“Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany” is going home. The landmark exhibition, which opened a year ago at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, will appear March 3-May 31 in Berlin.
Billed as a major event, the show will be installed at the Altes Museum, a stately edifice on Museum Island in Berlin’s historic cultural center. German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher will preside over opening ceremonies.
This might seem perfectly natural. Why wouldn’t Germans accord high honors to LACMA curator Stephanie Barron’s masterpiece, which re-creates Adolf Hitler’s infamous exhibition, “Entartete Kunst,” assembled in 1937 to denigrate art that failed to glorify the Fuhrer’s ideals?
To be sure, the show recounts a shameful chapter of history, but why wouldn’t thinking Germans be interested in the modern art that Hitler held up to ridicule, accompanied by a fascinating array of didactic material and Nazi-banned music, literature and film? With its hefty catalogue, “Degenerate Art” is by far the most extensive examination of the subject to date.
The show has attracted about half a million visitors in the United States and won such widespread critical acclaim that no one batted an eye when it was voted the best museum exhibition of 1991 by the American section of the International Art Critics Assn. Why wouldn’t Germans want to see the object of so much curiosity and approbation?
As it turns out, they do, but that fact is a recent revelation. Not once during the three years Barron spent organizing the exhibition--including extensive research in Germany--did a German museum official ask to host the show. Barron herself did not take the initiative because she felt the subject was too sensitive for German institutions.
“From the beginning, I really thought of this as an American exhibition because--given the sensitivities at play--I could at least make a stab at understanding what an American audience’s comprehension of the subject matter was--which was that not very much information was out there,” Barron said in an interview at her office at the County Museum of Art.
In Germany, she assumed, the situation was quite different because there had been a few smaller exhibitions and several publications on the topic. To address what she thought were the special needs of a German audience would have required a German co-curator.
But as the show gathered steam--and the original two-city tour was expanded to include Washington--more and more Germans saw the exhibition. Tourists bumped into it in the course of their travels. Diplomats saw it in Washington and a few influential government officials flew to the United States to look it over. Word of mouth had reached such a pitch by August that Barron received a telephone call from Bonn, asking about sending the show to Germany.
“I was daunted, stunned and awed by the logistics,” Barron said. The project would require the permission of about 200 lenders of artworks and necessitate reproducing the catalogue and the show’s graphics, text panels, labels, films and acousti-guide tour in German. This would have been difficult enough if planned from the beginning; producing a German version of the show during the last few months of its run would be a nightmare.
The timing was terrible in terms of physical effort, but it turned out to be fortuitous. “I felt better about the idea than I would have a year earlier. My attitude had changed,” Barron said.
By then, she knew that her assumptions about German knowledge of Hitler’s show and their response to her effort were erroneous. “What has surprised me is a very strong, positive reaction to the exhibition and the catalogue, not only from the general public but specifically from the German audience--including general visitors and the press. A number of German colleagues had come to me and said they thought it was terrible that the show wasn’t going to Germany. If enough people say that to you, you begin to listen,” she said.
Calls from Germany kept coming, the German government agreed to underwrite the exhibition (at an undisclosed cost), the German Historical Museum in Berlin emerged as LACMA’s official partner and the Altes Museum was selected as the location for “Degenerate Art.”
Initially, there was talk of also taking the exhibition to Munich, where Hitler’s show debuted, but scheduling more than one German venue was impractical. Berlin’s status as an art center and its symbolic position in reunified Germany outweighed sentimental reasons for taking the show to Munich, Barron said.
Berlin also offered the enticing possibility of adding works from local collections that Barron hadn’t been able to borrow because of an owner’s reluctance or conservation problems. These potential additions would make up for the inevitable losses that occur from one venue to another in lengthy traveling exhibitions. Also, works from German collections that were only loaned for the original two-city tour might be reinstated.
“I’ve lost 16 pictures from Washington, but I’ve gained 20. Some were seen in Los Angeles, some in Chicago and a few didn’t appear in any of the United States venues,” Barron said. “There are some really spectacular pictures that we did pick up. One of the great ones, from the National Gallery in Berlin, is Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s ‘Self-Portrait With Eyeglass.’ It’s a very famous painting that’s so fragile it couldn’t even travel within Germany for a Schmidt-Rottluff retrospective.”
Another addition is Rudolf Belling’s original wood sculpture, “Triad,” which was represented by a later bronze version in the earlier shows.
Barron tracked down about 200 of the 650 artworks that Hitler displayed in “Entartete Kunst” before the show opened in Los Angeles. A few other pieces have come to light during the last year. Two paintings by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner surfaced in Berlin. Erich Heckel’s painting “The Conversation” turned up last fall in an auction catalogue. Immediately after the sale, Barron persuaded the buyer (an unidentified American collector) to loan it to the exhibition in Washington. The painting will also go to Berlin.
“Those kinds of additions are really terrific, so I feel confident that the quality of the show will be maintained,” Barron said.
As for the first part of the exhibition, which places the art in social and historical context, German viewers will see what the American audience saw, except that the text will be in their language. Throughout the show, the installation will be more spacious--up from 14,500 square feet at LACMA to 23,000 square feet in Berlin.
“What interested me very much in the approach, initially, from Bonn, was that they were interested in taking an American show. They wanted this show. They didn’t want to just take the art and fabricate it into a new show,” Barron said.
Architect Frank Gehry, who designed the exhibition’s installation in the United States, is also the designer for Berlin. “Certainly, at this point, the last thing Frank needs to be doing is designing fourth venues of traveling exhibitions, but he was extremely enthusiastic. We flew to Berlin for 48 hours in December to meet with Wolf-Dieter Dube (director general of the Berlin State Museums) and our colleagues from the Historical Museum to plan the installation,” Barron said.
Gehry is doing a restoration job as well as an exhibition installation. The Altes Museum, designed in 1832 by Karl Friedrich Schinkel, is highly revered by architects but it had been compromised over the years. The most exciting feature, a glass-top rotunda at the entrance, was intact, but Schinkel’s grand front staircase had been blocked off and replaced by a rudimentary stairway in back. Under Gehry’s direction, the original staircase is being restored to its original beauty and strengthened so that it can function as intended.
“Schinkel is becoming a new icon in Germany, especially since his buildings in East Berlin are being rediscovered,” Barron said, “so having the show in this museum adds a special dimension. There’s a constant dialogue between the show and the building.”
One particularly “nice resonance with history” will occur in a long-closed doorway on the second floor that leads to a catwalk around the rotunda, Barron said. “We’re opening the door. You won’t be able to go through, but you will be able to see the rotunda. Just opposite that door will be the silent video of people looking at the original exhibition. There’s this moment of contrast between, in essence, the high moment of modern German culture and the low moment.”
When the show closes in Berlin, it will have lived nine months longer than originally intended. Even then, it won’t die completely. A movie on “Degenerate Art,” being made for public television, is expected to air early next year. Filmed in Los Angeles, Washington and Berlin, it will feature archival footage, shots of the new exhibition, comments by historians and critics, and eyewitness accounts of Hitler’s attempt to discredit modern art.
“This exhibition has touched a nerve for a lot of people, and that’s the thing that fascinates me,” Barron said. “I’m very curious to see how it is viewed in Germany.”