Klee, Kokoschka), and some superb lesser-knowns, such as Christian Rohlfs.
One of my favorite painters in the show, Emil Nolde, was himself a Nazi–which proves that party membership didn’t protect one from persecution and that artistic talent doesn’t guarantee probity in other spheres. Yet Nolde’s art is as challenging and as individualistic as any in the exhibit. The artist cited his 1909 The Last Supper as a turning point in his career, a “milestone . . . in the change from optical, external stimuli to values of inner conviction,” and it is an amazing painting. Odd and striking yellows and greens are applied thickly and sensually, so that one’s eye is almost immersed in the paint. While the faces are distinguished from each other by differences of feature and expression, they are not nearly as individuated as characters would be in a Renaissance view of this scene. Instead each face harbors a swirl of color and line, an almost chaotic field of undifferentiated forms, which leads the viewer inward, toward some deep, ineffable experience of primal feeling and primal form. For Nolde, as for many 20th-century artists, the earlier ideal of art as an imitation of nature held little interest: “A wax figure confoundingly lifelike causes nothing but disgust. A work becomes a work of art when one reevaluates the values of nature and adds one’s spirituality.”
In place of the three-dimensional perspectives, illusions of depth, and precise delineations of objects of earlier painting styles, Nolde gives us an aggressive, almost assaultive surface. His colors are both bright and deep; they simultaneously seem to shine out from the canvas and suggest unseen depths, a level of spirituality lying just behind the visible that cannot be rendered optically. In Flower Garden X, the deep purple at first seems luminous and radiant, but the more one stares at the picture, the more profoundly inward, mental, and not-of-this-world the colors become. In Hultoft Farmhouse the sky confronts the eye with a swirl of color that is a world in itself: deep, mysterious, almost infinite, and brimming with an ineffable spirituality–yet also sensuous, almost untouchable, a celebration of texture.
Apparent contradictions such as these inform most of the nonabstract pictures in the show. These contradictions go back at least as far as Paul Cezanne and characterize much of the best modernist art. Such works are constructed in the form of a paradox out of the continual tension between pairs of contradictions, and the viewer is encouraged to perceive this work that asks questions rather than answering them with an engaged and active mind, a mind encouraged to come to its own conclusions. One tension central to representational painting that’s post-Cezanne is the conflict between the picture as an image of things in the external world and as a representation of the artist’s subjectivity and imagination; a related tension is set up between the image as record of outer reality and the image as a celebration of the design possibilities of paint itself. Thus in Lovis Corinth’s Child in a Crib and The Trojan Horse, there is a powerful tension between natural forms and the somewhat diffused, painterly manner in which they are depicted; Christian Rohlfs’s Village is a brilliant explosion of color and form, with angular red roofs colliding with abstract lines above and below them. The viewer is encouraged to question himself about the relationship between objective and subjective seeing, the balance in each of us between inner and outer realities.
Rohlfs was sometimes called the “oldest expressionist,” and many of the painters in this show belong to one of expressionism’s two main wings. Die Brucke (“The Bridge”), a group organized in 1905, took as a central tenet the abandonment of naturalistic representation for the kinds of expression made possible by deliberate distortion of color and form. Two of its founders, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Karl Schmidt-Rotluff, are well represented in this exhibit; Kirchner’s pictures, with their startling color contrasts and dramatic use of line, are particularly intense. Expressionism’s other wing, Der Blaue Reiter (“The Blue Rider”), included artists such as Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky, who eventually moved to total abstraction. Klee’s interest in what he called the “furthest flights” of his imagination produced pictures that are their own unique little worlds. His pictures in this show are not yet completely abstract; representational elements in them are imaginatively transformed, offering the viewer the chance to contemplate daily experience by stepping outside it.
In abstraction, the modernist contradiction between inner and outer is recast as a tension between the expected and the unexpected, and the viewer is placed on a kind of mental knife edge between the known and the unknown. This is true of the works of Kandinsky, who is for me, along with Nolde, the greatest painter in the show. In his Composition “Silence”, circles, lines, and polygons–forms that might seem utterly ordinary on their own–are juxtaposed musically, symphonically, pulsating with a previously unheard rhythm. Kandinsky’s shapes, inspired in part by biology, or geometry, also manage to look like things that are totally new, like words in a new language being combined with an utterly new grammar.
Confronted with such imagery, the careful viewer will find his own mind set in motion. Whether one identifies with the artist’s subjective vision, or is sent off on a flight of one’s own imagination, or begins to think about issues like the relationship of the inner mind to the natural world, one becomes more thoughtful, more inspired, and more individual by contemplating such works.
Another quality that much of this art has in common is its extreme sensuality. This is not a question of erotic content, of which by present standards there is little, but rather of the way paint, color, and form are used. The surface of a Nolde, a Marc, a Kokoschka is alive with a bright chaos of swirling shapes. The viewer’s eye, set adrift because of the lack of conventional perspective, is invited to travel this way and that. With no single direction the correct one, the eye is encouraged to choose its own, constantly excited by the richness of color and shape, and freed rather than directed in its movement. If many earlier painting styles used perspective in a hierarchical manner, directing the viewer’s attention toward the central figure, and “truth,” of the Christ or a king, this work has a democratic expansiveness worthy of the diverse democratic movements of the modern age. But the unabashed sensual delight that results from such work also stimulates the darker elements of the psyche, the irrational, the unconscious, reminding the viewer of the myriad possibilities of the self and soul.
It would seem inevitable that the Nazis would seek to suppress such art. But no group is completely homogeneous at first, and in 1933 some prominent Nazis argued that Nolde and others had created a genuinely “Nordic” art; they were soon silenced when Hitler decreed what proper Nazi art would be. Presumably too some of the Nazi vilification resulted from a genuine failure to understand new forms, a problem that remains with us. But perhaps the best insight into the Nazi attitude toward art can be gained from a study of the reproductions in the catalog and in the documentation rooms of Nazi-approved art. (Judging art from reproductions is a bad idea, however this work is generally unavailable for public viewing.)
Consider the various nude sculptures, such as Arno Breker’s Readiness. A large-boned, muscular male nude looms above us, with a body seemingly more perfect than any that could be gained through years in the gym. Its debt to classical sculpture suggests that the ideal it represents is an eternal one, to which we must aspire but that we may not judge, while its exaggerated proportions seem a mixture of frightening fierceness and borderline kitsch. Such blemishless bodies are stripped of all individualizing defect, stripped of their singularity as specific humans to which the viewer might respond as an individual. Instead, they are archetypes, with abstract titles like Readiness and Comradeship, “worthy” of Hitler’s call for an “eternal” art that would express supposedly immutable German values.
Historian George L. Mosse, in his excellent catalog essay, refers to this official style as presenting “beauty without sensuality.” Sensuality is dangerous to any movement that aspires to totalitarian control of the populace, for it opens the individual to both pleasure and uniqueness–even to the pleasure of uniqueness–as well as to uncertainty, to the hidden and uncontrollable forces of the unconscious. The Nazis of course had to attack music as well, mounting a 1938 “Degenerate Music” exhibit and banning everything from the 12-tone music of Schoenberg to jazz. In one of the exhibit’s documentation rooms, Nazi-banned and Nazi-approved music can be compared on headphones. The official Nazi songs display a regularity, a certainty, an almost mechanical quality that “stirs” one only in the most superficial sense of the word; a song from Ernst Krenek’s jazz opera Johnny Strikes Up has irregular rhythms and a complex, multilayered texture that cannot be easily grasped at first. Its lilting, almost aggressive sensuality can also be found in the other examples of banned popular and jazz music.
If unabashedly sensual art and music puts us in closer touch with our bodies and with our unconscious desires and drives, the official works may well have alienated viewers from their bodies and their souls by placing before them inhumanly perfect bodies, scenes, and sounds that bore no relation to the complexities and contradictions of a complete human being. But this is precisely the point: a populace subservient to an official vision that stresses one ideal for all is easy to control, ready to “follow orders.”
The official art also suggests that another feature characterizing Nazism was an utter failure of the imagination. Hitler’s own art, depressingly flat and literal, included precise and detailed drawings of architecture. The official art too evinces an obviousness that suggests it is no more than what it seems, as if the movement as a whole was afraid to confront the mysterious, the unknown, afraid of any experience that did not restrict itself to one meaning, one value, one idea. (All those “patriots” who combine pride in our nation with a declaration that we should be a single people should remember the Nazi slogan Ein Reich, ein Volk, ein Fuhrer–“One empire, one people, one leader.”)
Consider by contrast two of the “degenerate” portraits. Beckmann’s Self-Portrait With Red Scarf is hung alongside Oskar Kokoschka’s Old Man. They are both frontal portraits, but otherwise they could not be more different. The “old man’s” eyes confront us directly, and we stare into them, through them to his soul, as sometimes happens when viewing a Rembrandt. Yet when we reach this “other” place beyond the painting’s surface, it seems oddly characterless, empty, suggestive of a void. It’s as if we are facing the central contradiction of existence, between life and death–and we have reached that contradiction not by having it telegraphed obviously via surface form but through a slow, imaginative viewing of the picture.
Beckmann paints himself looking upward and to the right; his body seems trapped in its own lines and by its somewhat confining background. His expression suggests a range of emotions: a struggle against confinement, a desire to see beyond the present, but to a real future, to a future struggle, not to death. The contradiction here is between the struggle for individual freedom and self-assertion and the forces of confinement. Yet both pictures, by suggesting specific qualities and human complexities in their subjects, also make the viewer more aware of his humanity.
Another possible motive behind the Nazi suppression of modern art occurred to me while I was looking at a hideously powerful series of prints called War, by World War I veteran Otto Dix. Though grotesque, they are presumably true to his own experience of the war; how strange, I thought, for the Nazis to ban these, when they themselves were to create far more horrible images only a few years later. But of course one common reason behind an attack on another is that we recognize in that other the qualities we most fear in ourselves. Hitler condemned modern art as “misshapen,” but what finally is more “misshapen” than Hitler himself? Insofar as this art refers to the unconscious, the unknown, the Nazis had every reason to fear it, for it gave imagery to the dark forces they wished to act on without acknowledging or naming.
To give an image or a name to such forces is to bring them into the daylight; the Nazis wished to create a culture that was essentially antiintellectual, based on action rather than thought.
One troubling aspect of the Art Institute’s show is that in certain subtle ways it helps to perpetuate the comforting notion that the Nazis were so different from us as to be almost a separate species. The monumentality of Nazi crimes justifies this view, but if we can dismiss the Nazis as Other, then we can stand apart from them, judge them, appreciate the art they condemned, chuckle at the art they praised, and go on to the next event. But an examination of our own present reveals small but frightening echoes of the Nazi mind and Nazi crimes.
While the catalog makes passing reference to the current art-censorship debate, it’s interesting to note that the Art Institute in no way acknowledges its own dishonorable role in one of the first and worst of the recent spate of incidents. When nine Chicago aldermen accompanied by police removed the David K. Nelson painting of the late Mayor Washington in ladies’ underwear from the School of the Art Institute, the institute neither protested nor prosecuted, but actually apologized for the picture and promised never to display it again. If the present exhibition has any lessons, one should be that freedom of expression goes hand in hand with other freedoms and must always be protected. As Heinrich Heine is quoted on one of the show’s videos, “Where books are burned, people are burned.”
Other aspects of the Art Institute’s presentation are also disquieting. Perhaps most condemnable is the TV commercial for the show that’s now running. In a somewhat blaring voice, an announcer informs us that the Nazis banned this art; the spot ends with jackboots and martial music and an announcer saying, “This time, attendance is not mandatory.” Sensationalizing the show based on the Nazi hook rather than on the art’s aesthetic merit and treating the Nazi movement itself as some kind of kitschy joke seem particularly wrongheaded.
Worse, in some of the “art” rooms the sound track from videos playing one or two rooms away is audible. If the crowds in the show are fairly quiet, it’s impossible to view certain paintings without hearing, repeated every few minutes, the distant voices of Goebbels or Hitler. The materials in the documentation rooms provide a useful and interesting context for the art, but surely this kind of intrusiveness, with its weird echoes of the Nazi’s own defamatory installation of this art in Munich, is carrying contextualization much too far. As instructional videos and their sound tracks intrude increasingly into museums, curators need to find methods (separate enclosed rooms, headphones, silent videotapes) to prevent those who wish to truly view the art from being subjected to the unwanted sound that increasingly permeates our culture.
I have several smaller quibbles, none of which alone might be worth mentioning, but combined they suggest a disturbingly unbalanced presentation. For example, the documentation rooms come first–one must walk through them to get to the art, so one is encouraged to first learn about the Nazis and only then see the art. The interested viewer might do well to skip right to the paintings, saving the documentation for later or for another visit. And though the Munich installation is not replicated, the ordering of the rooms is. Less than a third of the works from the original show are presented, so what is to be gained from following the Nazi ordering? Why not group the works of each artist together, answering the Nazi attack on individual personhood with an aggressive reassertion of it? As it is, one must go to four different rooms to find the five paintings by Christian Rohlfs. Finally, the highly informative catalog provides endless documentation of the Nazi supression and precious little information on the artists’ aesthetics. The artists’ biographies are useful, and the color reproductions are excellent, but the catalog as a whole is more about the Nazis than about the art.
Taken together, these items suggest an exhibit in which the balance has shifted away from presenting the art as it issued from the authentic voices of the individual makers. One might even conclude that the Art Institute staff think the main interest in this art is that the Nazis attacked it. If so, then one hopes they learn one of the show’s lessons–that when politicians enter an art institute to remove a painting they find offensive, it is the institution’s duty to resist. Meanwhile, let us hope that the Art Institute finds some of the artists in this exhibit of sufficient merit to warrant one-person shows outside of the Nazi context. Indeed, only three of the artists represented have ever had solo shows at the Art Institute.
Nonetheless, this is a superb show, of high aesthetic merit, and of immense value for the social and political issues it raises. For instance, a close study of the documentation rooms and the catalog suggests that there are disturbing echoes of what the Nazis did in present attempts to suppress art. In the Munich show the prices paid for the works by the state-supported German museums from which the Nazis had seized them were placed prominently on the wall next to each, along with a large sticker that read “Paid for by the taxes of the German working people.” This protest against the “waste” of taxpayer dollars is absurd when one recalls that it came from the same folks who were arming the country in preparation for World War II. While our present situation is not truly comparable, it’s troubling that most of the politicians now protesting certain government-funded art are supporters of things like tobacco subsidies and the B-1 bomber. The protest against Mapplethorpe began merely as a protest against government funding of homoerotic art; some of the attackers argued that they understood this art had a right to be shown–they merely didn’t think the government should be funding it. Yet only a short time later the director of a museum showing Mapplethorpe found himself a defendant in a criminal trial.
One great lesson of this show for me is the need for greater tolerance in us all. Reading that Goebbels called this art “garbage,” I was reminded of my own snap judgments when wandering into exhibits of new art that at first glance looked particularly ridiculous. Reading of Hitler’s attack on then-current art buzzwords, or of Goebbels’s banning of all art criticism in 1936, I was reminded of my own impatience with some recent hard-to-fathom art writing. This is not to say that there isn’t much poor work and poor writing around, only that all should be viewed with tolerance, consideration, and respect. Only then can one hope to see beyond one’s immediate prejudices and sometimes ignorance. If the hallmark of Nazi society was its enforced conformism, what should be one of the glories of ours is its diversity, of both individuals and groups.
The exhibition catalog traces precedents to the Nazi attack on art back to the late 19th century and a book by the German Jewish physician Max Nordau called Entartung (“Degeneration”), in which he argued, in the words of Mosse’s catalog essay, that “modern artists . . . were incapable of reproducing nature because they had lost the faculty of acute observation and painted instead distorted and irregular forms mirroring their own nervous deformities and stunted growth.” A whole series of attacks by Germans on modern art followed; parallels can be found between certain of Hitler’s statements and attacks by critics decades earlier. Similarly, German nationalism and racial pride, already strong in the 19th century, helped lead to the Nazi horror.
But it needs to be pointed out, as the catalog and exhibit do not, that such attacks also occurred much earlier and outside Germany–and of course have continued to the present day. We must reject not only the Nazi as Other but also the German as Other. There is a wonderful 1846 British cartoon, “Turner Painting One of His Pictures,” that shows a rotund J.M.W. Turner standing next to a bucket labeled “yellow,” about to apply to his canvas a large mop. In the Munich “Degenerate” show a wall blurb next to a painting of Rohlfs’s read: “Christian Rohlfs’s painting instructions: Take one meter of canvas, squeeze out the contents of various large tubes of paint all over it, vigorously smear the whole thing, stretch, and place in a frame.” One obvious comment is that the Nazis had no sense of humor, particularly when compared to the British–a sign perhaps of their own “misshapen” form and “stunted” growth. The larger point is that their attacks were wholly unoriginal; human ignorance and human intolerance have a long and universal history. A member of a French exhibition jury viewing an early painting Cezanne had done with a palette knife remarked that it was painted not only with a knife but also with a pistol; three decades later it was a German curator who purchased the first Cezanne ever bought by a museum.
One can go back further still and find the pope in 1325 issuing a bull against “delight” in “indecent melodies”–and he was quoting the fifth-century Christian philosopher Boethius. More recently the Ayatollah Khomeini banned most music in Iran, on the grounds that it sapped “the virility of our youth.” There is a common thread here of course, which is that it is in the interest of, perhaps even essential to, totalitarian social structures to suppress individual sensual delight. Sensuality is dangerous; it reminds the viewer of the possibility of autonomous pleasure and autonomous will.
The interested viewer might have a look at Turner’s very great Valley of Aosta: Snowstorm, Avalanche, and Thunderstorm in the Art Institute’s permanent collection. Seeing it at a glance from afar, one can imagine how someone unfamiliar with Turner’s style might view it as out-of-control, randomly applied paint, how someone with the limited imagination of Hitler–who apparently viewed paintings as only the literal record of what the painter saw–might consider it the result of some “defect” in eyesight. But viewed with care, it reveals itself as an intricately organized network of tiny lines and spots of light, bursting with a radiant sensuality, immeasurably varied and swirlingly alive.
Another lesson of this exhibit, found in part in those aspects of the presentation I find objectionable, concerns the difference between art and politics. All good art presents some point of view, a vision of the world or an alternative world. But not all art is, in the narrow sense of the word, political. Political movements can certainly give rise to aesthetic worldviews; in late-15th-century Florence the monk Savonarola began preaching against Renaissance decadence, and the painter Botticelli is thought to have become a follower. Some art historians even detect a shift in Botticelli’s style, to a less sensual and more austere vision, as a result. That works of art were said to have been burned in Savonarola’s “bonfire of the vanities” makes this example particularly pertinent. But the fascinating political questions that this show encourages one to consider–along the lines of “What did the Nazis suppress, and why did they suppress it?”–are fundamentally questions about group behavior, questions of how people behave at their worst when they are part of a crowd or a mob. Great art is expressive of the individual artist at his best, when he is seeing deeply and uniquely into the nature of things. As a consequence it encourages us to rediscover the depths of our own souls; it makes possible, through the deep encounter with the vision of another, a genuine expansion of the viewer’s consciousness. Such encounters can best occur in contemplative silence, far from the strident rants and mindless mass appeals of a Goebbels or a Hitler.