Leave it to the Nazis to make charity posters into advertisements for power-worship.
In the late 1930s the Nazi regime created a traveling exhibition which contrasted Fuhrer-approved artworks with “degenerate” works produced by modernists, New Objectivists, and other riffraff. The exhibition was a bizarre contrast to the book-burning and art-destroying we might expect from a totalitarian regime. Instead of preventing people from seeing the art at all, the Nazis encouraged them to view it—but sought to control the viewers’ responses by creating a context in which the displayed art would evoke revulsion or consternation. The totalitarian art was displayed with plenty of light and space, centered in the galleries or on the walls, while the “degenerate” art was crammed together and surrounded by graffiti-like reminders of the regime’s aesthetic judgments. The current show at New York’s Neue Galerie, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” showing through June 30, doesn’t completely replicate this heavy-handed curatorial approach, but it gives enough hints (and striking photos of the Nazi shows) that viewers can get the point.
And what’s perhaps surprising is how much you really can learn about Nazism from this art show. There are pieces which would puzzle contemporary viewers who aren’t steeped in the arguments over abstract expressionism and ideology: What’s so threatening about a sleek Bauhaus armchair? What did Vasily Kandinsky’s interstellar circles ever do to Hitler? But the overall picture which emerges from the Neue Galerie’s show is of a regime which worshiped strength and hated weakness. Although the Nazis reviled artists for “mocking religion,” the religion most clearly displayed in their preferred artworks was not the cult of Jesus but of Mars.
The hunger poster is one of the best examples. Ludwig Hohlwein’s (1874 – 1949; the museum’s wall captions give everybody’s birth and death dates, where known, in a nice grim little touch) “German Winter Relief: Sacrifices in the Fight Against Hunger and Cold” shows a muscular, shirtless man standing slightly hipshot, shoulders tilted, looking down and away from the viewer. His arm arches slightly away from his body, allowing a few coins to fall, almost insouciantly, toward an unseen beggar.
This poster is displayed in the show’s entrance hallway. Just inside the first gallery there’s a startlingly different representation of hunger. Karel Wiestruth’s statue “Hungry Girl” is also stripped to the waist, but she’s clearly starved, her ribs and shoulderblades jutting out. Her arms are straight and at her sides, her eyes downcast; one big toe covers the other one, in a deeply poignant detail. She isn’t even asking for anything. Everything in this image creates an overwhelming impression of weakness, helplessness. “Hungry Girl,” you will not be surprised to learn, was among the works the Nazis condemned.
One of the fascinating aspects of the Neue Galerie show is its focus on two artists who had varying degrees of complicity with the Nazi regime, before that regime turned against them. Emil Nolde “offered [his] services to the regime,” as the museum notes, and was a supporter of the Party. The Neue Galerie displays many of his richly-colored, fiery watercolor landscapes, seascapes, and portraits, as well as a wall of sketches of Russians: fur-hatted Cossacks; a potato-nosed drunken woman with tender, foolish eyes; a cheekbony young man who looks more stereotypically Russian than the steppe itself. These deeply human, carefully-observed portraits were part of what got Nolde in trouble. He liked Russians too much for his own good. His modernist aesthetic also got him condemned, and he was forbidden entirely from painting; he made hundreds of “Unpainted Pictures” in secret.
Ernst Barlach (1870 – 1938) actually won praise from Joseph Goebbels, once upon a time. Goebbels liked his odd little sculpture, “The Berserker,” in which a robed warrior takes a spraddle-legged stance, a sculpture emphasizing acute angles and smooth surfaces. (Barlach himself was a pacifist, the result of his experiences as a soldier in World War I.) “The Berserker” is intriguing, but it’s Barlach’s least-compelling work in this show. His best work here was my own personal favorite from the show, another small sculpture: “Christ and John (The Reunion).”
In this sculpture—a cast; many of the works at the Neue Galerie are reproductions of one kind or another, since the originals were lost or destroyed in a bad century—Jesus stands upright, tenderly embracing and kissing the beloved disciple. John is stooped, collapsing toward Him and almost clutching at Him. Christ is taller, with oddly long and violently-splayed toes; John has closed his eyes in rapture and relief, and turned his face yearningly upward toward Christ’s. He is so thoroughly yielded up to Christ’s embrace that he seems simultaneously aged (because of his bent posture) and childlike.
This is the Christ of the degenerates: serene and tender, embracing human weakness. He appears in several other works throughout the show, such as Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s “Life of Christ,” a series of woodcuts including the woman caught in adultery, the kiss of Judas, and the road to Emmaus. The adulteress is caught in a crowd of angled faces, her breasts exposed; Christ’s eyes are sad and His hand is on her head. Karl Casper’s “Resurrection/Easter” is suffused with soft lilac light, as Christ rises from the tomb amid lilies and budding trees, with open gestures displaying his wounded hands.
The museum accompanies the works themselves with archival material showing how these artworks were displayed and understood by the Nazis. A 1928 book by artist/theorist/racist Paul Schultze-Naumburg, Art and Race, is displayed so we can see the comparison on facing pages between modern artworks, with their distorted forms, and medical photographs of actual suffering human beings, children with crippled legs and mentally retarded adults. The shocking thing is that the photos of people are meant to evoke disgust which can then be transferred onto the paintings.
This comparison raises the question: What is realism? Few people would call Picasso a realist painter. And yet Art and Race is onto something. In their use of distortion and exaggeration, modern artists captured the distortions, the lack of harmony and wholeness, in our everyday lives. G.M. Hopkins praised “All things counter, original, spare, strange”; through their “pied beauty” he saw God refracted. From this perspective, the easily-recognizable, heroic human forms of the Nazi-approved artworks are much less realistic than something like Paul Klee’s “Masked Red Jew,” in which it’s almost impossible to make out a downturned face behind the rust-red splotches and deep gouges which cover the canvas.
The Nazi art in the show is a mixed bag. There are lots of naked people holding various forms of fire. There’s an odd, self-reflective painting by Udo Wendel, “The Art Newspaper,” in which three grim-faced bourgeois types peruse some paintings. It’s detailed, domestic, and a bit icy, like a depressed Norman Rockwell. There are “workers, peasants, and soldiers,” but none of the irony and carnival for which these professions are known. There are nude corn maidens and everybody’s very resolute and healthy. The Nazi world is as unshattered as Eden—but an Eden full of Cains.