Goethe Institute Uses Arts to Unite Germans, Americans : Among the organization’s projects are several programs related to LACMA’s exhibit on ‘Degenerate Art’ under the Nazis

<i> Kapitanoff is a Los Angeles writer</i>

Long before the Berlin Wall cracked open and Southern Californians felt a sense of kinship with Germany, there was the Goethe Institute Los Angeles, a German cultural center that has been working for eight years to bring Germans and Americans together.

“We are not here just to tell people what beautiful things we have in Germany,” said Reinhard Dinkelmeyer, director of the Goethe Institute’s Los Angeles office. “We develop programs in cooperation with local partners--museums, universities, film institutes--who are interested in common topics and themes.”

The institute is co-sponsoring several programs related to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s exhibition, “Degenerate Art: the Fate of the Avant-Garde in Germany,” which opened Feb. 17. This exhibit reassembles a significant portion of the artwork that the Nazis took from public museums throughout Germany and displayed in Munich in 1937 to show the German people what kind of work was deemed unacceptable.

Work by such artists as Max Beckmann, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Marc Chagall were among those considered decadent and morally offensive by the Nazis, and are included in LACMA’s reconstruction of seven rooms of the 1937 exhibition.

The Goethe Institute helped obtain rarely seen movies from German archives for the film series at the museum, “From Caligari to Hitler.” Six infamous Nazi propaganda films that have been banned in Germany since 1945 were made available for a seminar on Nazi cinema that takes place next month. A documentary film series that includes “The Art of the Third Reich” and “Swing Under the Swastika” will also run in April.


During the last two weeks, the institute presented “Presence of the Past,” a series of recent feature films that explore the sometimes painful experiences of the sons and daughters of those who lived under the Third Reich. In addition, it co-sponsored two lectures, one on music in the concentration camps, the other on theater during the Third Reich, and a one-day symposium with scholars from Europe and the United States on international responses to the condemnation of degenerate art.

A link between LACMA and the Goethe Institute was established in 1983 when the institute contributed to various arts programs that accompanied the museum’s German Expressionist sculpture exhibition. The institute was interested in organizing and financially supporting the “Degenerate Art” exhibit because it “has always shown its readiness to discuss issues of the Nazi past,” Dinkelmeyer said. “The only way to live with it is to be honest and frank about what happened.”

Dinkelmeyer also believes that the postwar generation in Germany has learned important lessons from the Nazi suppression of avant-garde art that are applicable to the United States today. “We learned to be suspicious of these terms of identifying good and bad art. You cannot draw a direct line from the Nazi attitude toward art to the discussion of so-called obscene art, which is going on in this country today. But one could learn how to avoid things by looking into the past of Nazi Germany and being careful with artistic freedom in this country now. Suppression of artistic creativity can be dangerous everywhere.”

Located in a small bank building at Wilshire and La Cienega boulevards, the institute offers German language study courses and a public library including videos, music and books specializing in German literature after 1945, German film history and contemporary art. It is one of 150 nonprofit Goethe centers worldwide, 11 of them in the United States.

Founded in Munich in 1951, the institute was named after a giant of world literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who wrote several masterpieces, including “Faust.” It was organized when Germany was admitted back into the family of nations after World War II, and exchange students and business people came to West Germany to learn the language, Dinkelmeyer said.

The first branch office opened the following year in Athens to support German language study programs and to work with local academic, arts and cultural organizations to sponsor seminars, exhibits, film programs, concerts and theater productions that would generate an exchange of information about German and local culture.

Dinkelmeyer, now 53, arrived in Los Angeles four years ago after 20 years with the institute. After almost 15 years in Third World countries, he was assigned to the Rotterdam, Netherlands, office. “It was a special challenge for me because Holland suffered so much from the Germans during World War II,” Dinkelmeyer said.

Since arriving here from Rotterdam, Dinkelmeyer and the nine-member institute staff have worked closely with cultural, educational and arts organizations in Southern California--including Women in Film, the American Film Institute, UCLA, USC, various Cal State campuses, the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the Jewish Federation Council. Their efforts have led to programs that give exposure to contemporary, often experimental, art, music and film programs.

“Beethoven doesn’t need the help of the Goethe Institute to be promoted and presented here,” Dinkelmeyer said.

One of the institute’s ideal partnerships, Dinkelmeyer said, was a group of eight artists from Dusseldorf known as BonAngeles who were brought to the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 1989 for a six-week residency and an exhibition. The museum was converted into a studio where the artists worked, inviting people of varied backgrounds and social strata for dinner and conversation about life as well as art.

BonAngeles visited numerous Southern California sites, including an airplane scrap yard in the Mojave Desert, where they searched for art materials. They found two airplane wings for painter Julia Lohmann, one which she recycled into a work for the 1989 exhibition “Plain.” “The airplane is a symbol for Germany as well as the United States, especially Southern California, where you have many airplane factories,” Lohmann said. “The scrap made me think about what technology is doing to our minds.”

The BonAngeles cultural exchange has resulted in unanticipated rewards for Lohmann and sculptor Manfred Muller. Last year, an artist’s studio at Santa Monica Airport became available, and Lohmann returned to Santa Monica to work on her wings and put up a show in the studio. The institute is helping her organize a Southern California exhibit this fall. Muller has been commissioned to do a sculpture for the Santa Monica Pier.

Local artists have benefited as well. The institute had previously established contact with homeless artists downtown, including Henry Brown, known on Skid Row as Henry the Artist. He has painted a mural at 5th and Crocker streets depicting Pegasus on a green meadow facing unsupported stairs that lead skyward.

The mural had been marred by graffiti and, “in a spontaneous action over a drink at Gorky’s Cafe,” the Dusseldorf artists decided to help Brown restore it, Dinkelmeyer said. The artists, with German and American friends and homeless people, did the work.

In December, “we managed to raise the money for a ticket for Henry to fly to Dusseldorf,” Dinkelmeyer said. “The artists provided him with a place to live for six weeks and a studio to work, and from this he had an exhibition. For the first time in his life, he was taken seriously as an artist.”

The institute’s partnership with members of the Jewish community is also serious. Two years ago, the institute organized a conference with the Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust of the Jewish Federation Council called “Shadows of the Holocaust, Reflections by the American and European Postwar Generation,” which Dinkelmeyer characterizes as a “remarkable event. It was the first time the Jewish Federation developed a conference jointly with a German institution.”

“Our best partner in developing programs has been the Goethe Institute,” said Michael Nutkiewicz, a child of holocaust survivors who is director of the Martyrs Memorial and Museum of the Holocaust. “Reinhard and his staff have been remarkably sensitive in approaching the subject of Jews and the holocaust with great respect for the postwar generation. What brought us together, as colleagues and as personal friends, is our understanding that our recent histories draw us together in a symbiotic relationship. The Germans cannot heal us, and we cannot alleviate their guilt, but the contact with each other is reassuring.”

“My colleague in Paris could not dream of the networking that is possible here,” Dinkelmeyer said. “I would even say working in Boston and New York is still more difficult than it is here. One of the great advantages of Southern California is that L. A. people are open and curious for new things.”