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.

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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

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