Degenerate Art Exhibition Revisited

This show runs from October 2012-February 24, 2013

The Nazis’ Entartete Kunst Show Revisited

The title of this current exhibition at The Cantor Museum is rather disconcerting: a war on modern art1

A better title for the show would have been, “A War on Modern Art: The Notorious Hitler/Nazi Purge of 1937,” or quite simply, “The Entartete Kunst Show.”

The infamous Nazi art exhibition of 1937, Entartete Kunst, sought to stamp out certain art forms, including abstraction. It had the opposite effect. By drawing attention to modern art, the Nazis helped to make it unforgettable.

Kandinsky

Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter and theorist, has been credited with creating the first purely abstract Western artworks. He taught at the Bauhaus until the Nazis closed it in 1933. His use of colors, shapes and lines so offended their sense of beauty that in the Entartete Kunst exhibition, they declared his art to be “crazy at any price.” Included in the current Cantor exhibition are several Kandinsky pieces that are representative of the ones featured in the 1937 show.

Germany 1929-1938

In 1929, The Great Depression hit Germany hard. Over five-million Germans and Austrians were out of work. The “unacceptable” were blamed for infecting the society. Anything and anyone violating the Nazis’ sense of classical German beauty (Aryan) were deemed degenerate and therefore, to be destroyed. In defense of this destruction, Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, is heard declaring on archival film, “Der Fuhrer liebt die Kunst, weil er selbst ist ein Kunstler” (The Feurer loves art. He himself is an artist).* Unfortunately, this love extended neither to abstract/modern art nor its creators.

Book Burnings

Book burnings began in Berlin in 1933: German and Austrian books were burned alongside books by “corrupting foreign influences.” This included books by Ernest Hemingway, H.G. Wells and the German playwright, Heinriche Heine. Heine, in his 1821 play, Almansor had written the following line:

“Das war ein Vorspiel nur, dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.” (“That was but a prelude; where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”)

Dubious Distinction

The 1937 Degenerate Art show featured many of Kandinsky’s works, including an edition of the book, Klange (Sounds), and the portfolio of twelve prints entitled, “Kleine Welten” (Small Worlds). None of the works in The Cantor’s exhibition were actually in the Nazi sponsored art exhibition but both shows feature(d) a copy of Klange and several prints from Kleine Welten.

wassily k photo book
Klange (Sounds), 1913 –illustrated book of poems and woodcuts by Wassily Kandinsky
wassily k photo
Kleine Welten, III (Small Worlds, III), 1922 — lithograph from a portfolio of twelve prints, by Wassily Kandinsky

Also on view at The Cantor is a reproduction of the 1937 Nazi exhibition catalog (in both German and English). This too, was disturbing and did what it was meant to: It shocks the visitor by its immediacy and also by its accessibility to the English-speaker.

Over one-hundred artists and six-hundred pieces of art (including illustrated books like Kandinsky’s) encompassed the Nazis’ 1937 art exhibition. When the Degenerate Art Law was passed a year later in 1938, the Nazis had confiscated more than 16,000 objects of art.

Julien Bryan’s Archival Films

Chilling and voyeuristic are apt descriptions of Julien Bryan’s 1937 short films. The documentary of the museum goers viewing the show is numbing, disturbing, evocative and sad. You wonder which attendees will become murderers  and who will be murdered. What are visitors thinking as they view the show? Is each visitor thinking for himself or has he allowed his thinking to be sanctioned by the State? Who, at that show, will help those in need and who will turn on “the other?” You wish you didn’t know how it ultimately ends.

Three links to various Bryan documentaries are embedded below. These are silent, black and white films. Because they are soundless, they are all the more harrowing. They have a certain magnetic pull, drawing the viewer in in a way that modern films do not. In their silence they force you to pay attention, to listen with your eyes.

About Julien

Who was Julien Bryan? He was an American photographer, filmmaker and documentarian who traveled throughout Europe in the 1930s. He tried to warn America of the dangers of Nazism and Fascism based on what he saw in his travels abroad, in Russia, Poland, Germany and Austria. His documentary films of the era are now part of the public domain. Access them here:

  • Munich Exhibition of Degenerate Art — Filmed by Bryan when he visited the 1937 Nazi exhibition.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_art

  • Pupils at Goldschmidt Jewish Private School in Nazi Germany — Bryan filmed the Goldschmidt Jewish private school shortly after Jews were no longer allowed to enroll in public schools in Germany. Again, you wish you didn’t know how this all turns out.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_pupils

  • Hitler Youth Girls –Here Bryan documents the indoctrination of German/Aryan school children, even during playtime.

http://www.ushmm.org/research/collections/highlights/bryan/video/detail.php?content=germany_youth

———–

*”PBS Film Chronicles Nazi Art Suppression”, The Daily Gazette, (Tuesday, April 6, 1993) <http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1957&dat=19930406&id=XWlGAAAAIBAJ&sjid=LukMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1166,1427669>

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France’s Last King was a Pear

A show focused entirely on political satire – in the form of caricatures – is currently on view at Stanford University’s Cantor Museum. Looking at the lithographs, I couldn’t help but think of the current troubles caused by various representations of the Prophet Mohammed.  At issue, then, as now, is the notion of freedom of speech.

The Stanford show, “When Artists Attack the King: Honoré Daumier and La Caricature, 1830–1835,” is political satire at its best. Its equivalent today would be the television shows, The Simpsons, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report.

Louis Philippe I was the last king to rule France. (Emperor Napoleon III was the country’s last monarch.) Louis’ reign began nearly forty years after the French Revolution and coincided with the end of the July Revolution of 1830. At first Louis Philippe seemed to be on the side of the people but later he became fat with power, siding with the wealthy. He was lampooned by various artists in the weekly Paris journal, La Caricature. Foremost of these artists was Honoré Daumier, who Artble.com calls “the Michelangelo of caricature.” Some of the exhibition’s funniest prints are those in which the king is depicted as a corpulent, bulbous la poire (pear).

Why la poire?

the body of the king

Not at all happy with the press’ wicked sense of humor, the monarchy passed a law banning all depictions of the king’s image. Under French law the king’s body became sacred. Not to be deterred, Daumier savagely caricatured the king’s appearance. Through his art, Daumier laughed at the king and his government and in so doing, urged the public who read his journal, to do the same. Daumier’s art, the power of his images and the journal, La Caricature, were quite influential. He and fellow caricaturist, Charles Philipon, both landed in jail on at least two occasions for their satirical lithographs of the king and his government.

The Stanford exhibition is divided into four sections:

  • an introduction to the July Monarchy and its politicians,
  • examples of La Caricature’s response to censorship,
  • samples of Daumier’s caricatures of Louis-Philippe (the prints on view are part of Stanford’s art collection), and
  • images depicting the king as La Poire.
The Pear King

Some personal information about the king (unrelated to the exhibition) is that he was in exile before becoming king and so, traveled quite a bit. During his travels, he lived in Germany (in the 1790s) where  he taught at a school. There he got the cook pregnant and their child was put into an orphanage. The pregnancy ended his academic career. A year or two later, at age 22, while living in Scandinavia, the housekeeper at the rectory where he was living bore his child, a son name Erik. Later on in his travels, before he became king, he spent four years in the United States. Here he stayed first with his brothers, who were in exile in Philadelphia, and then in New York and Boston. In the latter city he lived above what is now the Union Oyster House, Boston’s oldest restaurant.

An Aside

This [Daumier] lithograph from the exhibition is reminiscent of the workers that Diego Rivera later depicted in his murals.

The following excerpt is from Purdue University:

For more information on the exhibition, visit http://museum.stanford.edu/news_room/daumier.html

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