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).
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.
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.
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.
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.