In 1937 the iconic Wassily and Barcelona chairs were rejected for not being German enough. A true German chair would be constructed from German wood, grown in German forests. Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937, on view at the Neue Galerie, is not a show about furniture. It is a show about power wielded through art.
But there are important reasons to talk about these chairs. First, we live with them today. We know these chairs from lobbies, interior design magazines, glossy shopping catalogs, and maybe even in our own living rooms. Our firsthand experience of these designs brings immediacy to the persecutions of wartime Germany. The second reason these chairs are important is that, iconic though they may be, they are just chairs. Inanimate objects of leather and steel. The inclusion of even the lowly chair in Hitler’s war testifies to just how insatiable he was to remake the world.
Modern art was in before it was out.
It was in the collections of museums and private citizens alike. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had praised The Berserker by sculptor Ernst Barlach as “the true spirit of Expressionism!” as early as 1924. However, instead of co-opting the new art of the age for the Third Reich, Hitler condemned it, choosing to define a new German art aesthetic instead. Existing art collections were immediately stripped of modern art which was denounced as “degenerate.” Entartete Kunst was then exhibited across the country in cramped, poorly lit spaces as an example of the art of weak minds, unwelcome in the new Germany. The public responded: one million people lined up to see the Entartete Kunst show in Berlin; in Munich two million visitors were recorded.
Power has always thrived on promoting differences.
In Berlin, the state sanctioned art of the Third Reich was displayed in a bright, clean purpose-built hall located a stone’s throw from the Entartete Kunst exhibition. Above left is Max Beckmann’s Departure (1932-35) triptych and on the right is Four Elements (1937) by Adolf Ziegler. The former was included in the Entartete Kunst exhibition before being sold to a New York art dealer in 1937; it entered the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in 1942 and was put on public view immediately. In contrast, Four Elements was considered to be a perfect example of the new German art. This triptych was so admired by Hitler that it was hung in his dining room.
Attacks on modern art in Germany were nothing new.
Even before the First World War began, spontaneous attacks took place across the country. The artists group, Die Brücke (The Bridge; active 1905-1913) was repeatedly subjected to open derision in Dresden. The Expressionist art of its members was “compared to the art of the mentally ill, its palette attributed to physical defects, and it was accused of mocking religion.” The video above includes silent footage of the “Degenerate Art” exhibition in Munich, taken in 1937 by the American filmmaker Julien Bryan.
The pivotal Bauhaus school of modern art was rejected.
This beacon of art education (active 1919-1933) is now recognized as a pillar of the modern design movement, and its influence can be seen in the Wassily and Barcelona chairs, as well as the rooms, buildings, and cities we live in today. In 1927 Bauhaus architects designed an experimental housing development, Weissenhof-Siedlung ,“for the modern city dweller.” It was a great success, attracting 500,000 visitors in its first year. But by 1933 the Weissenhof estate and its flat roofs were mocked as looking like “an Arab Village.” Graffiti was added to the image above to represent it as such.
It wasn’t modernity that was fatal.
Modern artworks were confiscated, assiduously documented, and then sold, absorbed into other collections, or lost. Kandinsky’s Several Circles (1926) ended up in New York, by way of Hildebrand Gurlitt who sold the painting to collector Solomon R. Guggenheim. Many of the artists who created these works emigrated. Those who remained in Germany struggled. Emil Nolde, knowing he was being monitored, worked in watercolor instead of oils, to avoid attracting notice with paint fumes. And some artists working in the modern tradition did not survive the war. Those artists, like Felix Nussbaum, died because they were Jewish.
The visitor experience: what worked
Exhibit design: The excellent exhibit design of this show continues the theme of contrasts. The central hallway includes two black and white photomurals on each wall. A long line of visitors waiting to see the Entartete Kunst show in Hamburg hangs opposite a long line of Carpatho-Ukrainian Jews newly arrived at the Auschwitz-Birkenau train station. In the gallery devoted to Die Brücke a 1933 aerial view of the elegant city of Dresden hangs opposite an aerial view of the same city from 1945, bombed beyond recognition by the Allied Forces.
Crowd Control: There has been a line to see this show since it opened and strict crowd control is in effect. While standing in line can be frustrating, it moves quickly and the exhibition experience is better for it. Additionally, the fact the every visitor is handed an audio device with admission helps to keep the crowd moving along in a paced way.
Visitor experience: room for improvement
I’d like to know more about the motivations of the millions of Germans who lined up to view this confiscated art. What compelled them? Political compliance? Genuine interest or scorn? Spectacle? It was likely all of those reasons and more. Still, some insight into the enormous attendance numbers seems warranted.
Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 is on view through June 30, 2014. UPDATE: This show has been extended due to popular demand, and will now be on view until September 1, 2014.