Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Degenerate Art Exhibit

Exhibition catalogue.

Opening July 19, 1937, "Entartete Kunst" or the Degenerate Art Exhibit opened in Munich. In an attempt to eradicate modernism, the Nazis seized over 5,000 pieces of art deemed threatening to the New Order. However, as in all things, Nazis were scholars of the past and established breathtaking, new forms of propaganda which have served as templates for every generation since.

Short film created by a protégé of Leni Riefenstahl.

Rather than simply destroy the offending works, they were put on display for the mockery of the general public, hung the wrong-way-round in some cases, improperly lit, cramped together, the walls festooned with mocking graffiti. "Insolent mockery of the Divine under Centrist rule" and "Deliberate sabotage of national defense" are two refrains which strike me as not-unfamiliar to today's vocabulary.

In this way, modern artists were denied any kind of martyrdom -- their worthlessness was firmly established in the public mind as thousand lined up to see the "degeneracy" and freely make up their own minds as to whether the work was offensive, obscene, immoral, blasphemous, or just plain bad.

"We Curate, You Decide."

Following the exhibition, the works were auctioned off, purchased by museums and individuals desperate to save the works before they were, finally destroyed. Though many works were lost, while living in Los Angeles in 1991 I had the opportunity to witness a touring exhibit of surviving pieces. If I had not already become driven to the brink of a nervous breakdown after four weeks in L.A. this experience put me right over the edge and I returned home to Cleveland for good soon after.

One example, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's Self-Portrait as Soldier (1915) shows the artist, a World War I veteran, his painting hand severed. Kirchner had not actually lost an appendage during the war, rather the piece (painted during convalescence following a nervous breakdown) expresses his feelings that his war experience would rob him of his craft. The naked woman suggests he feared other war-related inadequacies.

639 of Kirchner's works were confiscated by the Nazis. This work was retitled Soldier With Whore for the Degenerate Art Exhibit. Kirchner committed suicide in June 1938. Fortunately for us, this work survives and you can visit it at the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin.

Self-Portrait With Hat

This work by Karl Schmidt-Rottluff is part of the permanent collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art, also saved from the 1937 exhibition in Munich.

"Tomorrow Belongs To Me."
Cabaret at Great Lakes Theater

We saw Cabaret last night. It was very moving. There were no drunken, existential rants before bedtime. The first act closes with a spirited, patriotic round of Tomorrow Belongs To Me. My mother, seated next to me, remarked, "The Nazis did write good music," adding swiftly, "of course, they just stole a bunch of folk songs and changed the words."

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