Magazine article Artforum International

Point of No Return

Magazine article Artforum International

Point of No Return

Article excerpt

WHEN I WENT TO SEE "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937" at the Neue Galerie in New York, I found a line snaking from the museum's Eighty-Sixth Street entrance and around the corner onto Fifth Avenue. I joked to my neighbor that it was like waiting to see the enormously popular, Nazi-organized namesake exhibition. Crass humor aside, I expected to enjoy the show, which featured National Socialist artthe "degenerate" work of such artists as Max Beckmann and George Grosz. But I came away unsettled. I was, prepared for an exploration of Nazi aesthetic politics, not for a presentation geared to elicit sympathy for German museums.

As the opening wall text explained, the National Socialists removed more than twenty thousand artworks from state-owned museums. "The altered and. even distorted faces of important museum collections, the irretrievable losses of art, and legal relationships The misfortune of inanimate objects under the Third Reich is not a tragedy commensurate with genocide. that are still disputed today are some of the lamentable effects," the text continued. If the tenor of this assertion seemed slightly off--its lugubriousness suggesting a lath of critical distance--a more discordant note was struck in a hallway that doubled as .a narrow gallery. Here, viewers encountered a juxtaposition that vividly evoked the context of persecution. On one wall was a photomural showing visitors queued up m see the show in Germany circa 1937; on the opposite wall, another pho-tomura I showed Jews arriving in Auschwitz-Birkenau. [found the implied equation of Jews transported to death camps and artworks- purged from German museums disturbing. Even if the campaign against art may have paved the way for that against people, the misfortune of inanimate objects under the Third Reich is not a -tragedy commensurate with genocide. I could not help but recall Stephanie Barron's landmark 1991 show, whose title, "Degenerate Art': The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany," signals both the similarity and a key difference between the exhibitions: Barron's "avant-garde" may refer to art or artists, whereas curator Olaf Peters's "modern art" focuses unambiguously on objects.

My unease grew in a large gallery that also sported photographs as wallpaper. This time, the pristine Dresden of 1935 could be seen opposite the ruins of Dresden after the 1945 firebombing. Now what was I supposed to think? That the suffering of the Jews and other persecuted groups was comparable to that of the Germans? Walter Hahn's photograph of a statue gazing down on the devastated city was used to bear witness against the Nazis for bringing about the destruction of the very culture they championed, as evidenced by the red swastika that someone (the historical record does not indicate who) painted onto the original transparency. 1 failed to discern the swastika in this black-and-white rendition, initially mistaking the image for a very similar photograph of the same view by Richard Peter, which is iconic in Germany and (as historian Steven Hoelscher has shown) has served a gamut of agendas, including, notoriously, the neo-Nazi revisionist emphasis on German victimhood. Why would the curator, who was surely aware of the fraught multivalence of this view, choose to give it such prominence? …

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