Editor’s note: The credit for 1937 footage should read Julien Bryan.
SASKIA DE MELKER: Empty frames and faded imprints aren’t what you expect to see at an art show. But in this gallery they are among the most haunting images representing the fate of thousands of modern artworks stolen by the Nazis in the 1930’s that were destroyed or remain lost to this day.
It’s part of an exhibit called ‘Degenerate Art’ on display until September at the Neue Galerie in New York that offers a new look at the assault on modern art by the Nazis.
The exhibit juxtaposes the classical 19th century paintings and sculptures that Hitler loved and accepted with the abstract modern art that he hated. This art he labeled “degenerate.”
SASKIA DE MELKER: Looking at all this beautiful art, what is it about this art that Hitler found so threatening?
OLAF PETERS (Curator, Neue Galerie): Threatening was the international or the intellectual aspect of modern art, so it was not something which was you can easily understand.
SASKIA DE MELKER: Olaf Peters is a German art historian and curator of the exhibition.
OLAF PETERS: They disliked it because it was also destroying to some degree the traditional concept of a painting, of an artwork, by fragmentation and things like that. Also the aspect of content were important.
For example, leftist artists of the early Weimar Republic like George Cross or Otto Dix depicted prostitutes, depicted war scenes in a very brutal way. And the National Socialists were preparing the German audience and the German people for a new war. And therefore they really disliked that. What they wanted instead of these anti-war paintings for example was the heroic soldier.
SASKIA DE MELKER: The Nazis even put on a show of ‘degenerate art’ in the 1930’s in an attempt to shame artists and convince Germans of the art’s perverse nature.
But in fact, Peters points out that a number of Nazi officials including Hitler’s Chief of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels were themselves collectors of these banned works.
Many of the artists labelled ‘degenerate’ were faithful Germans and were shocked by the designation. A section of the gallery shows self-portraits like expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner who painted their reactions to being cast out.
OLAF PETERS: What you can see if that he blurred the one side of his face so that there is no eye any longer. He also blocked his own hands that is a sort of symbol for “I’m not able to work, my hands are bound, I’m not free to use them, I cannot paint or draw.” And he added a red swastika in the background, and for me these are really hints that he is reflecting his own status. And he committed suicide one year later.
The exhibit also explores how the Nazis separating out of unacceptable artwork was used as a justification for their plan to purify German society of Jews.
SASKIA DE MELKER: In this exhibition here, you have two photographs, one showing the line outside the degenerate art exhibition and on the other side showing a train full of Jews arriving at Auschwitz. Why the connection between these two photographs?
OLAF PETERS: Somebody like Heinrich Himmler, who was organizing for Holocaust and the final solution, he came back to images of the degenerate art exhibition. The destructive power of the Jews, destroying German culture by modern art was used by the perpetrators. And that is the point that I wanted to make at the end of this exhibition
And by uncovering the Nazis’ effort to carry out cultural and, in turn, ethnic cleansing, Peters hopes his exhibition can help guard against future similar attacks.
OLAF PETERS: “You can question yourself in America or in Germany or Europe but you have to question of course that in China or in Russia: What is the status of modern art?….and how is it endangered when it is limited, when there is censorship and things like that. You can learn from history and this is one of the most telling examples of how, when it comes to the status of modern art in a society”