On weeks like the fair- and biennial-filled one New York just had, there is a citywide welcoming of new art. “Degenerate Art” reminds us that in mid-20th-century Germany and Austria, some avant-garde artists, far from being embraced, were systematically persecuted. Olaf Peters organized this exhibition on German and Austrian modernist art and the politics that labeled many of its makers untermenschen (subhuman), destroyed their paintings and drove them to exile or suicide.
The story of a generation of lost art is told through less than a hundred artworks, as well as a dozen empty picture frames representing paintings lost or destroyed. Opening the show is a generous clutch of Paul Klee paintings, banned for being “childlike.” These, along with some Barcelona chairs and Vasily Kandinsky’s Several Circles, stand in for the famous Weimar Bauhaus school. By 1932, the German government had closed the Bauhaus, and by 1933, Jewish professors were kicked out of art academies. Many prominent artists, Kandinsky and Klee among them, fled to Paris or Switzerland. A room of Dresden’s 1920s Neue Sachlichkeit (“New Objectivity”) artists has vivid paintings of contemporary life and Expressionist works in colors that authorities later deemed symptoms of insanity—an Ernst Ludwig Kirchner landscape features pink trees, blue mountains and a red night sky.
The heart of the show is Munich’s 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition, a traveling piece of propaganda contrasting state-sanctioned art with “degenerate” works. The Neue Galerie reimagines it handsomely. Batting for German art is Adolf Ziegler’s triptych The Four Elements, 1937, which once hung over Adolf Hitler’s mantle. It’s an assortment of insipid, perky blondes fondling flames and bowls of water. They could be the sisters of John Currin’s button-nosed nudes. Udo Wendell’s dry painting prefigures Norman Rockwell’s sentimental realism.
On the degenerate side are expressionistic paintings, including Emile Nolde’s Milk Cows, 1913, a gloppy look at sun-splashed clouds and cows on a green field. Also by Nolde are a set of lapidary works on paper in saturated orange and reds. Ironically, Nolde, who was the member of a Nazi splinter group, was forbidden by the Nazis from making art; he painted these in secret.
Downstairs, a ledger book shows an inventory of more than 16,000 artworks, documenting the systematic ransacking of German institutions by Joseph Goebbels’ Commission for Disposal of Products of Degenerate Art. An “X” marks a work destroyed, a “V” sold and a “T” exchanged, presumably for art deemed acceptable. (The book is open to a page showing two Max Beckmanns sold to the art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, whose son Cornelius was recently found to have hoarded a huge collection of missing art.) Frames that once contained paintings that are still lost, including Nolde’s Man and Woman, 1912, hang in this room. They were discovered in a salt mine, their canvases cut out.
Also here are a number of fine self-portraits that make the real case for seeing this show. Oskar Kokoschka’s defiant Self-portrait as Degenerate Artist, 1937, is a masterpiece: Square-jawed and burly, he appears as a proud “degenerate.” Kokoschka had already fled Austria for Prague when he painted this political statement and would travel on to Scotland. Another self-portrait, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, has the fussily elegant painter absentmindedly entertaining a kitten. A highlight of the show, it is pure 1937 Munich but evokes one of Alice Neel’s wiry outsiders from 1970s New York. These sympathetic figures stand in for all things officially condemned by Germany: jazz music, Cubism, Dada, Surrealism and resistance to authority. Their fates run the gamut from bad to worse. Kokoschka didn’t regain his Austrian citizenship until the 1970s. Kirchner was forced to resign from teaching in 1933. In the following years, most of his work was destroyed. He committed suicide in 1938.
The Neue Galerie’s exhibition takes on a great topic at the perfect moment, but it might have pushed further. Although labels indicate which of the pieces were exhibited in “Degenerate Art” in 1937, it would be fascinating to see the politics behind individual artworks reappearing: who once owned them and how they arrived in museums or private collections. The show skips questions of contemporary restitution in favor of a blanket condemnation of German and Austrian policies of the time.
In the post-Fred Wilson age of artist-initiated installations that investigate archival histories in museums—Barbara Bloom’s fabulous 2013 show at the Jewish Museum comes to mind—the show could have been far more savvy. Ultimately, however, the real pleasure is getting to see long-lost works anew, and on this the show delivers. Hopefully, Cornelius Gurlitt’s newly discovered stash of artworks will provide the basis for a sequel.
(March 13-June 30, 2014)