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.