It seems a little weird to find Adolf Hitler even mentioning the word “Dada,” let alone offering his considered opinion of that vague and anarchic movement. But so he did in a speech delivered in Munich in 1937 that officially opened the Great German Art Exhibition. “Sixty years ago,” he declared, “an exhibition of so-called Dadaist experiences would have seemed simply impossible, and its organizers would have ended up in the madhouse, whereas today they even live in artists’ associations!”
The exhibition in question was mounted by the state to offer Germans a healthy, muscular alternative to the neurotic enormities of Expressionism, which, it was thought, had endangered the nation’s well-being during the Weimar Republic. In theory, this show sought to promote paintings and sculptures based on the “Greco-Nordic” models that were seen as having inspired everyone from the Athenians and the Romans to Michelangelo and Dürer. In practice, it served up blond Übermenschen gazing purposively into wheat fields while pigtailed Rhine maidens posed in various stages of undress.
At the same time this exhibition was getting underway, however, a far more infamous show, hastily assembled almost as an afterthought, opened a few doors down. It was titled “Entartete Kunst,” or “Degenerate Art,” and was surely one of the strangest shows ever mounted.
Implicitly, art exhibitions have always invited the public to enter and admire the objects on view. Here, however, that same public was actively encouraged to mock the art. Among the painters included in the show were such pillars of Modernism as Oskar Kokoschka, Emil Nolde, Paul Klee, and Max Beckmann, as well as foreigners like Wassily Kandinsky and Marc Chagall. Along the walls, visitors were greeted by labels that drew their attention to the “Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule,” the “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul,” and “An insult to German womanhood.”
This new show at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan seeks to re-create “Degenerate Art” by reassembling about 75 of the 650 works in the original exhibition. Much of the art is of the highest quality and would deserve to be seen for that reason alone. But the main interest of this particular display of German Expressionism, of course, is its earlier Nazi context.
Perhaps inadvertently, this new exhibition reveals one of the anomalies of National Socialism: It placed far more importance on culture in general, and on visual culture specifically, than did any of the 20th century’s other totalitarian regimes. Even though all of these regimes were, to a greater or lesser degree, alert to culture’s unique ability to sway the masses, only the Nazis went so far as to try to alter the taste of an entire nation. Only the Nazis seemed to believe that everything was at stake in crushing one style and exalting another. It was as though, in their totalizing worldview, simply to coexist with a painting by Kandinsky or a sculpture by Ernst Barlach constituted an intolerable threat.
And yet the Nazis’ engagement with visual art was rather complicated and cannot be reduced to easy generalities. There were divisions in their ranks: Joseph Goebbels, who fancied himself a man of culture and eagerly sought the esteem of people more cultured than himself, expressed some appreciation for the art that was included in the show. One of Hitler’s favorite painters was Adolph Menzel, a late-19th-century Impressionist of sorts who, as such, was to some degree “infected” by the international avant-garde. Nor should we forget that many members of the Nazi hierarchy eagerly collected Expressionist works, especially after they had been confiscated, or that several eminent Expressionists, especially Nolde, joined the Nazi party in hopes of winning some plum commissions.
Finally, of the many thousands of works confiscated by the Nazis, only a small percentage were destroyed, and most of these were preparatory drawings for paintings. That fact, of course, in no way palliates the Nazis’ barbarism, but it does suggest that they were restrained at least by some sense of the monetary value of the confiscated art, if not by its beauty or its cultural consequence.
Yet, for all that, one cannot dispute that the Nazis hated the Expressionists and eagerly persecuted them, seizing their art, expelling them from university posts, forbidding them to exhibit in public and even to practice their art in private. The reasons for this aversion are readily apparent. The Expressionists represented, in one sense, the supervention of foreign, and especially French, taste on German art. At the same time, the Expressionists often found their models in non-Western (hence, inferior) civilizations, like those of Africa. Above all, their often-caustic satire and their disgust at the sham heroism and discredited ideals that had provoked the First World War seemed like a body blow to the beau idéal of Nazism.
How ironic, however, that in their desire to purge the nation of this Expressionist threat, the Nazis set out to destroy what was, in fact, the first truly original form of German art (notwithstanding some French influence) to have emerged in nearly five centuries, since the time of Dürer and the elder Cranach.
Consider Ernst Barlach, who, at the time of the Nazi seizure of power, was one of Germany’s leading cultural figures. Initially, Goebbels was an enthusiastic supporter of Barlach’s sparely schematic and, at times, almost medieval sculptures: “That is the meaning of expressionism,” Goebbels wrote, “concision intensified into grand depiction.” And yet, a mere 12 years later, a volume of Barlach’s drawings impelled Goebbels to comment that “this is no longer art. This is destruction, talentless sham. Horrible! The poison cannot be allowed into the people!” In short order, Barlach’s public works were removed, if not destroyed. Hundreds of his drawings and sculptures were confiscated from museums; his exhibitions were canceled and his honors revoked.
One does not expect, of course, to encounter moderation or sensitivity among the Nazis. But given the strain of neo-medievalism in their worldview, which complemented their Hellenic longings and even inspired the occasional bildersturm, or bonfire of images, it is surprising that the Nazis showed no appreciation for the potently German medievalism that inspired Barlach’s Christ and John (The Reunion) and The Reader, both on view here.
Here, one finds none of the effete or sneering mockery of Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl. In its place is an almost aching sincerity that comes very close to that of German Romanesque and German Gothic art. But then, the Nazis were never interested in the finer points of anything.
Nearly 80 years on, it is a source of unending pleasantness to reflect that, although the original Degenerate Art show was mounted in order to pillory some of the foremost artists of the last century, it is now the Nazis themselves who, in the rooms of the Neue Galerie, stand exposed to the mockery that they feared most of all. In the entire history of culture, there is no finer or more emphatic instance of tables having been turned, of an oppressed and outraged class having the last laugh.
James Gardner is the translator, most recently, of Girolamo Fracastoro’s Latin Poetry for the I Tatti Renaissance Library (Harvard).