When Nazis Declared War on Modern Art

By Zeaman, John | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), March 17, 2014 | Go to article overview

When Nazis Declared War on Modern Art


Zeaman, John, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


ART REVIEW

DEGENERATE ART: THE ATTACK ON MODERN ART IN NAZI GERMANY, 1937

Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Ave. at 86th Street, Manhattan; 212-628- 6200 or neuegalerie.org.

Through June 30. 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Thursday through Monday.

Admission: $20, $10 students and seniors. Children under 12 are not admitted and those under 16 must be accompanied by an adult.

They came by the thousands, the men in suits, the women in ankle- length dresses and brimmed hats. They peered somberly at wild primitivist paintings and twisted, expressionist sculptures. They read wall text that said "This is how sick minds viewed nature," "An insult to German womanhood" and "Madness becomes method." Some, perhaps feeling the need for an antidote to the diseased art, walked across the park to see an exhibit of heroic Aryan realism.

The scene was Munich, the year 1937. The first exhibit, called Entartete Kunst or "Degenerate Art," ridiculed such artists as Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and George Grosz - all revered today. The other show, the "Great German Art Exhibition," was curated by a failed realist artist named Adolf Hitler and offered a slew of academic painters who are mostly forgotten today.

Now, Neue Galerie, the Manhattan museum devoted to Austrian and German expressionism, has mounted a show that documents this Nazi war on modernist art. The Nazis hated many things, but this particular initiative grew out of theories that compared expressionism and surrealism to the art of the mentally ill. Such art, the Nazis insisted, undermined the sanity of the culture and had to be banned and eradicated.

One of the earliest targets was the famed Bauhaus school of design, whose form-follows-function "International Style" was said to be overly influenced by Jews and communists. The school was forced to move twice before being closed by the Nazis in 1933.

Hitler's men also had reason to dislike Bauhaus teacher Paul Klee for his childlike, stick-figure compositions such as "The Twittering Machine," on view here. Klee was hounded until he fled for his former Swiss home. Some 17 of his pieces were seized for the "Degenerate Art" exhibit.

Klee was more fortunate than the great expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, a founder of the group Die Brucke (The Bridge), who operated in a style from Dresden that aimed to bridge modernism and the art of the past. They revived the great German tradition of woodcuts, expressionist versions of which can be seen here.

A life destroyed

None of this earned Kirchner any points with the Nazis. His group portrait of Die Brucke captures their strange position in Nazi Germany - they are serious, professorial-looking artists, but painted in a dark purplish palette that conveys something of their subterranean status. …

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