By Marietta Zafriakos
Artistic freedom, growth and experimentation had no place in the Third Reich.
How did any modern art survive the Third Reich? The Mad Square: Modernity in German Art 1910-1937, is an exhibition of the extraordinary artistic diversity of 20th century German art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. It’s quite remarkable to think of what these pieces have been through to be part of this exhibition.
The title of the exhibition refers to a 1931 painting by Felix Nussbaum of which the curator, Dr Jacqueline Strecker says, ‘can be seen as a satirisation of the collapse of society during the years of the Weimar Republic and as a forewarning of the cataclysm to come’. Regardless of what ‘mad square’ may have been: be it insanity in a public place, or fury within the frame of a painting, or perhaps something else as the Nazis began to take power, artists reacted in turmoil. Germany certainly was in the midst of it all. The clever title links the works in the exhibition with the ‘mad’ era of modernity in Germany.
The starting place for The Mad Square is Berlin, a century ago. In the heady years leading up to, and at the beginning of World War I, Germany became the epicentre for international avant-garde artists. Despite the economic instability of the early 1920s, Berlin re-established itself as the third largest city in Europe after Paris and London, a busy metropolis brimming with opportunity.
Jacqueline Strecker goes beyond the 14-year period of the Post World War I Weimar Republic from 1918 to 1933, exploring the impact of the new Nazi regime from 1933-37. Strecker explores movements of this period such as Expressionism, the Bauhaus group and Dada. These were movements that defied the aims of totalitarianism, and were completely forbidden, degraded, and censored by the Nazis. The exhibition features more than 200 works from collections around the world, with many by important artists of the period including Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, George Grosz, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Christian Schad and Hannah Höch. This exhibition exposes the effect Nazism had on German artists, as well as the complex ways in which these artists reacted to the changes of modernity.
The Mad Square attempts to investigate a large period, which at times can seem overwhelming. Because of this ambitious focus, the impact the Nazis had over German art may not at first seem obvious to viewers who do not have any knowledge of the history of the time. Ultimately, the exhibition examines a culture gripped between two catastrophic dramas, World War I and the establishment of the Nazi Third Reich. Furthermore, it explores the marginalisation of the arts during the rise of the Nazis, the ‘golden years’ of The Weimar Republic, and its inevitable fall. But is this exhibition a true representation of the impact of the Third Reich on modern art?
To offer some historical insight into early 20th century Berlin: they were a population traumatised by the impact of the war. The impact of hyperinflation triggering economic disaster. The Great Depression further devastated Weimar’s unstable life. Unemployment and poverty spread across Germany. The challenges of a turbulent society and the corruption of the Weimar period ultimately saw Hitler and his government gain popularity and seize power.
From 1924 onwards, the Nazis increasingly took control of regional governments, and in 1933, they triumphed nationally. The Nazis wasted no time in attacking what they perceived to be endangering their ideal of German culture: ‘immoral’ notions in the fields of art, literature, music and film. ‘The entire artistic and cultural stammering of the Cubists, Futurists and Dadaists is neither racially founded nor bearable as art for the people,’ said Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda. True art as outlined by Hitler was associated with the country life, a return to the past and with the Aryan racial ideology. Virtually all modern art was ‘degenerate’, the English translation of the German phrase, ‘entartete Kunst’. The allegedly ‘Jewish’ nature of art that was indecipherable, distorted, or that depicted ‘depraved’ subject matter was prohibited. It’s important to remember that during this time, one third of Berlin’s population were Jewish.
Modernism had no place in the Third Reich.
National Socialism tried to control German culture and how it was portrayed and perceived abroad. For example, one of the ways art reflected the Nazi political philosophy was by the tedious repetition of traditional landscape art. Artists glorified the German citizens, soldiers, and Hitler’s ideals. Art was to portray Hitler as a hero who would cure all of Germany’s ills (may have misinterpreted this sentence). The notion of racial purity, manual labour, military heroism and portraits of the Führer were common.
The transformation of German art came with the expectation of all artists to join the Reichshulturkammer (Reich’s Culture Chamber.) In 1933 Hitler assigned Goebbels as the head of the Chamber, overseeing all art. By 1935, the Reich’s Culture Chamber had over 100,000 members. By now, the Nazis had a firm grasp on art, and made sure it functioned as indoctrinating people with warped Fascist ideology. Soon enough, the Nazi’s strict guidelines on the arts became part of the destruction and regulation of cultural life in Germany. In a broader sense, a major part of the Nazi attack on culture might be called a war against creativity and the vision of the other. It soon became clear that the task of art in the Third Reich was to mould people’s attitudes by carrying political messages with stereotyped concepts.
As they did with other parts of life, the Nazis changed the notion of German art to agree with, and strengthen, their belief system. Works of art during this period were derived from the classical style of Greece and Rome. Hitler chose classical art to be the style that the Nazis would emulate because he felt it epitomised a period of racial purity, before it had been ‘corrupted’ by Jewish influences. Hitler saw classical art a traditional period of great and strong empires, an ‘empire’ he wished to rule. Clearly these ideals of traditional art were far from the innovative art modernists had been aspiring to create. Even though only a few of the modern artists who had developed these new ‘degenerate’ styles were actually Jewish, the Nazis considered modern art to be the result of racial impurity.
In the Mad Square, a section titled ‘Art and Power’ concentrates solely on the rise of fascism, and the consequences for modern art in Germany. Munich’s Degenerate Art show in 1937 was perhaps the most indiscriminate of the Nazis’ raids against ‘un-German’ culture. Out of the 16000 sculptures, paintings, prints and books that were confiscated from museums and galleries during the Nazi regime, 650 of them were set aside for the ’Degenerate’ show. The goal was to ridicule and insult. Works selected for the show aimed to prove the mental deficiency and moral decay that had supposedly crept into modern German art. Artworks in various media were hung in a purposely crowded fashion. They were exhibited in rooms surrounded by many signs that announced things such as: “Revelation of the Jewish racial soul,” and “The Jewish longing for the wilderness reveals itself – in Germany the Negro becomes the racial ideal of degenerate art.”
Over two million people visited the exhibition in Munich, while far fewer saw the Great German Art Exhibition held nearby in the Nazi-designed House of German Art, which sought to promote what the Nazis deemed as ‘healthy’ art. As well as filmed footage and documentation from the show, several of these ’degenerate’ works are included in the Mad Square exhibition to emphasise the creativity and diversity of modernism, in opposition to the derogatory ways in which the Nazis sought to scorn and destroy modern art.
Among the strongest images in the exhibition are the photomontages of John Heartfield. Heartfield was a communist who changed his name from Helmut Herzfelde. This was in part a way of protesting World War I; he even feigned madness to avoid returning to the service. Heartfield created images satirising Hermann Goering as a butcher in 1933, and Hitler, (pictured above) with a spine of gold coins. These images juxtapose the declarations of Nazi propaganda with the misery of widespread poverty.
Avant-garde German artists were branded both enemies of the state and a threat to German culture, so many went into exile. Max Beckmann fled to Amsterdam. Max Ernst immigrated to America with his then wife Peggy Guggenheim. Nussbaum was captured in Belgium. Kirchner committed suicide in Switzerland in 1938. Although officially no artists were killed because of their work, those of Jewish descent who did not escape from Europe in time were sent to concentration camps. Many parts of the world benefited from Europeans being forced to escape their homes. One of the Bauhaus artists featured in The Mad Square, Ludwig Hirschfeld, was forced to leave Germany due to his part-Jewish heritage. He was deported to Australia where he became an inspirational teacher at Geelong Grammar School and Melbourne University. Who knows what these artists may have accomplished if they did not have the threat of the Nazis looming over them?
After the Degenerate Art exhibit, works were sold at various auctions; some pieces were obtained by museums, others by private collectors. After the fall of Nazi Germany and the invasion of Berlin by the Red Army, some artworks from the exhibit were found buried. It is uncertain how many of these then reappeared in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg where they still remain. In 2010, as work began to develop on an underground line from Alexanderplatz through the city centre to the Brandenburg Gate, several sculptures from the Degenerate Art show were found in the cellar of a private house. These included the bronze cubist style statue of a female dancer by the artist Marg Moll, now on display at the Neues Museum, http://www.neues-museum.de/.
Who knows, maybe there are still hidden artworks to be found.
As unstable, corrupt, politically divided and ultimately doomed as the Weimar government was, it coincided – as Eric Hobsbawm writes in an essay reprinted in the catalogue – with an extraordinary eruption of cultural, literary and scientific activity in Germany, partly stirred by the idea of living on the edge of a catastrophe, in a world whose past had been obliterated and whose future was unknown.
Undoubtedly, the Third Reich had an immeasurable impact on 20th century German art. The Mad Square offers some insight into the consequences Hitler’s rise to power had on German artists. The full impact of the Nazis on art is not explored entirely however, as that is not the main focus. Instead, this exhibition highlights the diversity in the art produced during the rise and fall of Weimar.
It is understandable that viewers of the exhibition may have mixed responses aesthetically, morally and emotionally. Time distorts how we perceive things, and it is hard to imagine these great artists, or anyone, living under the struggles of the Nazi regime. Not only did the Nazis imprison and murder millions, they also tainted the potential of German artists through their oppressive regime. Their strict guidelines on the arts became part of the destruction and regulation of all cultural life in Germany.
In a section of the final room there is a small collection of works that survived the ‘degenerate’ art campaign, to commemorate modern artists and their contribution to art. Modernity brought artists together, and yet freed them due to the idea that society and their world had vanished by war, politics and technology. It is this legacy that the modern artists have left behind, rather than the impact of Hitler’s power on art.
The Mad Square, Art Gallery of NSW, Sydney, August 6th -November 6th
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 25th November to 4th March.
In conjunction with The Mad Square exhibition, a program of theatre, music, film, exhibitions and discussions inspired by 1920s Berlin are being held around Sydney.
Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of New South Wales
“The Coming of the Third Reich,” Richard J. Evans,
“The Rise of the Nazis,” Conan Fischer.
The Mad Sqaure Exhbition catalogue,