Monday, November 10, 2008

Degenerate art

In 1929, the artist Richard Lindner, whose work can be considered the bridge between Cubism, Surrealism, and Pop Art, was appointed art director of the Munich publishing house of Knorr and Hir. Lindner remembered, "I saw Hitler every day in Munich at the Café Heck, a small café with about ten tables and thirty seats... Hitler used to sit there every day at his usual table. Our table was beside his and we knew each other because we avoided direct contact... He always wanted to be with artists."

The Window, 1958
Original lithograph by Richard Lindner

Adolf Hitler’s thwarted wish to be an artist is more than an historical oddity; it lies at the root of the Nazis vicious persecution of artists and suppression of what they termed “degenerate art”. When the Nazis came to power, Germany was at the centre of the avant-garde, through German Expressionism and the Modernism of the Bauhaus.

Child's Head, 1939
Original lithograph by Paul Klee

Hitler came to power on January 31, 1933. His determination to destroy modern art in Germany was obvious. Many artists simply fled; Lindner, for instance, left for Paris the next day. Others tried to carry on. Rolf Cavael, for instance, went ahead with his first major show – a joint exhibition with Josef Albers – at Schloss Braunschweig (this was in 1933, I don’t know the exact date), but it was shut down on the day it opened. Both artists were banned from exhibiting. Cavael carried on painting abstracts, was denounced to the authorities, and interned in the concentration camp at Dachau for nine months. Cavael was banned from painting, and could only take up art again after WWII.

This story could be repeated many times. Those avant-garde artists who remained in Germany found themselves unable to buy art materials or practice art. Herbert von Arend, for instance, was forbidden to exhibit or even create works of art between 1933 and 1945, and did not restart his artistic career until 1950. Born in Qingdao (Tsingtao), China, von Arend had studied at the Bauhaus from 1928-1932 under Albers, Klee, Kandinsky, and Stözl. In 1973 he returned to one of his earliest loves, textiles. He had studied weaving under Gunta Stözl, and now began to create extraordinary and beautiful tapestries, often drawing on motifs from his Bauhaus days.

Le Jardin d’Amour, 1981
Original silkscreen by Herbert von Arend, a variation on a drawing made at the Bauhaus in 1932

Banning an artist from making art is as ruthlessly effective as it is cruel. The deliberate waste of human creativity upsets me even more, I think, than the Nazis’ destruction of existing works of art – the sculptures of Ernst Barlach, the paintings of Max Liebermann. At least these works – and the thousands of other artworks confiscated from German museums and burned by the Berlin Fire Brigade – once existed. The act of creation cannot be obliterated by simple destruction of the work.

Aus de Walpurgisnacht, 1923
Original woodcut by Ernst Barlach

Of course not all the artistic energy that had been building in Germany was lost. The Bauhaus teachers spread their influence far and wide – in Isokon and the Reiman School in the UK, in the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the New Bauhaus in Chicago, and Black Mountain College in the USA. The work of Bauhaus artists such as Kandinsky, Klee, and Moholy-Nagy may have been mockingly displayed as “degenerate art” by the Nazis, but the artists themselves continued to create and to influence the direction of twentieth-century art.

Woodcut for 10 Origin, 1942
Original woodcut by Wassily Kandinsky

Many lesser-known artists followed a similar trajectory. Boris Herbert Kleint, for instance, who was a pupil of the Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten, fled Germany for Luxembourg in 1936, only returning to his homeland after the war, becoming a professor at the Staatliche Schule für Kunst und Handwerk, Saarbrücken. In 1952 he published the first edition of his influential teaching manual, Bildlehre, which renewed the Bauhaus vision for a new generation.

Untitled, 1979
Original lithograph by Boris Herbert Kleint

Even if the Nazis liked your work, being an artist in Nazi Germany was hardly safe or comfortable. Hermann Goering liked the powerful machine-age art of Lili Réthi so much he “invited” her to create propaganda images. Réthi fled, seeking refuge, like many artistic émigrés, in the USA.

Maschinenwerkstätte, 1921
Original lithograph by Lili Réthi


Anonymous said...

Another interesting article. A book I found a few years ago, "Unpainted Pictures: Watercolors 1938-1945" described Emil Nolde's artistic isolation at that time and his attempts to keep working without any way to share what he called his 'unpainted pictures'.

Neil said...

It's heartbreaking, isn't it Jane, to think of these "unpainted pictures". If something has once existed, it can never be completely lost. But something that might have been but was never realised will never exist. At least, that's what I think I think.

Unknown said...

You may want to also check out the current exhibit on Hanna Bekker vom Rath's efforts to continue to show the Degenerate artists around the World right after the war. "Kunst Grenzenlos" She carried with her in a suitcase, and showed and sold the work of over 100 prints from these artists to India, Africa, South America & the USA.

Neil said...

Thanks so much for this tip, Claudia. I've just seen the Oskar Kokoschka exhibition at Compton Verney, and it's evident that Kokoschka was extremely distressed by the Degenerate Art exhibition - and also tormented by the idea that much of his early art may have been destroyed. It precipitated a real creative crisis for him.

Neil said...

The Hanna Bekker vom Rath exhibition looks fascinating. I wish my German was better!

Philip Wilkinson said...

More wonders, Neil, for which many thanks. What a rich variety of things the Nazis didn't like.

Anonymous said...

More about Emil Nolde. He refused offers to emigrate to Denmark, fearing to lose his artistic roots, yet they were cut of when more than 1,000 of his pictures were confiscated from German museums and he was forbidden to "practice art." His description of what followed: "Occasionally I worked clandestinely in a small semi-secret room. I could not help it. But I had been deprived of the opportunity to obtain materials, and it was only my little, special ideas which I was able to paint and capture on tiny little sheets of paper."

Anonymous said...

Lidner - swoon!