Often we think of postcards as cheap, cheesy, innocuous items — printed pictures that crack a joke, offer an idealized version of a place, give us a snippet of experience. But postcards, as popular reflections of our society, have a darker history as well. Consider the ones made in the US from photographs of lynchings, with cheerful messages handwritten on the reverse, or, in the case of an upcoming Swann auction, postcards made by the Nazis to publicize their Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition.
“Degenerate art” was a designation given by the Nazis to works of art that they saw as violating their nationalistic program. Although de facto the term has sometimes come to be used as a catchall for modernist art, it had, in its time, a very specific, insidious meaning. As Michael Blum wrote in a review for Hyperallergic earlier this year:
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 …. 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.
In light of this, it’s interesting to look at the upcoming Swann lot, which consists of five original postcards advertising a Berlin version of the Entartete Kunst show (the original took place in Munich in 1937, traveling thereafter around Germany and Vienna), a broadside for the exhibition, and five photographs of Julius Lippert, state commissioner of Berlin, at the March 3, 1938, opening. The postcards, apparently shot by Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler’s chief photographer, are notably simple: three of them show individual “degenerate” artworks, one the building’s exterior, the last an installation view. Aside from a consistent “Austellung ‘Entartete Kunst'” (Degenerate Art Exhibition) caption, there is no editorializing. This is very different from the text at the exhibition itself, which made fun and jeered at the artworks on view; versions of the show after Munich also displayed “the price museums had paid for paintings or sculpture (interestingly, without adjusting for the overinflated currency of Weimar Germany),” the Schwann listing notes.
The Nazis, one supposes, fell into the usual trap: they expected everyone to see it their way, no added explanation or convincing necessary. These disgusting, offensive artworks would speak for themselves. Today they still do — only they’re telling a vastly different story.
The Degenerate Art Show postcards, broadside, and photographs will be sold together, as lot 133, in Swann Auction Galleries’ Vernacular Imagery, Photobooks, & Fine Photographs sale, on December 11, 10:30am.