The Nazis had a perversely high regard for the arts. As early as 1933, Adolf Hitler's goons began a campaign against modern art, closing art schools, expelling modernist art teachers from German universities, and arresting and incarcerating scores of artists. Hitler, after all, was a failed artist who, as a young man, had been denied entry to the prestigious Royal Academy in Vienna--and he was going to get even for that slight.
By the mid-1930s, the Nazis were confiscating art from German museums, galleries, collectors and artists. Then, beginning in 1937, a major exhibit called Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), which featured the seized pieces, was presented in Munich and later in Berlin and attracted more than three million visitors. The intention of the show was to ridicule the pieces and to view them as "un-German."
That fateful show is partially re-created in a chilling exhibit now at the Singer Gallery. Left/Right: The Nazi Attack on Modern Art and Its Aftermath is one of the most intelligent and beautiful shows in memory. It should not be missed by anyone even vaguely interested in art--or, for that matter, world history.
Organized by highly regarded art consultant and curator Francine Haber, the Singer show uses scores of prints, paintings and drawings to explore the Nazi campaign against the modernists. The many rare and valuable artworks in this cogent survey were borrowed from a variety of sources, including local collectors Gerda and John Scott, Denver's Herbert Bayer Studio, the Montgomery Gallery of California's Pomona College, and the Denver Art Museum.
Left/Right is the last of three exhibits assembled as part of "The Beautiful and the Banned," a series at the Mizel Family Cultural Arts Center. An exploration of modern photographers oppressed by the Nazis and a traveling show featuring the work of cartoonist Art Speigelman have already been presented as part of the multi-media project, which will continue through May. On April 8, a panel discussion of censorship in contemporary art will be held at the Mizel's Schwayder Theatre. "There are many analogies to Nazi censorship today that range all the way across the political spectrum," notes Haber.
Left/Right begins with a text-panel discussion of the Nazi concept of "entartete kunst." Haber points out that by labeling art as "degenerate," the Nazis were able to create a public mandate for its destruction. "The show the Nazis presented proves that art, to some extent at least, is made by the receivers," she says. "The Nazis were seeing things in the art that's not there."
The first Entartete Kunst artists featured are those associated with the Der Blaue Reiter movement from Bavaria and the Berlin Sezession movement. Both were key to the development of early-twentieth-century German expressionism, the country's chief claim to fame when it comes to modern art. One of the most important early modern artists in Germany was Franz Marc, a Der Blaue Reiter founder whose 1913 woodcut on paper "Geburt der Wolfe (Birth of the Wolf)" incorporates cubism and futurism. The dense composition, all jagged lines and overlapping forms, still looks contemporary today. More simple and traditional, despite its awkwardly stilted sense of perspective, is the 1925 woodcut on paper "Family," a domestic scene by Sezessionist Gerhard Marcks.
Immediately following this small section is a large display featuring photo reproductions of the original Entartete Kunst show. Included is one of the oddest souvenirs imaginable--an original exhibition catalogue safely held in a Plexiglas display case. The catalogue has been promised as a gift to the DAM by its owner, Gerda Scott, who actually attended the show in Berlin.
Opposite the Entartete Kunst display are works by Nordic expressionists and by artists of the Die BrYcke movement, groups that were also significant in the establishment of German expressionism. These artists were often concerned with Nordic romanticism and might not, in that regard, seem to be pointedly anti-Nazi. In fact, Haber points out, because their work invoked a noble German past, they were originally embraced by the regime. Die BrYcke artists were collected by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and enjoyed popularity with Nazi youth groups. But they were clearly modernists and were especially open to the influence of non-European sources, especially tribal art--a major Nazi no-no. Not surprisingly, they were eventually declared "degenerate."
The mark of Africa, a popular source for avant-garde art at the beginning of the twentieth century, is clearly evident in the unforgettable "Frauenkopf III (Head of a Woman III)," a gorgeous and totemic 1912 woodcut on paper by Emile Nolde. Using thick black lines against a white paper background, Nolde creates a crude but elegant portrait. Also forsaking subtlety is Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Dancer With Raised Skirt," a woodcut on paper from 1909. Whereas Nolde refers to African art, Kirchner looks to Japanese prints for inspiration in this joyous and lyrical piece. (The personal toll of the Nazi campaign against him led Kirchner to commit suicide in 1937.)
Also in the Die BrYcke section is Kathe Kollwitz's marvelous 1923 lithograph "Kopf einer Frau (Head of a Lady)." This traditional figurative work was deemed degenerate simply because Kollwitz was Jewish. Nearby are two prints and a small sculpture by Ernst Barlach, whose work was labeled degenerate because he defended Kollwitz when she was fired from teaching in 1933. The punishment for Barlach's loyalty to his friend and peer was the demolition of his many public sculptures in Germany and the seizing of his studio. His wonderful sense for capturing movement is well expressed by the somewhat prescient "Der Wandernde Tod (Wandering Death)," a 1923 lithograph dominated by a skeleton wearing a cloak and using a walking stick. Though not meant as a commentary on the Nazis--it was created too early--the skeleton does provide an accurate symbol for the Third Reich.
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.)
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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.