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It’s not often that a museum gets to directly respond to front-page, bolded-headline media coverage with an exhibition that both nourishes the public’s curiosity about the reported phenomenon and expands the perception of it as well. Deliberately or otherwise, Neue Galerie couldn’t have timed it better. The Manhattan-based museum of German and Austrian art is currently hosting Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937, the first US exhibition dedicated to the topic of “degenerate art” since a 1991 show at LACMA. The exhibition arrives in the middle of a drawn out and ongoing account of the largest discovery of lost “degenerate” works since their seizure from various institutions and collectors almost 80 years ago. Considering too the release of Monuments Men — George Clooney’s Hollywood ensemble spin on the World War II operations of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program — the Third Reich and its art historical agenda (of violent expropriation, destruction, and censorship) have been in the limelight to an unprecedented extent this past year.
All this noise certainly creates an amalgam of fortuitous context for the exhibition at Neue Galerie — and to successful effect: the show, which has regularly drawn lines out the museum’s doors, was recently extended by two months (now ending September 1). But such frequent media representation also risks mythologizing and losing sight of the specific historical determinations of degenerate art as it prevailed in prewar Nazi Germany, principally manifest in the spectacular 1937 Munich Entartete Kunst (the German term for “degenerate art”) show. It is precisely a sense and awareness of these historical determinations that Neue Galerie seeks to restore.
Easier said than done, perhaps. After all, an exhibition about an exhibition as nefariously dim-witted as the original Entartete Kunst is surely vulnerable from a number of angles. It’s fairly easy to imagine how a contemporary showing could lapse into an exhibitionist display of “degenerate artworks” in an attempt to crassly play their now-expired radical stature for effect, as though it hadn’t volatilized long ago. Such a risk, among others, is real — but perhaps the strongest facet of Neue Galerie’s show is its avoidance of such: it doesn’t settle and lazily display a sample of works that were once as mightily provocative as they are presently expensive, works that bear their originally subversive character like a feint trace of a previous life. Nor, as has been argued more recently, does the show arrogantly bask in the ironical reversal of the fate of “degenerate art” on the stage of history — that it’s precisely this art that’s been thoroughly acculturated, whereas Nazi-approved art is now generally derided as kitschy junk.
Rather, Neue Galerie makes a concerted effort to orient the scene of the 1937 Munich Entartete Kunst exhibition in a deliberate, vividly historicizing fashion. The show weaves a narrative relay between the modest tools of any old museum setup: painting, sculpture, timelines, abundantly informative wall text, video projection, and artifacts including vintage posters, brochures, monographs, and illustrated volumes. Together these materials establish a zone of vital interaction between the conceptual signification of the term “degenerate art,” the relevant paintings themselves, the greater historical context within which these works were embroiled (and literally interned), as well as future implications for cultural policies that in spirit or tone run parallel to the one that dominated under the Third Reich.
The result is a show as conscientious and diligently researched as it is simply good-looking. Highlights, albeit modest, include Max Beckmann’s larger-than-life (over 7’ tall) triptych “Departure” (1932–5), a deeply iconographic work begun during his expulsion from his Frankfurt professorship and finished before his forced emigration from Germany; impressive, svelte sculptural and design work by Bauhaus luminaries Mies von der Rohe and Oskar Schlemmer; a representative scan of the diverse modernist scenes of prewar Germany (it is perhaps not widely known that only Germans were represented in the original Entartete Kunst show); and a very well-done catalogue.
What’s crucial here is that Neue Galerie has suspended the use of “degenerate art” as a designation for all modernist art, instead coolly poking around the interior of its expanded meaning. The term was a belligerent instrument used as much to designate as to diagnose and destroy. It didn’t just condemn modernist formal experimentation; it was a totalizing emblem loaded with an assortment of judgments — moral, biological, political — that countersigned and cemented the larger ideological landscape of Nazi Germany. In the term’s folds lurk considerations for eugenics, racial anthropology, military fitness among youth, and spiritual acquiescence to a Fascist, bucolic chauvinism. All of which is to say, art labeled “degenerate” didn’t consist of a subversive or uncouth aesthetics that the Nazis found repellent on solely formal grounds — in fact there was, as Neue Galerie points out, some complicity precisely at the level of form between Fascism and modernism (Goebbels, for example, quite admired Emil Nolde’s Expressionist works). Rather, the perceived formal aberrance of “degenerate art” represented a prior and underlying “sickness” that was held up in relief against the Nazi ideal of good health.
The pseudo-scientific, pseudo-art-historical spectacle of this sickness/health polarity was prominently built into the functioning of the 1937 Entartete Kunst show. Organized by painter-politician Adolf Ziegler, the exhibition was originally designed as an appendix to the Grosse deutsche Kunstausstellung (the “great German art exhibition”), which, housed in the palatial, newly constructed Haus der deutsche Kunst, displayed all kinds of art personally sanctioned by Hitler and Goebbels: chiefly Greco-Roman, Nordic, and Prussian idealizations of humanity and its healthy relationship with an uncontaminated, fertile nature. The GdK was executed with all the triumphal pomposity of any other self-celebration undertaken by the Nazis (cf. Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, Triumph des Willens); in stark contrast, the Entartete Kunst exhibition — which ironically attracted four times as many visitors (two million total) than its tremendously more expensive sibling — was poorly lit, poorly spaced, intently defaced with bloated editorializing captions contemptuous of the work on display, as well as marked with jeering attempts at impersonation. For example, it made liberal usage, chiefly for its marquee display and brochure, of a typography that mimics the roughly hewn, crooked typeface often employed in German Expressionist design and film.
Neue Galerie tells the story of the interrelation of these two exhibitions in a gesture unattempted by previous museums tackling Entartete Kunst: several artworks from the GdK are displayed alongside the very “degenerate” pieces they were so dramatically identified against in 1937. These Nazi-sanctioned originals includes Ziegler’s renowned “The Four Elements” (which Hitler personally displayed at his Munich villa), a triptych representing figures of feminine vitality in a tone of deeply affected and antiquated pastoralism; a life-size cast of an “ideal” adolescent boy — large hands, straight nose, inoffensively compact phallus; several portraits of dour-looking Aryans, etc. At Neue, there’s no revanchist rotten-vegetable-hurling line placed before these more stultified, naturalist works or anything; rather, they inhabit the space like so many chess pieces, each finding a complement — sculpture for sculpture, bust for bust, triptych for triptych — in the “degenerate” camp. All the works feel open to the unique discernment of each museumgoer, who may render the aesthetic and/or historical relations between the two camps in whatever way she chooses.
Nonetheless, there is a sense, almost inevitably, that the “Nazi” and “degenerate” works are almost inextricably bound to one another, as opposites in a totalitarian value system organized by the ideologues of the Third Reich. This results in a limited perspective that offers the “degenerate” art as just that — a nondescript police lineup of “German modernisms,” and thus as prisoners or subjects, in a sense, of the Nazis’ judgmental diagnoses. At times this view eclipses the consideration of the works’ vivid prehistories (pre- and post-WWI, Weimar era, etc.), thereby training the eye away from a more immediate engagement with the various, and in some cases divergent or opposed, aesthetic movements featured in the show — such as the effusions of fluorescent color characteristic of the Blaue Reiter group or the social commentary and critical portraiture of the Neue Sachlichkeit.
In a word: by keenly saving a sense of the historical phenomenon of “degenerate art,” Neue Galerie risks losing a more complete sense of the actual works themselves. But, when one takes into account the museum’s pedigree as an institution firmly dedicated to exhibiting and educating about works just like these, apprehensions regarding this oversight all but evaporate. Neue Galerie’s agenda as advocate as well as repository for this cultural heritage is not only apparent in the permanent collection (nestled on the building’s second floor and itself prominently comprised of works once condemned as “degenerate”); it’s also legible in the interior design of the museum itself, redolent here and there of the likes of Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. This all lends the museum-going experience a curious immersiveness in the current of fin-de-siecle Vienna or Weimar-era Berlin — an atmosphere that bears a ticklish consonance with the artworks on display. Difficult to imagine a better setting in which to view them.
Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 continues at Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 1.