When Hitler Was Curator

In “When Hitler Was Curator“, Morgan Meis discusses a new exhibit harkening to the famous “Degenerate Art” exhibit Hitler curated at Berlin’s Haus Der Kunst in 1937:

The current show at the Neue Galerie in New York City (“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937”) mostly displays art that appeared in the now-infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibits organized by the Nazis in Munich and then taken to other cities around Nazi Germany. The point of the “Degenerate Art” exhibits was to demonstrate just how bad modern art had become, according to the Nazi sensibility…

There is a danger when viewing the Neue Galerie’s exhibit. The danger is that we enter the exhibit already “knowing” that all the art the Nazis thought was bad must be good, and that all the art they thought was good must be bad. There is some truth to this. But it is an easy truth. The question is whether we should ever approach the history of the Third Reich looking for easy truths. I propose that we should not. This has everything to do with the Holocaust. Nazism produced death camps, the likes of which had not been seen on this planet before. Nazis did not invent evil but their places of systematic human extermination were a new form of evil, one we are still trying to come to terms with. So, confronting Nazism, even in a seemingly less-vital area like aesthetics, requires a certain amount of care. You can’t come with pat answers. You have to let the disquiet emerge.

How do you let the disquiet emerge? You do it by trying to identify with Nazi sensibilities as best you are able. Here’s an example. The art critic for The New Yorker, Peter Schjeldahl, recently wrote a particularly courageous review of the Neue Galerie show. This is the crucial paragraph:

In the Ziegler, which Hitler owned, four nude Aryan beauties repose on a long plinth and wield attributes of fire, water, earth, and air. They are kitschy enough, as confections of a trumped-up sensibility that Hitler had wishfully termed “Greco-Nordic,” but well done, in simmering harmonies of light-blue sky and delicately shadowed, effulgent flesh. The pleasure imparted by “The Four Elements” is disturbing. In presenting the work, and other, lesser but not entirely miserable examples of “great German art,” Peters [the curator] plainly means to disrupt complacent assumptions about a moment when people, if untouched by the terror, might still have condoned some aspect of the Reich. Further complicating matters, not all the “degenerate” artists were first-rate, or even very good, as witness the cartoonishly grotesque sculpture of a head, by Otto Freundlich, that provided the chief image in publicity materials for the Munich show.

Schjeldahl does two important things with these comments. He admits that the painting by Adolf Ziegler (which Hitler loved) is a compelling painting. He also admits that some of the work that the Nazis hated wasn’t very good. This breaks down the boundaries between us (the right-thinking people), and them (the inscrutably evil Nazis). There is something inscrutable about the evil of Nazism. It is, and will always be, impossible to wrap one’s head around the knowledge that, on a daily basis in the early 1940s, trains of human beings were driven up to industrial crematoria, families unloaded, herded along into the gassing rooms, and murdered wholesale. That cannot ever “make sense.” But there is much of Nazism that can make sense. And to draw away from these aspects of Nazism, to protect ourselves from the elements of Nazism that we can understand, is to pretend that the evils of Nazism have nothing to do with us.

As Henry Grosshans wrote in his book, Hitler and the Artists:

[Hitler] was acquainted with the thought of Nietzsche, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, Ranke, Treitschke, Bismarck, and Spengler. He read military histories, Ibsen’s dramas, the libretto’s of Wagner’s operas, and books on mythology. According to his fellow soldiers, Hitler read and reread Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea during World War I….

Hitler went out of his way to acquire famous paintings by Vermeer, Frans Hals, and Goya. As Grosshans wrote, “By 1945, over five thousand paintings by, among others, da Vinci, Jan Steen, Tintoretto, Rubens, Ingres, and Rembrandt had been secured, as well as tapestries, pieces of sculpture, and miscellaneous items.” Hitler’s collection was probably worth about four hundred million dollars. Grosshans quotes Janet Flanner from her book Men and Monuments in saying that Hitler’s art expenditures were probably, “the greatest individual outlay for beauty ever recorded.” This is a disturbing thought…

Hitler’s abhorrence of Modernist art was a common reaction in his day. The paintings and sculptures of men like Kirchner, Dix, Barlach, and Beckmann were (and still are) disturbing. The work reflected a genuine crisis of the spirit. These artists rejected many of the values that had been seen, rightly, as constitutive of Western Civilization up until the beginning of the 20th century. It takes much training and even a certain amount of desensitizing to appreciate the work of the Expressionists, let alone see beauty in it. The beauty, when it comes, is a hard beauty. It is a beauty that comes of suffering and confusion and no little amount of despair. The artists Hitler tended to despise were the artists who, more often than not, chose to play with outright ugliness in their work. Even thoroughly non-Nazi art critics like Robert Hughes have wondered, often and with great pathos, why Western art so thoroughly abandoned beauty in the course of the 20th century…

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