The Evil of Banality
On the Nazi perversion of art.
May 5, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 32 • By JAMES GARDNER
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).
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