Viewers pass a forbidding black wall emblazoned with red and white text, then enter through a tilted doorway to view “Degenerate: Hitler’s War on Modern Art.” The title refers to the art and artists that Hitler condemned as “un-German” and displayed as a propaganda tool at the infamous “Degenerate Art” exhibition, “Entartete Kunst,” in 1937.
The exhibition at the Jewish Museum illuminates a dark period for artistic freedom, and underscores its tragic human cost. A timeline allows visitors to visualize the erosion of personal and artistic freedom during the National Socialist regime, tracing Hitler’s rise to power as chancellor in 1933 up to 1939, when any seized “degenerate” art was auctioned to help finance Germany’s war effort.
The paintings and works on paper, drawn from regional private and institutional collections, include a who’s-who of important visual artists from the early- to mid-twentieth century. Wassily Kandinsky, Max Beckmann, Emile Nolde, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, Erich Heckel and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner share the gallery walls with lesser-known names. Many of these works have never been shown to the public.
Curated by Molly Dubin of the Jewish Museum, this exhibition has been sensitively installed in loose thematic and stylistic groupings that provide context to the rich diversity of styles and subjects represented. One gallery features work in which women are depicted as autonomous and worldly, in stark contrast to the Third Reich’s version of women as domesticized, Aryan baby-producers.
Many works satirize the decadence of German society after the First World War. A drypoint etching by Beckmann pictures a tight cluster of bourgeois men and women, limbs and heads in a jumble, all yawning in apparent ennui. Other works portray the results of the country’s humiliating defeat in the war—the impoverished, the sick, the “cripples” and beggars. Hitler’s vision of a unified nation required a naturalistic style and idealized subjects sanitized of such “negative” portrayals.
The largest painting in the exhibition, “Seated Woman with Flowers,” by Martel Schwichtenberg, appears benignly uncontroversial, but was considered “degenerate” for its stark style and suspiciously non-Aryan subject. A small painting by Marc Chagall pictures an Orthodox rabbi taking a pinch of snuff, a Jewish star hovering above his shoulder—a subject anathema to the Reich. Interestingly, only six of some 112 artists exhibited in Hitler’s propaganda show were Jewish.
The consequences of the Third Reich’s censorship for these artists led to complete public suppression of their work. Many—including Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian and Chagall—sought exile abroad. Kirchner was driven to suicide, as was Alfred Helberger, whose Jewish wife was sent to a concentration camp.
This exhibition at the Jewish Museum not only sheds light on a very dark period of history, but offers cautionary lessons for our own time. Honoring its mission of community outreach and education, the museum has organized programming that addresses issues such as the history of Nazi censorship, the eugenics movement, the question of art restitution, and censorship of books that embroils school boards and libraries today. It has also instituted docent tours for school-age children, and created a video paired with material for classroom teachers.
“Degenerate: Hitler’s War on Modern Art” at the Jewish Museum Milwaukee, 1360 North Prospect Avenue, Milwaukee. On view through August 20.
William Torphy’s essays and reviews have appeared in Artweek, High Performance, Expo-see, Solstice Literary, and Vox Populi. His short fiction has been featured in numerous magazines and journals including Bryant Literary Review and Arlington Literary Journal. His short story collection, Motel Stories, has just been released by Unsolicited Press. He recently moved to Wisconsin from the San Francisco Bay area, where he served as an exhibition curator. williamtorphy.com