Hitler loved Ziegler’s art. He chose The Four Elements for the big Munich show, then hung it over the fireplace in his home. Working through his minister of propaganda, the wily Joseph Goebbels, he also gave Ziegler the go-ahead to do a purge of modernist art from state-owned museums, a campaign that produced the Degenerate Art show but continued well beyond it. Eventually, some 20,000 pieces — Beckmann’s triptych among them — were confiscated, to be sold, hoarded or destroyed.
So the two triptychs broadly define the official view of good and bad (evil) art in the Nazi era. And they divide the Neue Galerie room into two corresponding zones. The Four Elements side is dominated by the life-size sculpture of a neo-classical nude by Richard Scheibe, and two sculpted portrait heads of Ziegler by August Waterbeck, now forgotten. On the Beckmann side on the room is a small, violently twisting 1910 bronze expressionist figure by Ernst Barlach titled The Berserker, and a 1911 still life of African sculpture by Emil Nolde that was in the Degenerate Art show.
But nothing is simple; paradoxes abound. Scheibe, after an early brush with censorship, worked steadily throughout the Nazi era without ever joining the party. An approved sculptural style seems to have been enough. At the same time, the much-touted Ziegler, who put Hitler’s aesthetic biases into catastrophic action, fell out of favor, was sent to Dachau, then finally allowed to retire.
You’ll find all these complex stories related in detail in the engrossing catalog edited by the show’s curator, Olaf Peters, an art historian and Neue Galerie board member. But the exhibition itself works in very broad narrative strokes that gain impact through the astonishing work used to illustrate them.
A gallery devoted to art in Dresden takes us back a step in time, to the years just before and after World War I, when the city was home to a group of artists who called themselves Die Brucke, the Bridge. One of their goals was to translate great German art of the past — Albrecht Durer, Lucas Cranach — into the language of present. In the process, they virtually invented expressionism.
In the 1920s, they had success; you get a sense of this in Ernst Ludwig Kirchner’s 1925-26 painted portrait of himself and three Brucke colleagues — Otto Mueller, Erich Heckel and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff — looking nattily dressed and self-confidently blase. But under the Nazis, they were pariahs. Kirchner’s group portrait ended up in Entartete Kunst in 1937, as did all but one of the dozen Brucke paintings in the Dresden room. A year later, Kirchner, in exile in Switzerland, put a bullet through his head.
Harassment of Bauhaus artists began even earlier. In 1931, the National Socialist party, Hitler’s party, forced the school out of Dessau. It reopened to improvised quarters in Berlin, but closed there two years later. The clean-lined, functionalist Bauhaus style wasn’t “degenerate” exactly, but the school’s international — read, foreign — outlook was nearly as threatening. In the end, cosmopolitanism is what saved it. Most Bauhaus members felt comfortable enough in the wider world to leave Germany behind, and did.
What they left was inconceivable destruction, to lives and art alike. You get some grip on numbers in the show’s concluding gallery on the first floor, where a fat ledger book is on display filled with typed lists of “degenerate art” officially confiscated, mostly in 1937 and 1938, from German museums. Compiled in 1941-42 by the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda — Goebbels’ department — the ledger is on loan from Victoria and Albert Gallery in London.