A Thousand Words

Even artists whose chief goal was capturing the spirit of the modern city managed to tick off the Nazis. In a section devoted to their works, Haber highlights two pieces by George Grosz lent to the Singer by the DAM and never before publicly exhibited. Grosz was a satirist who lampooned German society and was thus an easy Nazi target. In the 1928 ink-on-paper drawing "The City," Grosz places a chubby man walking his small dog on a street crowded with other figures, some represented by their faces only. In the 1934 watercolor "Boy and Girl," he shows a prostitute passing a working man on the sidewalk.

Lyonel Feininger was another artist interested in the city as a subject; however, his intention was not to make social commentary, but to capture the linear beauty of the buildings. In the exquisite little 1911 etching "Sonnenautgand in der Kleinstadt (Sunrise Over a Provincial Town)," Feininger uses various perspectives--a la cubism--to create a scene of a small square surrounded by buildings that look like they might tumble into themselves at any moment.

Though born in America, Feininger spent most of his life in Germany, where he built his art career. Even in the face of the Nazi assault on modern art, he was reluctant to leave his adopted country. But the Nazis had other ideas. Storm troopers were sent to search Feininger's house and seize his paintings; he was officially "accused" of being Jewish; and more than 300 of his works were removed from German museums. Despite having spent more than fifty years in Germany, Feininger returned to the United States in 1937, only months before his work was thrown into the Entartete Kunst exhibition.

Like Feininger, Karl Schmidt-Rotluff used awkward angles suggestive of vertigo in order to capture recognizable images. This distortion of perspective was seen by the Nazis as being akin to deformity and was therefore degenerate. Schmidt-Rotluff's charming "Haus mit Papplo (House With Poplars)," a 1913 woodcut on paper, features a trapezoidal picture of a hillside home partially hidden by the landscape. Like many of the other German expressionists in Left/Right, Schmidt-Rotluff uses black ink against white paper. This same approach, along with a shifting, quasi-cubist sense of three-dimensional space, is seen in Max Pechstein's wonderful 1923 woodcut on paper "Head of a Sailor."

Next up in Haber's exhibit is a small selection of pieces connected with that famous art and architecture school, the Bauhaus. And it's easier to comprehend the reactionary Nazi objection to this kind of work than to the fairly conservative expressionist art featured so far. The Bauhaus artists were abstractionists and were thus further down the modernist road than were the other expressionists. If the Nazis laughed at expressionism, abstraction made them furious. Hitler himself singled out for ridicule such abstract movements as cubism, futurism and dadaism. Wassily Kandinsky, a painting professor at the Bauhaus, was particularly pilloried for his dada excesses. In fact, Kandinsky was not a dadaist, but this was a trifling matter to the non-scholarly Nazis. Kandinsky is represented here by two pieces, most notably "Kleine Weiten (Small Worlds)," an exquisite woodcut on paper from 1922. Made up of a dense tangle of arching and swirling lines, the piece makes it clear why Kandinsky is considered the father of abstract expressionism.

The Bauhaus section also includes the first of many Herbert Bayer pieces in Left/Right. Most of the Bayers show up in the final section of the show, which examines the effect German emigres had on the development of modern art in America. Before we get there, though, Haber shows us a group of Picasso prints, among them both panels of "Sueno y Mentira de Franco (Dream and Lie of Franco)," a pair of etchings from 1937 that anticipate Picasso's famous anti-war masterpiece "Guernica." The Nazis stuck one Picasso in the Entartete Kunst show, while other of his works from German museums were carried off to Switzerland and sold there. (The Nazis might have hated modernism, but they weren't above cashing out important modern paintings for big money.)

In a final section devoted to European emigres, Haber focuses on works that were created in America after the war. By an accident of history, this is where the show incorporates the work of two local artists: Bayer, who spent more than thirty years in Aspen, and Roland Detre, who still lives in Denver. Though viewers may find the inclusion of Bayer old hat--his work is frequently exhibited in town--Haber has taken pains to include several works that have never been exhibited locally. In the 1939 oil on canvas "Clouds Wandering Through Valley," as well as in "Mountain of the Cyclops," another oil from 1954, Bayer melds his Bauhaus approach to abstraction with the newly discovered Colorado landscape.

Left/Right will leave viewers wanting more. But that's not because organizer Haber hasn't covered all the bases. It's because the story being told here is so important, and so relevant to the course of American art, that a small show like this can only begin to scratch the surface.

Left/Right: The Nazi Attack on Modern Art and Its Aftermath, through May 3 at the Singer Gallery, 350 South Dahlia Street, 399-2660.

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