The Great Escape
It's no exaggeration to say that American culture got its greatest boost ever from the rise of the Nazis in Europe in the 1930s and '40s. Hitler's hatred for modernism in the arts led many of the most important contemporary figures to flee the continent and seek safe haven in the United States. That explains why the center of gravity in the visual-arts world shifted from Paris to New York around 1940. The balance of power has changed little during the intervening half-century.
The effect of the Holocaust on the arts is now the subject of a magnificent, museum-worthy exhibit at the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center in Denver. Photography on the Eve of World War II and Beyond: Emigres From Central Europe is the first of three JCC shows planned on the topic. Coming next will be a look at Art Spiegelman's Maus, a series of comic books in which the Jews are depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats, followed by a show that looks at art that was outlawed by the Nazis.
The three exhibits are part of a larger series of events at the JCC that includes not only art shows but films, plays and musical performances. Organized under the lengthy if appropriate heading Entartete--The Beautiful and the Banned: Art, Music, Theatre and Film Forbidden by the Third Reich, the series, presented under the auspices of the Mizel Family Cultural Arts Center, is being substantially paid for by a grant from the Gill Foundation's Gay and Lesbian Outgiving Fund, along with additional funding from the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities.
The German word entartete means "degenerate" and was used by the Nazis to describe the 1937 exhibit Entartete Kunst ("Degenerate Art"), which was held in the Deutsche Haus der Kunst art museum in Berlin. The Deutsche Haus was the first monumental building completed by Hitler's favorite architect, Albert Speer. And it was no accident that Hitler led off his building spree by erecting an art museum: He was a frustrated painter himself who as a young man was denied entry to the Royal Academy in Vienna. It had taken decades, but der FYhrer was going to decisively settle the score.
Material for the original Entartete Kunst show included more than 700 works of art that had been gathered by Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels from a variety of sources, including mental institutions, prisons and the most important museums in Germany. The pieces seized from museums represented essentially every modern and abstract work then to be found in Germany's public collections. More than 40,000 people attended the show in Berlin and were encouraged to ridicule the paintings and sculptures on display. After the show closed, the confiscated museum pieces were trundled off to Switzerland and sold at auction. The rest was burned.
The Entartete Kunst show was only one salvo in the Nazis' attack on European art. In addition to taking art out of the museums, Hitler's legions also closed art schools and forbade some artists from exhibiting or even making art. "The photography show perfectly fits our aims in the Entartete series in that it combines first-rate art with a relevance to the Jewish experience," says Joanne Kauvar of the Mizel Center. That's true even though only one of the six photographers in Photography on the Eve of World War II was Jewish. "Even Aryans were forced to flee if they were modern artists," notes show organizer Jack Kunin.
Kunin is an art appraiser but has moonlighted in recent years as a freelance curator, putting together shows on Jewish culture at both the Mizel Museum and the JCC. He says the idea for this show was accidental. "I was asked to appraise some fifty photographs being given as a gift to the Denver Art Museum by Ginny Williams," Kunin says, "and at that time, I got to see her whole collection."
Williams, a prominent Denver patron and collector, was giving the DAM contemporary photographs by Joel-Peter Witkin and Wes Kennedy. But as Kunin discovered, her collection also included hundreds of photographs that spanned the history of photography, among them "many things that fit the theme of the effect of the Nazis on the arts." Kunin culled the Williams collection, eventually choosing works from six photographers who immigrated to the United States at the start of World War II: Herbert Bayer, Ilse Bing, T. Lux Feininger, Gyorgy Kepes, Andre Kertesz and Lisette Model.
The show, which has been stunningly installed by commercial photographer Dana McGrath, begins with panels outlining the relevant history and giving the viewer a brief biography of each photographer. The first photos in the exhibit are two works by Andre Kertesz, the lone Jew in the show, who before his death in 1985 was renowned as a key figure in the development of humanist photojournalism. "Kertesz was a photojournalist, but his work was not documentary, so he could never have gotten it into Life magazine," says Kunin. Born in 1894 in Budapest, Kertesz moved in 1925 to Paris, where, according to Kunin, he was interested in exploring the artistic potential of photography through "dreamlike, mystical and Jewish imagery." These qualities are shown off to full effect in "Chagall and His Family," a black-and-white gelatin silver print from 1933. Kertesz shot the scene of Mr. Chagall and two unidentified female relatives from above, which alters the perspective. "It's composed like a Chagall painting," notes Kunin.
Kertesz came to New York in 1937 and stayed for the rest of his life, though his work was little known in this country until he was rediscovered in the 1970s. His photos from that period continued the poetics of the early years, as can be seen in the second print displayed at the JCC, "Self Portrait With Sculpture Heads," a black-and-white gelatin silver print from 1976. In this photograph, Kertesz has included his own bald head in a line of busts, creating a surrealist effect.
Adjacent to the Kertesz photos is a single piece by T. Lux Feininger, the son of painter Lyonel Feininger. The younger Feininger studied at the famous Bauhaus in the city of Dessau, remaining there from 1926 to 1932, the year the school was closed by the Nazis. It was during these years that he began to embrace photography, even though the Bauhaus offered no formal curriculum in the medium. Kunin has included Feininger's "Bauhaus Students," a black-and-white gelatin silver print from 1928 for which Feininger positioned his camera below a group of young men he had posed to create a diagonal through the frame. This kind of experimentation with both the camera's angle and posed subjects was characteristic of modern photos of the time. (Feininger, who is still living, immigrated to New York in the late '30s and began a long academic career that included stints at New York University and Harvard.)
Lisette Model is also represented by a single photograph, the luscious "Fashion Show, 1940," also a black-and-white gelatin silver print. Model has captured a pair of haughty women sitting at a table and has exaggerated the lights and darks to create a hard-edged abstract composition that in no way detracts from the photo's narrative content. Born in Vienna in 1901, Model began her career as a photographer after moving to Paris in 1922. She was inspired in her decision by her sister, Olga Seybert, a commercial photographer who eventually settled in Denver. After coming to New York in 1941, Model pursued her career as a photographer and taught for decades at the New School for Social Research. She died in 1983.
Two lyrical photographs constitute Kunin's nod to Ilse Bing, who came to this country in 1941 and toiled in obscurity until her work enjoyed a revival shortly before her death in the 1980s. Bing originally took up photography to illustrate the art-history research she was conducting in her native Frankfurt, but after moving to Paris in 1930, she began to make fine-art photographs. The two photos shown here--"Couple, Place de la Concorde" and "Versailles," both black-and-white gelatin silver prints from 1931--are grainy views of figures at leisure. With their blurred details, they recall the impressionism of the late nineteenth century.
Native Austrian Herbert Bayer, who was a member of the faculty at the Dessau Bauhaus, came to New York in 1938 and moved to Aspen in 1946, remaining in Colorado through the 1970s. The noted abstractionist died in 1985 but is now at the center of an orgy of local attention that includes a Close Range show at the Denver Art Museum and another exhibit at the Elizabeth Schlosser Gallery. In keeping with that spirit, Kunin includes five Bayer photographs at the JCC, including two very Bauhaus-looking still-life scenes of scientific notes and clear-glass paperweights. But the real gem is "Man and Architecture," a 1926 gelatin silver print that captures the madcap antics of costumed actors on the roof of the Dessau Bauhaus. Also notable as a key photograph in the development of surrealism is Bayer's black-and-white gelatin silver print "Self-Portrait in Mirror," which reveals Bayer looking in a mirror while he removes a part of his arm.
At least half of Kunin's show is devoted to a portfolio by Hungarian photographer Gyorgy Kepes that surveys twenty years of the artist's work. And here, unfortunately, is one glitch in the installation. In order to see the Kepes portfolio in chronological order, the viewer must go back to the beginning of the exhibit. As installed, the photos go from newer to older, an arrangement that fails to cogently convey Kepes's stylistic development.
Kepes, who now lives in Massachusetts, came to Chicago in 1937 to help establish the New Bauhaus, which later became the Illinois Institute of Technology. In 1946 he accepted a teaching job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he remained until the 1970s. But the more than a score of Kepes photos in the show make it clear he was no sheltered academic. His prints range from street scenes to abstracted landscapes to pure abstraction created through photograms, solarizations and photo montages. A great early example of Kepes's manipulation of imagery through darkroom techniques is "Untitled," a black-and-white gelatin silver print of neon signs that has been double-exposed. Some of these photos are really wild and have been treated with globs of chemicals to create what can only be described as abstract-expressionist photography.
After seeing the disparate works in Photography on the Eve of World War II, it's no surprise to learn that curator Kunin likes to avoid stylistic categorizations. Surely it's not style that links these six photographers. But they are joined forever in a much more meaningful way: They were all hated by the Nazis, and they all had to run for their lives.
Photography on the Eve of World War II and Beyond: Emigres from Central Europe, through November 16 at the Robert E. Loup Jewish Community Center, 350 South Dahlia Street, 399-2660.
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.