ART REVIEW : Revisiting the Unthinkable : Nazi Germany's 'Degenerate Art' Show at LACMA

TIMES ART CRITIC

It's like staring into the eyes of a cobra--mesmerizing and frightful. The exhibition "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" is one of the most remarkable--and troubling--seen in a lifetime of looking. Opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, it is a scholarly re-creation of Adolf Hitler's "Entartete Kunst," the infamous 1937 Munich exhibition that tried to destroy modern art as earlier Nazi book burnings had tried to liquidate advanced literature.

The Nazis rounded up paintings, sculpture and graphics by artists who, until then, had been considered the best and the brightest. Works by artists of the Bridge, the Blue Rider, the New Objectivity and the Bauhaus had held pride of place in public museums. Now the museums would be stripped of close to 16,000 of their treasures so some 650 of them could be presented for public ridicule, herded together in a tatty former archeological institute and shown next to derisive graffiti proclaiming, "Madness will be the Method" and "Crazy at any Price." Party members sneered at the gross waste of spending public money on this garbage. Later, selected works were sold to raise cash for the Third Reich.

Museum directors and art professors were dismissed. Artists such as Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and George Grosz fled the country. The sculptor Ernst Barlach died and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner killed himself, both within a year of "Entartete Kunst." Dozens of others, including Otto Dix, went into "internal exile," working in secret or reduced to menial jobs. Some collaborated, towing the party line laid down by the official exhibition of "approved" Nazi art that was held across the park from the "degenerate" exhibition.

The LACMA re-creation was organized by curator of 20th-Century art Stephanie Barron, putting what is certainly the crowning feather in a cap already festooned with brilliantly original exhibitions of German Expressionist art. For this one, she found nearly 175 of the works from the original showing, rare posters, dozens of original documents and forgotten film footage of both the banned and official exhibitions. Dense with thought and feeling, the exhibition will surely join the ranks of the most important ever mounted. After closing here it will be seen at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Barron and architect Frank Gehry, who designed the installation, created galleries devoted to the shared plight of all avant-garde art under National Socialism--film, literature and music as well as the fine visual arts. The result scrupulously avoids any hint of sensationalism. The exploitive and demeaning original installation is presented in a model while the real works are hung with befitting dignity. Rather than acting as a blockbuster- noir this is something more akin to a European-style didactic exhibition showing welcome concern with broader cultural issues and the notion that art can teach us about the spirit of an epoch in extraordinarily vivid fashion.

Of course, the Zeitgeist of the Nazi era was that of an endless waking nightmare. It is not impossible that LACMA's "Entartete Kunst" could cause some controversy precisely because it is so eloquently chilling. I'm told that some dismay has already been registered. The other night at a collateral showing of rarely screened Nazi propaganda films, some viewers spoke up saying, "Why are you showing us this awful stuff?"

Why indeed.

Ever since Hitler perished in his bunker with appropriate ignominy, he and his minions have been regarded as the incarnation of evil in the 20th Century. They did the unspeakable, using the philosophical fiction of a superior Aryan race to justify the most keenly calculated brutality--genocide both actual and cultural.

Why remind us of a historical aberration whose repetition is unthinkable?

Well, as Jews have been insisting ever since, we think of it precisely to make sure it remains unthinkable.

Nobody can imagine President Bush ordering NEA chief John Frohnmayer to strip our museums of all art from Picasso to Warhol, declaring it obscene and selling it to pay for the Persian Gulf War. That is absurd. It is not, however, impossible to imagine a good number of American citizens who think modern art is bunk having a fine old time razzing it were it be somehow stripped of its cultural cachet. Those were apparently the sentiments of most of the 3 million Germans who saw the show in 1937.

Quite unexpectedly and unintentionally, Barron's show has become a cautionary tale about what symptoms signal a culture that may be in danger of going off the rails. Just a gentle reminder. In 1937, Germany had already jumped the track. We have not.

But we have experienced enough ongoing economic uncertainty, military anxiety, minority prejudice, anti-intellectualism and general coerciveness so that the psychological vectors coming out of "Entartete Kunst" have an eerie resonance.

One of the most striking things about the ambience around the show is that most things seem normal--but out of kilter. That may be Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." More striking still is the way the Nazis' justifications for their actions fail to make sense. At times, it gets funny enough to bring Chaplin's "Great Dictator" to mind, dancing with the globe of the world.

Nazi organization of the exhibition was based around the notion that these artists were un-German. In fact, they are observably the inheritors of German artistic tradition going back at least to Mathias Grunewald. German art has ever been deeply concerned with moral issues, telling stories and looking at truth unflinchingly.

Paintings labeled as insulting to religion are fervently moral. Among those Barron found are Max Beckmann's "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery," Emil Nolde's, "Christ Among the Children" and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's "Pharisees." All throb with a kind of moral sincerity.

The Nazis' next neat category was "paintings insulting German womanhood." It sounds like a kind of ghastly caricature of feminis! but the nudes by Hoffer, Kirchner and others are models of the longing for innocence.

The Nazis liked to characterize avant-garde artists as international elitists who did not love their country. If they believed that, they should have avoided the section on landscape where the Kirchners, Noldes and Feiningers show an almost metaphysical attachment to the land.

Intellectuals who look at life with unblinking irony like to say that Hitler did these artists a great favor by suppressing them, thus ensuring their fame. Some artists apparently agreed with deep sarcasm. When the Bavarian novelist Oskar Maria Graf's work was not included in the bonfires, he protested.

What if, the thinkers speculate further, the Third Reich had actually embraced this art? Today, we would regard it as the spawn of Nazi insanity and keep it locked up in storerooms as an unpleasant curiosity.

That is an amusing conceit but an impossible scenario. For one thing, German Expressionism is very tough stuff. Artists like George Grosz were, in fact, consciously subversive. His "Metropolis" shows the modern city as a purgatorial bonfire of vanity and heartlessness.

Other artists mirrored the freedom and decadence of the Weimar Republic. Otto Dix did not shrink from painting a bookseller's portrait in a pose associated with homosexual camping, or from depicting the corpse of a raped and murdered woman while two little dogs copulate on the floor.

Nowhere is the Expressionist aesthetic better expressed than in the excellent selection of prints--many from the museum's Robert Gore Rifkind Center. Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's "Kneeling Woman" is among many that hold the power of tribal masks and fetishes. Medieval religious passion animates Max Pechstein's woodcut series "The Lord's Prayer." Here, we see that at its core Expressionism had romantically revived humankind's primitive aspect.

Society can't have that. The force of law and order--the social super-ego--is obliged to hold in check the vigorous beast that inhabits each of us. The Nazis could not look at this work without wanting to suppress it. They said they did so to maintain decency and family values. We know, psychologically, they squelched it because it excited the far more dangerous beast in them.

It is in the nature of such monsters to appear all the more dangerous because they are not only rapacious but unpredictable. If the Nazi ideology had been a philosophy it would have had some consistency. It didn't. It waffled. When Wilhelm Lehmbruck's widow protested the inclusion of her husband's large bronze nude in "Entartete Kunst" it was, surprisingly, removed. Rudolph Belling got out when it was discovered he was in both the approved and decadent exhibitions. Franz Marc's work escaped when people protested he was a war hero, but Emil Nolde was kept in even though he was a Nazi.

When a filmmaker demurred to do a film for Joseph Goebbels because he was Jewish the propaganda chief snapped, "I'll decide who is Jewish."

Hitler suppressed jazz because of his hatred of blacks but promoted traditional classical music because he loved Richard Wagner.

The Fuhrer said he detested homosexuals but cheerfully ignored those among his ranks--until they became politically inconvenient.

Such inconsistency makes the Nazis look crazy, but they weren't. They were worse. They really lusted after the ultimate obscenity, the untrammeled exercise of raw power. It's a lust not uncommonly covered by a prissy sense of exaggerated decency and a horror of giving offense. It's like a rotten town kept squeaky clean.

Good can only come from such a mentality by quirky accident. When Thomas Mann left Germany to settle in Los Angeles, he said, "I believe in fact that for the duration of the present European Dark Age the center of Western culture will shift to America."

That happened. The excrement of Nazism's suppression of art turned out to be the fertilizer that brought America the best and brightest of Europe and turned this country toward a great cultural flowering.

For this, however, "Entartete Kunst" reminds us we owe Hitler no gratitude.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., to May 12. Closed Mondays. (213) 857-6000.

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