A Thousand Words

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.)

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia