Monthly Archives: December 2014

Degenerate Art at the Barber Institute

Hannah Halliwell reviews the Barber’s Degenerate Art exhibition…

 

The Degenerate Art exhibition at the Barber Institute (24 October 2014 – 11 January 2015) complements the current Rebel Visions exhibition on the War Art of CRW Nevinson, also at the Barber. The Degenerate Art exhibition explores and examines how and why artists’ work was censured, corrupted and de-valued by the Nazi regime during the 1930s, with the Barber’s own examples from celebrated artists such as George Grosz, Emil Nolde, Egon Schiele and Käthe Kollwitz. Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), was a term used by Nazis to dismiss virtually all modern art. It was also the title of an art exhibition put together by Adolf Hitler in 1937 which displayed a small percentage of confiscated art from recent decades (650 of 650,000 confiscated works were exhibited); the National Socialists rejected and censured virtually everything that had existed on the German modern art scene prior to 1933. I find this exhibition particularly fascinating in light of stories on the news which have appeared in recent years regarding the discovery of art which was previously deemed lost due to its confiscation by the Nazis (http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2014/04/degenerate-art-cornelius-gurlitt-munich-apartment).

 

Entartete Kunst exhibition

Entartete Kunst exhibition

Photo from: http://redwedgemagazine.com/articles/entartete-kunst-nazis-modern-art

As can be seen in the above image, the Entartete Kunst was incredibly popular: its popularity has never been matched by another exhibition on modern art. Over two million people visited the exhibition whilst it was in Munich, before it toured Germany and its territories.

Hitler’s aim of the Entartete Kunst exhibition was to eradicate further production of various modernist art styles by clarifying for the German public what was unacceptable and thus “un-German”. The art was determined as such because it was seen as destabilising and undermining of the Nazi ideology of a pure and physically healthy Germany – any art which condemned the ‘ideal’ body, criticised the war, was anti-Christian or was remotely abstract was exhibited at the Entartete Kunst, confiscated and often unfortunately consequently destroyed. The Barber Institute is fortunate enough to own some surviving prints which were confiscated during the Nazi regime and exhibited at the Entartete Kunst.

 

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman and Dead Child, Berlin, 1903, etching.

Käthe Kollwitz, Woman and Dead Child, Berlin, 1903, etching.

I find this print particularly fascinating: the declaration of this work as ‘degenerate’ expresses the significance of the ideal body to the National Socialist Party – something which I have learned about since taking the third year module ‘The Body and Its Representations in Visual Culture’. The Nazi’s ideal female body was one which matched the idealised, classicised body of antiquity. Kollwitz’s female figure rejects the canonical and Nazi ideal of the ‘acceptable’ female body; this figure is muscular, naked and bound by raw emotion. The overtones of grief and desperation, presumably in response to the death of the woman’s son in the etching, were deemed to be critical of the Nazi regime, denouncing war and its injustice in society. It is thus clear to see why the Nazis would categorise such a work as ‘degenerate’ to their political agenda and regime.

 

Kurt Schwitters, Merz V, Berlin, 1923, lithograph.

Kurt Schwitters, Merz V, Berlin, 1923, lithograph.

This Schwitters print interested me because it is not obviously anti-Nazi, anti-Christian or explicit in anyway, and, in fact, by the time Hitler’s Entartete Kunst was opened all of Schwitters’ art work had been banned. So, why was this print determined to be ‘degenerate’? Produced in 1923, Merz V epitomises the anti-art aesthetic that defined Dadaism – the anti-war art movement which emerged in the inter-war period. Dadaism challenged the society’s ‘necessity’ of war, the bourgeoisie and the hierarchical nature of society, as well as promoting the movement’s pro-anti-art aesthetic. Schwitters’ political and known involvement in Dadaism, and its contrasting agenda to the speeches of Nazi party leaders, is most likely the reason Merz V was declared entartet (degenerate), though the print’s obvious abstract form and composition does also contribute to this.

 

Emil Nolde, The Prophet, 1912, Berlin, woodcut.

Emil Nolde, The Prophet, 1912, Berlin, woodcut.

A staggering 1,052 of Emil Nolde’s works, mostly of religious subject matter, were confiscated in 1937 and over 50 were shown at the Entartete Kunst, including The Prophet. Emil Nolde focussed on religion as his main topic, though his work was often accused of being blasphemous because of its humanist nature. The public were not accustomed to such raw images of biblical figures and the Nazi regime desired the gentle biblical image of the Italian and German Renaissance, thus determining such prints, like The Prophet, as degenerate. Here, Nolde does not idealise Christ – we are presented with a raw depressive emotion, implying Christ’s human mortality, not as the embodiment of God. The sorrowful expression on his face may also represent the suffering of millions after World War 1. In addition, Nolde was extremely popular during the Weimar Republic (pre-Nazi) which is perhaps another reason why the Nazi’s were so strongly against his work.

 

The ‘Degenerate’ Art exhibition at the Barber Institute is enlightening and the works that I have discussed here, along with the variety of others which I have not, are certainly worth the visit. It is extraordinary to learn how the visual arts – often a method used for freedom of expression – was condemned and censured under Nazi regime. As well as the defamation, segregation and extermination of people who did not fit or share ‘idealisation’ in Nazi Germany, it is fascinating to see how such extreme and discriminating views were transferred to the visual art world.

With 2014 marking the centennial, and many of these artworks produced in light of the First World War, it is great to see the Barber commemorating the art which was subsequently so condemned by the National Socialist Party. The ‘degenerate’ art shows us the contemporaneous views of artists in war-torn society, their views on bourgeois hierarchy, the expansion and dejection of religion and the body as non-idealised, as well as Adolf Hitler’s extraordinary dismissal of anyone, and thus anything, that did not fit his perceived ‘ideal’. The collection is a great reminder of our own freedom of expression in society today and of its progression since the Entartete Kunst.

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Bringing Historical Concepts to life: first-year trip to Tate Modern and the National Gallery

Rebecca Savage gives her account of the recent first year trip to London…

The University of Birmingham provides the ideal opportunity to study paintings at first hand at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts which, as any lecturer will tell you, is an invaluable resource given that the study of painting from powerpoint slides and text books is no substitute for the real thing. It is, however, always exciting to see pictures outside the grounds of the university and a couple of weeks ago the first years (accompanied by some second-year students and, of course, our lecturer, David Hemsoll) visited Tate Modern and the National Gallery on a whistle stop tour of the capital.

Many of us started with the current exhibition at Tate Modern – Works on Paper – a display of drawings, etchings and poetry by the late Louise Bourgeois. These provided an intriguing and sometimes uncomfortable insight into the artist’s interior monologue, displaying private drawings made by the artist late at night, while also demonstrating her talents outside the sculptural work for which she is best known.

The Tate’s collection also gave us all the opportunity to grapple with some of the questions we have been thinking about in our recent module ‘Historical Concepts’ in which we have been learning about a number of activities and questions involved in the study of art history. Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept Waiting certainly linked in with themes of ‘what is an artist?’ given the seemingly simplistic process involved in the production of the work and its distance from the traditional criteria for defining ‘fine art’. The jury was also undecided as to whether Michael Baldwin’s work Untitled Painting can be considered art at all, although it did raise questions on the purpose of a painting as a reflection of the real world.

Baldwin’s work – Is this really a painting at all?

Baldwin’s work – Is this really a painting at all?

After a quick break for an overpriced lunch or coffee (let’s face it everything seems expensive on a student budget!) and a desperate run for the coach, which, David insisted, ‘would not wait for us’, we made our way to the bustling Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery.

At this point I admit I had a mission. I am writing my first ‘Historical Concepts’ essay on Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait and was eager to see first-hand the famous detail of the floorboards and clothing I had been reading so much about. I wasn’t disappointed, after an initial period of confusion (the gallery doesn’t seem that big until you start looking for a single, specific, painting) I found the portrait in a small room. I can honestly say that seeing the colours, technique and brushwork up close has brought it alive for me. Also, I was rather lucky that a group tour happened to be talking about this painting whilst I was looking at it, so I was able to have a sneaky listen in to what they were saying!

The Arnolfini portrait in all its glory.

The Arnolfini portrait in all its glory.

The National Gallery gave everybody the perfect opportunity to see some of the art discussed in lectures and seminars actually in the flesh. We were able to point out the iconography in Antonio de Pollaiuolo’s Martyrdom of St Sebastian presented recently in one of David’s lectures as well as appreciating Berthe Morisot’s images, which we have discussed with lecturer Fran Berry in the module ‘Concepts of Modernism’.

St Sebastian impaled by his traditional arrow attributes

St Sebastian impaled by his traditional arrow attributes

I think we would all agree that our visit to the big city has certainly assisted us with our studies. Whether that’s by seeing specific works, helping us to discover new artists, or, more generally, reminding us of the scope of work there is to be discovered, it has definitely demonstrated to me how much we have already learnt.

Rebel Visions: the War Art of CRW Nevinson

Final year student, Marianne Thomas, reviews the Barber Institute’s latest exhibition…

Having only opened on 24th October, the Barber Institute’s exhibition, Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson seems to be proving very popular. Visitors to the gallery from the local area and further afield have been praising its unique and insightful view of the First World War. So, encouraged by the thought-provoking atmosphere of this centennial November, I decided it was high time that I take a look for myself.

On entering the gallery, I had no idea whatsoever who Nevinson even was, but a concise timeline and introduction displayed within the exhibition space soon put me straight. His biography was rather fascinating – starting off with an art education at UCL, he began working as a Medical Orderly in France in 1914. This led to him witnessing the terrible casualties that would haunt his art for the rest of his life – his position as an official war artist in 1917 only emphasised that.

The way in which Nevinson’s wartime experiences are manifested in his work is clear from the outset, and it is his lifelong and distinctive viewpoint of warfare that the exhibition focuses on. Clearly laid out with succinct, yet informative interpretation labels, Rebel Visions looks at works created during the First World War as well as the post-war years. From the section of the display dedicated to the war period, there were two paintings that really grabbed my attention.

Nevinson, La Patrie, 1916 © Birmingham Museums Trust

Nevinson, La Patrie, 1916 © Birmingham Museums Trust

The first was La Patrie, painted in 1916. This image depicts a makeshift French hospital, where Nevinson worked during the autumn of 1914. The figures of the wounded soldiers are incredibly striking. I’m not much of a Cubism connoisseur, but the men represented in La Patrie certainly seem to fit the stylistic mould. Nevinson uses strong geometrical shapes to form the faces and make them seem contorted with pain and suffering, while the harsh lines of the soldiers’ bodies reminded me of broken machines or fallen robots. The extensive use of black in the painting also adds to the morose feeling, while the title seems to suggest that Nevinson is being satirical – this hardship is what the “motherland” has given its children, and Nevinson doesn’t shy away from highlighting that.

 

Nevinson, 'War Profiteers', 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) ©The Nevinson Estate / Bridgeman Images (http://barber.org.uk/rebel-visions-2/)

Nevinson, War Profiteers, 1917 (Reproduced with the kind permission of the Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.) © The Nevinson Estate/Bridgeman Images (http://barber.org.uk/rebel-visions-2/)

The second painting that really stuck with me was War Profiteers, produced a year later. Showing two women dressed lavishly but with mask-like facial features, the image, together with its title, implies that some women actually benefited from warfare, encouraging a feeling of repulsion in the viewer. It certainly achieved this with me; the women appear to be enjoying themselves at the cost of so many lost lives, and the fact that Nevinson paints them in shades of blue only serves to emphasise further their cold demeanours and attitudes. I found myself wondering what contemporary viewers would have made of this controversial and finger-pointing viewpoint, and then realised that this blatant criticism of the elite was probably what earned Nevinson the title of “rebel”.

Then, I decided to take a look at the post-war images and found a painting which grabbed my attention even more. The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934, is my favourite painting from the exhibition. This image made me appreciate fully Nevinson’s importance as a war artist – I love how busy and full of meaning it is. A crucifix takes precedence at the centre of the painting, while a huge cannon is represented directly beneath it. Mourning saints are depicted around the edges and images of both traditional and modern weapons fill the foreground. Religion and warfare are juxtaposed, arguably in conflict with one another. Also, the fact that this painting was created just before the Second World War could suggest that Nevinson continued to observe political unrest, regardless of state propaganda to say the contrary, and, perhaps this shows just how “rebellious” his visions were.

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist's estate / Bridgeman Images photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-unending-cult-of-human-sacrifice-6305)

Nevinson, The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice, 1934 © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images
photo credit: Bridgeman Art Library (http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/the-unending-cult-of-human-sacrifice-6305)

So, upon leaving the exhibition, I had a much clearer idea of who CRW Nevinson was and what he represented. None of his works glorify warfare; the events are portrayed as being brutal, cold and machine-like, destroying the lives of any soldiers who were involved. One hundred years after the First World War began, I think that Nevinson’s work is as important as ever, and this exhibition certainly succeeds in hammering home his message.

See Rebel Visions: The War Art of CRW Nevinson 24 October 2014 – 25 January 2015, free entry, Barber Institute of Fine Arts

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