Emil Schumacher, “Bombing Raid on a City” (“Bombenangriff auf eine Stadt”) (1946), woodcut, 30 × 42.7 cm (11 13/16 × 16 13/16 in.) (courtesy of Emil Schumacher Museum, Hagen, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn)

Inventur—Art in Germany, 1943-55 is a morally complex exhibition. The years that bunch between the two pegs of the date range were, after all, some of the most wretched in European history. In the early years, Nazis were killing Jews in death camps, bombing England, occupying France and Poland, and blockading the Soviets into fearsome starvation. In the later years, as West Germany lurched towards prosperity, East Germany increasingly tightened into a police state. No Monet in Provence, this.

The work on display is not that promoted by the Nazi regime — bland and muscled Übermenschen or hearty, flaxen-haired Fräuleins — but paradigmatic Modernism. This, in fact, the Nazis hated. They saw in Expressionism and abstraction a “perverse Jewish spirit,” as Joseph Goebbels named it, and culled all museum collections of Modernist artworks. In 1937, the Nazi party staged an exhibition called Entartete Kunst, or Degenerate Art, with what they had gathered. The artworks were hung higgledy-piggledy, without frames, and surrounded by mocking slogans in order to encourage an appropriately derisive response by its viewers. When the exhibition concluded, unsold artworks were burned. The artists were deemed enemies of the state. Many went abroad; some were sent to death camps; others went into “inner emigration,” as the introductory wall text explains, making art away from public life.

Willi Baumeister, “Untitled” (“Ohne Titel”) (1941), lacquer and pigment powder on wallboard, 29.2 × 20 cm (11 1/2 × 7 7/8 in.) (courtesy of Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, LG-341, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo by Kunstmuseum Stuttgart)

If you look at the biographies of the artists in the catalog, you’ll find that many also served in the Wehrmacht, or armed forces — in Poland, on the Eastern front, in the Luftwaffe. In other words, they were potentially complicit with the Third Reich. This raises questions. Because it was rejected by the Nazi regime in their desire to make Germany great again, does the production of Modernist art by these artists inoculate them from Nazi ideology? And if it doesn’t, how should we confront these works?

These questions are not explicitly broached in the wall text. Instead, we are referred to the more universalizing question of the role of art under a totalitarian regime. The “Inventur” of the exhibition title, drawn from a poem by Günter Eich, translates to “inventory.” In the context of what the museum calls a first-of-its kind exhibition, it conveys the literal sense of a list of surviving artworks from the period, suggesting the neutrality of a historical catalog.

Franz Krause, “Untitled” (“Ohne Titel”) (1941), lacquer on steel panel, 30.2 × 20.1 cm (11 7/8 × 8 in.) (courtesy of Kunstmuseum Stuttgart, LG-412, photo by Kunstmuseum Stuttgart)

Yet, as Eich’s poem makes clear, the word “inventory,” especially for a person in straitened circumstances, also has an emotional and metaphorical resonance. Eich lists his (meager) possessions, lingering on a “precious” nail, which, ominously, he keeps hidden. The reader begins to wonder about his motivations, but then he mentions his pencil, which he “love[s] the most.” In an instant, he reverts from soldier to poet. Inventur serves a parallel purpose, opening up the potential of empathy for these wartime artists and their compatriots, and the ways in which they coped in Nazi and post-WWII Germany, without the benefit of historical hindsight.

Some of the most compelling works are the ones in which artists make art from the means available to them. For instance, Willi Baumeister, Oskar Schlemmer, and Franz Krause found inspiration in their travails in a lacquer factory, secretly dabbling with their materials after work. Starting mostly with a black ground on metal or cardboard supports, the artists dripped and drizzled paint on the surfaces. Because of the way that lacquer paint levels and melds with the paint around it, the works are less about the indexical trace of the artist (as with Jackson Pollock’s roughly contemporary drip paintings) and more about the interaction of forms and colors. Baumeister’s luscious mixture of black paint and gold pigment and the capering pink and blue brachiform droplets by Krause feel like pure escapism (both are untitled, from 1941).

Erwin Spuler, “Bombed-Out Buildings” (“Zerbombte Häuser”) (1946/48), oil on plywood, 122 × 122 cm (48 1/16 × 48 1/16 in.) (courtesy of Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe, 2867, photo © bpk Bildagentur/Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe/Annette Fischer/Heike Kohler/Art Resource, N.Y.)

Somehow, however, the images in this show always seem to slide towards the sinister, even those that initially seem playful. For example, a lurching glissando of marbled red, blue, and cream lacquer by Schlemmer reads as an uncanny waterfall of blood. In K.O. Götz’s “Air Pump Studies/Luftpumpenstudie,”(1945) for which he used a bicycle pump to splat water-based paint onto paper, spikey forms suggest the ominous presence of monsters, somehow more powerful in their watery transparency.

K. O. Götz, “Air-Pump Study” (“Luftpumpenstudie”) (1945), watercolor on paper, 28 × 16 cm (11 × 6 5/16 in.), Private collection (© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn, photo by Dieter Klaas, Germany)

A similar shimmer between figuration and abstraction and making and unmaking is found in the many depictions of rubble. Erwin Spuler’s “Bombed Out Buildings/Zerbomte Häuser” (1946-48) at first appears to be a thickly painted tessellation in black and white. The eye is drawn to a small open space in the foreground, which emerges as a city square filled with leafless trees. At this point, the painting reveals itself as an aerial view of acres of bombed-out houses. Then, in a shift to yet another register of signification, the empty windows in the façades read as the eye sockets of skulls. “Destroyed Dresden/Zerstörtes Dresden” (1945-46), a series of drawings by Wilhelm Rudolph made after the Dresden fire bombings that almost totally destroyed the city, are rendered in harried dark lines, hatched and rehatched, until they threaten to break down into scribbles.

The parallel between destruction and abstraction is hard to escape here.  A woodcut by Emil Schumacher, “Bombing Raid on a City/Bombenangriff auf eine Stadt” (1946), strewn with simplified figures of airplanes and corpses and rubble, seems to provide the key to a number of other, more abstract landscape-format canvases in the exhibition, in which an assortment of amorphous forms are dispersed across a multi-colored ground. This seems to be the case in Willi Baumeister’s forcibly cheery “Growth of the Crystals II/Wachstum der Kristalle II (1947/52) as much as in Rupprecht Geiger’s more foreboding “Untitled/Ohne Titel”(1947).

The exhibition’s last room is devoted to the art of West Germany in the years immediately after the war, when prosperity was beginning to return. The rubbly shapes in the wartime abstractions return as a wallpaper motif designed by junger westen. Photographs of street scenes show neighborhoods restored to order, as if ruination had never visited. The mood is the uneasy euphoria after the last spasm of a stomach bug.

Wilhelm Rudolph, from the series Dresden Destroyed (Zerstörtes Dresden) (1945–46), pen and ink on paper (courtesy of Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, 1959-104, photo © bpk Bildagentur/Kupferstich-Kabinett, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden/Art Resource, N.Y.)

And like nausea, the questions linger. What is this art, if not a product of its time and place — and what is its time and place, if not one of the most profligate flowerings of evil in human history? While the exhibition proposes that we seek to understand and empathize with these artists, their biographies constantly nag at the moral centers of the brain. At times what I craved was not an inventory but a spreadsheet — a magical one capable of calculating the merits and demerits of an artist’s participation in and suffering under the Nazi war machine.

Of course, no such tool exists. We are left to grope, as always, towards the right course of action, towards what is the most fully human, and humane. In this time and this place, how do we respond?

Inventur—Art in Germany, 1943-55 continues at the Harvard Art Museums (32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts) through June 3.

Natasha Seaman is a professor of art history at Rhode Island College with a specialty in 17th-century Dutch painting.