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The Work Hitler Despised and the One from Above His Fireplace

Felix Nussbaum's The Damned, from 1944, the year he died in Auschwitz. See more photos from the exhibition.
Felix Nussbaum's The Damned, from 1944, the year he died in Auschwitz. See more photos from the exhibition.
Neue Galerie New York

While wandering amid works that were once included in the notorious "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") exhibitions of the 1930s, you might wonder what pathology could have inspired the Nazis to find Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's 1919 Winter Landscape in Moonlight offensive, never mind threatening. Was it the pink evergreen trees? The orange sky? Certainly, when he painted this lovely, dynamic scene using negatives of nature's expected hues, this former soldier couldn't know that his country's future leader Adolf Hitler believed that paintings should always be realistic, "almost as good as photographs."

See more photos from the exhibition.

Most serious artists in turn-of-the-century Europe were excited by the evolving modernist styles — Cubism, Expressionism, abstraction. But as the Nazis gained power, their rhetoric of classical purity resulted in shows of "degenerate" art, where modernist works were hung in crowded groups, sometimes unframed and crooked, surrounded by derogatory graffiti such as "this is how sick minds viewed nature" and "mockery of the German woman–ideal: cretin and whore."

Neue Galerie's illuminating exhibition features work included in the "Degenerate Art" spectacles, as well as that by others who were ridiculed, forbidden to work, and, in some cases, murdered by the regime. It also features major examples of approved Nazi art and such chilling artifacts as an official ledger from the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda listing "degenerate" art confiscated from public institutions — neatly ruled columns representing destroyed careers and shattered lives.

Although Hitler masterminded the Nazis' powerful swastika flag design and other martial pageantry, he had middlebrow taste in the fine arts. Born in 1889, he grew up with modernism, and despised it. At a 1933 party rally, the Führer, as one newspaper reported, "made it clear to all Cubist, Expressionist, and Dadaist charlatans that they were finished in the art life of the new Germany." Even before Hitler gained power, Kirchner (1880–1938) had departed Germany for Switzerland, but the growing philistinism of his native land continued to distress him. Eventually the Nazis removed hundreds of his works from German museums, and a year after he was included in the Munich exhibit, Kirchner committed suicide.

The "Entartete Kunst" roadshows (versions traveled throughout Germany and Austria) helped refine the National Socialist concept of organized hatred. Appropriating crackpot 19th-century theories ("Man sees that he perishes when he tears himself from the soil. . . . The city dries up the marrow of those who live there, makes them ill and infertile"), Hitler applied his Blood and Soil rhetoric of purity and naturalism to the arts. Down the street from the "Degenerate Art" show in Munich, the regime also opened "The Great German Art Exhibition," which proved a bland affair — no surprise, since the Nazis had purged every artist with a challenging modernist style from the Third Reich's cultural ranks. Even Hitler was disappointed, his usual theatrical bombast replaced with the humble proclamation that the exhibit had "open[ed] up the way for the decent and honest average which gave hope for greater talents in future times."

The Führer did purchase a triptych of warmed-over Renaissance-style nudes painted by Adolf Ziegler, titled The Four Elements (or "The Four Senses," as the French ambassador reportedly called it, quipping, "Taste is missing"). Ziegler, whose popularity rose in tandem with the Nazis' accumulation of power, cranked out idealized figures that projected a cardboard-cutout gravitas. On view here, that 1937 triptych transports us into the realm of Hitler's unfathomable evil. In his fascinating book Explaining Hitler, author Ron Rosenbaum tackles the conundrum of the Führer's baby picture, which depicts "a mildly pensive cherub" in white booties. Rosenbaum uses the term "backshadow" to describe that "dubious but hard-to-resist" habit we all have of reading subsequent history into an image fixed in time, noting how easy it can be to "project upon that impressionable baby face the stirrings of some deep emotional disturbance in embryo."

Does knowing that The Four Elements was so admired by Hitler that he hung it over his fireplace imbue it with a malignant aura? Does the painting further pall when you consider Ziegler's remarks at the opening of "Entartete Kunst": "You see around us monstrosities of madness, of impudence, of inability, and degeneration." Perhaps such hyperbole explains why more than 2 million visitors saw the Munich "Degenerate Art" exhibition — did everyone who waited in the long admission queue swallow the party line that this work was dangerous and disturbing? Or did they secretly enjoy modern art? We can't know, because after half a decade of Nazi terror, few would have had the courage to challenge the aesthetic rigidity of the party.

Even Nazi supporter Emil Nolde (1867–1956), who believed Expressionism to be a uniquely German art form, could not find a home in the new order. Despite such patrons as minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels, Nolde was denounced by a Munich artists' organization as one of the "form-destroying personalities" producing "totally un-folkish art." Maybe that is why the energetic orange smears against a yellow-and-blue background in the beautiful Red-Yellow Clouds (1938–45) come across so movingly — what shapes offer themselves up for destruction more indulgently than clouds? Although Nolde resorted to anti-Semitic diatribes to curry favor with the regime, his inventive compositions, which sacrifice realism in favor of abstracting the vitality of nature, fell outside the narrow confines of National Socialist sentimentality. In 1941, he was ordered to submit all future work to the Committee for the Assessment of Inferior Artistic Products. Nolde spent the rest of the Third Reich secretly working on what he termed "unpainted pictures," done in watercolor so as not to expose his activities through odoriferous oil paints.

The Nazis, with their absurd committees and purity tests, never understood that great art is always a mongrel business — successful artists steal from their predecessors, other media, and anything in creation that will help to synthesize something rare and gripping. At Neue Galerie, a room filled with empty frames symbolizing artworks destroyed or still missing after the mass confiscations by the Nazis also contains a startlingly powerful late self-portrait by Kirchner. The bold composition portrays the artist half in shadow, with what is perhaps a patterned tapestry on the wall behind him. Astonishingly, Kirchner gives the devil his due by slyly positioning a red swastika in the bold design over his right shoulder, a complement to the floating orange bars that seem to be canceling out his very being.

Unlike the Nazis, Kirchner was able to summon great art from the depths of hatred and fear.

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