Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937, at the Neue Galerie, opens with a quietly devastating compare-and-contrast. The walls of the narrow hallway leading onto the first gallery are covered with facing photomurals.
The image in one dates from 1938. It shows the exterior of the Haus der Kunst (House of the Arts) in Berlin where the traveling anti-modernist exhibition called Entartete Kunst — “Degenerate Art” — has opened. The line of visitors waiting to get in stretches down the street.
The photo on the opposite wall is from 1944. It shows Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews newly arrived at the railroad station at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They are densely crowded together along the length of a platform that runs far into the distance and out of sight.
The message is clear: The event in the first picture led or contributed to that in the second. The show itself is one of the few in an American museum in the past two decades to address, on a large scale, the Nazis’ selective demonizing of art, how that helped foment an atmosphere of permissible hatred and forged a link between aesthetics and human disaster.
The basic facts of the narrative are familiar. Among Hitler’s grand plans upon coming to power as chancellor in 1933 were to purify German culture, to promote the Apollonian “classical” and to eradicate the uncontrollably Dionysian “primitive,” a category that included, along with the mentally and physically deformed, avant-garde modernism, Bolshevism, and Jewish culture.
Hitler’s views on art were far from original; they had clear roots in 19th-century German sociology. Nor were they, at first, systematic. He was into big, diva-like, Riefenstahlian gestures, but with no clear official philosophy. The problem was, of course, that while his speculative thinking was limited, his search-and-destroy powers were not.
One of his first moves as chancellor was to commission the building of a museum in Munich to showcase his version of an aesthetic ideal. He inaugurated it in 1937 with the first annual Great German Art Exhibition, which he more or less handpicked. Most of the art was locked into uplift-intensive academic styles of an earlier time. Even Hitler seemed disappointed with the results.
A day after the museum’s debut, a second, hastily assembled government-sponsored exhibition opened nearby. Titled Entartete Kunst, it was made up of work in vanguard modernist styles: expressionism, cubism, surrealism, dada, abstraction. The whole thing was pitched as a freak show, meant to demonstrate the threat the new art posed on everything German. Jews were implicated in the attack, even though only six of the 112 artists were Jewish.
GOOD AND EVIl ART
The first room of the Neue Galerie exhibition gives an instant sense of the contrasting aesthetics and complicit politics of the two Munich shows through a side-by-side hanging of two large triptych paintings: Adolf Ziegler’s The Four Elements, from 1937, and Max Beckmann’s Departure, done from 1932 to 1935.
In Ziegler’s painting, the subject is obvious: Four blond academic female nudes decorously display themselves along with traditional symbols. Beckmann’s expressionist picture is all mystery: Scenes of human torture fill the side panels, while at the center a cluster of stylized, possibly allegorical figures stand, as if waiting to push off, in a small boat.