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Ironically, it was Jewish doctor of Hungarian descent that coined the term “degenerate art.” His name was Max Nordau. His book, Degeneration (1892) railed against the coming storm of modernity, and more importantly, the moral collapse associated with it. He cited the case of Oscar Wilde as just one example of this so-called moral decay and urged repression, even censorship to oppose what he felt were real dangers to European cultural and social institutions. William James, among others, thought it all a bit extreme, even comical, but Nordau and his views would find an audience; it would just take some time. It bears mentioning, too, that as the Dreyfus Affair (1894–1906) unfurled in waves of sordid, anti-semitism, Nordau, like many European Jews, became a fervent Zionist. Indeed, he co-founded the World Zionist Organization with Theodor Herzl in 1897.
Fast forward 40 years to 1937, and Nordau’s ideas, long out of fashion in most quarters, made their return, albeit in ways he might never expected. With Hitler now in power in Germany and the Reichskulturkammer (Reich Chamber of Culture) firmly entrenched as one of the leading propaganda organs of the Nazi party, the totally brutal and ham-fisted (and yes, stupid) reorganization of German cultural history began. This moment, which precedes the eventual looting of European art treasures by the Germans during the Second World War, is in part, the centerpiece of a new documentary film titled Hitler Versus Picasso And Others about the time period.
Narrated (in Italian) by Italian actor Toni Servillo and directed by Claudio Poli, the film somewhat drowsily recounts the madness of the Nazi’s quest to first sanitize and then steal the art of Europe. The ideological cleansing begins in Germany itself, where museums were pulled apart and all work not conforming to a newfangled notion of a bucolic Greco-Roman classicism were removed and confiscated. At the root of this were a virulent anti-semitism and a state organized propaganda effort that sought to portray, both to Germans and the world, a race-based cultural superiority.
This somewhat frenzied attempt of cultural gerrymandering culminates in two exhibitions in Munich in 1937. Better remembered, of course, is the Degenerate Art Exhibition in which mainly German “degenerate” art was haphazardly hung in darkened corridors amidst propaganda demeaning the work. Some of the artists included were Georg Grosz, Paul Klee, Emil Nolde (a fierce Nazi and anti-Semite), and Otto Dix.
The film does a particularly good job establishing the deep and perverse infrastructure involved in carrying off an exhibition like this. Using newsreel footage, interviews with art historians, curators, and even Hitler’s one-time neighbor, the film makes the case that the purging (read: theft) of art associated with Jewish artists, collectors, and intellectuals was just another step before the attempt to exterminate the Jews themselves while claiming their property and erasing every trace of their existence.
The second exhibition, which is central to “Hitler vs. Picasso” is The Great German Art Exhibition which occurred concurrently in Munich with the Degenerate Art Exhibition. Opening to great fanfare, the show emphasized the imagined pastoral qualities of German life and the German people and the racial purity of an unsullied German heritage. The exhibition consisted mostly of landscape paintings — Hitler’s favorite type of painting. While this all was insane, it needs to be pointed out that one artist, the sculptor, Rudolf Belling, had work in both exhibitions — a feat that defies even the polluted logic of the Nazi cultural overseers at the time.
The title of the film implies a battle of sorts, between Hitler and Picasso. In fact, there was no battle and Picasso’s place here is merely as a stand-in, a modern master emblematic of everything the Nazis claimed to have despised. Notably too, Picasso lived in relative comfort and safety during the Second World War, insulated mostly by his reputation. This stands in stark contrast to the heartbreaking stories given in the film of people who lost everything, including their lives. The film delves into several of these stories, and the interviews with surviving family members are both emotional and sobering.
Another, more modern thread is unwound in the film and that is the case of Cornelius Gurlitt whose father was one of the most important “art dealers” in the Third Reich. The elder Gurlitt was part of a large German cadre of art professionals who, for personal profit or professional advancement, directed stolen art works (and furniture, jewelry, and other property) to the Nazi leadership. Gurlitt kept many stolen (or “sold under pressure”) works himself, and his son inherited the art after his father’s death. A German tax inspector caught Gurlitt in 2010 on a train returning from Switzerland with a large amount of cash which prompted a further inspection of his home that turned up roughly 1,500 works of art. To whom they once belonged to and how they were obtained has been blurred by time. Yet as the film makes perfectly clear, whatever the work’s value is now, the ultimate price was paid by millions of innocent people, not all that long ago.
Hitler Versus Picasso And Others, directed by Claudio Poli, is now in wide release.