Yes, virulent anti-Semitism in the 1930s led to the eventual butchery of millions of European Jews. But it wasn’t just Germans whose actions--and inactions--brought about the slaughter.
Americans, together with people of many other nations, played a nasty part too.
As a growing wave of thousands of German, Austrian, Polish and other European Jews sought exile outside their homelands after 1933, during the fitful rise of Hitler’s National Socialist nightmare, country after country closed its doors, sharply restricting entry. Ours included.
The awful story is told in a bluntly devastating short film from Stuart/Gazit Productions, which is continuously screened about a quarter of the way through the decidedly provocative exhibition “Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler,” which opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. America, like Europe, was reeling from the Great Depression in the 1930s, and blame for the economic collapse was being spread far and wide.
Immigrants were a handy target. Everyone from politicians to clergy pointed fingers. An official in the U.S. State Department even wrote a memo urging that American consulates abroad actively obstruct the lawful processing of potential immigrants’ papers.
This refusal to accept refugees from Europe, many of them Jews, meant that Adolf Hitler, having successfully created at home the specter of an enemy within, found there was no place beyond Germany’s borders where he could expel the noxious “vermin.” So he built prison camps. And gas chambers. And ovens.
When it comes to World War II, Americans are generally happier to see ourselves as one-dimensional saviors, not as partners--however fractional--in creating the horror of the Holocaust. But the film, which pulls no punches, concludes with an inescapably damning fact: Between 1933 and 1944, despite the desperate efforts of thousands who faced certain death at the hands of the Nazis, more than half the U.S. quota slots for European immigration went unused.
“Exiles and Emigres: The Flight of European Artists From Hitler” succeeds because it’s not interested in promoting feel-good stereotypes of the “Nazis bad / artists good” or “Germans evil / Americans saints” variety. It uses this brief film, together with displays of original and facsimile documents, posters, photographs, books, newspapers and other source material, to establish the thorny context within which artists worked after being forced to leave their homelands.
Those artists are as diverse as the Surrealists Yves Tanguy, Matta Echaurren and Salvador Dali; the Expressionists Oskar Kokoschka, George Grosz and Max Beckmann and the architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer. Not all were Jewish, not all were European-born and not all of them had the same reasons for fleeing before the advancing assault of Nazism and fascism. Curator Stephanie Barron and her associate Sabine Eckmann chose 23 artists for study, and each has an individual story to tell.
There’s a lot to read, but the show is exemplary in managing to juggle all this material in a generally cogent and coherent way. It’s a worthy sequel to “Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany,” LACMA’s widely acclaimed 1991 show chronicling Hitler’s suppression of Modern art.
In fact “Exiles and Emigres” actually fares better in one significant regard: In quality, the 130 paintings, sculptures, photographs and collages form a stronger group overall than the paintings shown in “Degenerate Art.”
The show is divided into three clearly articulated sections. Each is a trove of information.
First comes the work of five artists who went into exile in Paris, Amsterdam or London. Anchored by a wonderful selection of seven paintings by Beckmann, it also includes an excellent group of small collages by Kurt Schwitters, made during his exile in England.
Schwitters’ collages seem to include reference to current events only incidentally, as in one with a newspaper fragment advertising the movie “The Hitler Gang.” Beckmann, too, was principally interested in matters of the human spirit, but one painting--the grim “Birds’ Hell,” made in 1938, the year of Kristallnacht--is a pointedly political allegory.
Next is a largely documentary section (it includes the film), meant to establish the social and artistic climate that greeted emigre artists to the United States. In addition to documents--notably the actual State Department memo with the shocking recommendation of official obstruction of lawful immigration--it features black-and-white photographs by Andreas Feininger, Andre Kertesz and Arnold Newman.
A highlight is a scale model of Frederick Kiesler’s famously inventive 1942 design for Peggy Guggenheim’s Surrealist-inspired New York gallery, Art of This Century. The remarkable room, well-known from photographs, has not to my knowledge been built in model form before. Featuring tunnel-like curved walls, paintings projected from baseball bats and lights that blink on and off amid the periodic roar of a barreling locomotive, this techno-erotic extravaganza is revealed to embody a chaotic warring moment.
Finally, the show’s largest section features 15 artists and three architects who emigrated to America. Architect Frank O. Gehry, who ably designed the show’s installation, has built a room-within-a-room by draping a rectangular curtain of chain-link in the center of the gallery. With black rubberized flooring and a white scrim to lower the ceiling, the hushed space feels wide-open yet faintly claustrophobic--a trenchant mood, given the subject.
Inside the smaller room are period documents, including some relating to the emigration of European art historians to American schools, which forever altered the way the discipline was pursued. Outside are paintings and sculptures, most notably by Josef Albers, Marc Chagall, Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Jacques Lipchitz, Matta and Tanguy.
These European emigres are most commonly regarded for the way they contributed to a milieu that produced the postwar flowering of American Abstract Expressionist art. Here, though, the focus effectively shifts, examining their work in its own right.
Let’s be frank: Few were producing their most ambitious painting and sculpture, although several maintained an admirably high level in their production. Most had established their artistic direction well before their exile and, while individual responses to emigration differed widely, in the case of artists like Tanguy and Leger you get a feeling of simple repetitiveness. Just two artists could be said to have been making work that equaled the best in 20th century art.
Beckmann was one. He’s the only artist represented in both the European and American sections (he emigrated to St. Louis at war’s end), and the galleries conclude with an extraordinary group of four postwar paintings. He dominates the show.
The other major figure was Piet Mondrian--and here the exhibition stumbles badly. Although Mondrian is pictured on the cover of the excellent catalog, and while another informative architectural model shows us his spartan, jazz-filled New York studio, none of his abstract paintings is on view. (Last year’s great Mondrian retrospective appears to have made loans impossible to secure.) The absence leaves a gaping hole at the show’s climax.
It wounds, but it’s not fatal. “Exiles and Emigres” remains an often provocative, carefully nuanced analysis. For the first time, sense is made of a critical moment for 20th century art.
* Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., (213) 857-6000, through May 11. Closed Mondays.
* STARRY SUPPORT: Hollywood personalities help fund the exhibition. F2