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PRINT March 2014

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“1938: Kunst, Künstler, Politik”

View of “1938: Kunst, Künstler, Politik,” 2013–14. From left: Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Ausblick aus dem Nachtlokal (View from the Nightclub), 1930; Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Lissy, 1931; Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, Eine Pflasterkolonne (II) (A Plaster Column [II]), 1931; Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, In der Barkasse (In the Barge), 1930. Photo: Uwe Dettmar.

TO SAY THAT YOU LOVE THE AVANT-GARDE was once proof that you were on the right side of history. That moment is now over, as evidenced by the impeccable timing of the well-researched exhibition “1938: Kunst, Künstler, Politik” (1938: Art, Artists, Politics) at the Jewish Museum in Frankfurt. Conceived by critic Julia Voss, implemented by curator Eva Atlan, and designed by artist Tobias Rehberger and his studio, the show underscored the complex and traumatic intersections of political and cultural prerogatives during one fateful year.

That annus horribilis is catching up to us. The recent discovery of some fourteen hundred modernist works of art—many of them looted during Hitler’s reign—in the apartment of a shadowy Munich denizen, Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of one of Nazi Germany’s most influential art dealers, Hildebrand Gurlitt, is a case in point. When the Haus der Kunst staged the symbolic “Der Blaue Reiter” exhibition in 1949 and everyone was eager to flaunt their great devotion to the avant-garde, Gurlitt was among the official lenders. (Clearly, such postwar efforts were a universal attempt at de-Nazification—a “cure” thought effective enough that it displaced the real job of dealing with history.) Indeed, many of the same figures who flourished under National Socialism were still making decisions in the museums and money at the auctions. This uncanny continuity reaches into our present moment.

We’ve been taught that 1937 was the most significant milestone for the Nazis’ cultural agenda, the year of the infamous “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art) exhibition, first staged in Munich, which traveled to numerous cities around Germany and Austria and drew millions of visitors. That was the year the Nazis banned everything politically progressive, critical, or experimental; in short, it was the year Hitler wiped out the avant-garde. The following year, with the Anschluss annexation and the Kristallnacht pogrom, it became clear that artistic style—whether the “approved” neoclassical underpinnings of the party’s own rally spectacles or the “rejected” modernism of the artists who were forced into exile or condemned to die—was not the real issue. The critical mission of “1938” was to show that the reason artists and artworks were deemed “degenerate” and unfit for German museums was biopolitical—and not a matter of style or form.

There were great works on display by some lesser-known artists, such as the brilliant portraitist Lotte Laserstein, a master in rendering textiles, hair, and sunlit surfaces. Yet the exhibition was not primarily about masterpieces, but rather the complex networks that constituted the art world in these dark years. Some fifty-odd works, many produced in 1938, and a large number of letters and other documents made visible the ways in which certain artists and professionals emerged while others disappeared.

The most prominent aspect of Rehberger’s design, reminiscent of certain early-modern experimental exhibitions, was a carpeted floor of monochromatic, irregularly sized rectangles in brown, blue, bright orange, red, and purple, some of which were plush enough for you to lose your balance. You literally had to watch your step. The exhibition was a lesson in visual and sensory ambiguity. Sometimes you found yourself uncertain about the political orientation of the artists in question, as well as about their fates. Within this rubic, the artistic legacies of this period in Germany hung together like so many narrative arcs: stories cut tragically short, unfinished, or continued over incredible geographic and ethical boundaries. Works by artists such as Laserstein, who survived in exile, and Elfriede Lohse-Wächtler, who was considered mentally ill and killed in a gas chamber in 1940, were displayed with overflowing, triumphalist paintings by Hermann Göring’s favorite painter, Werner Peiner.

Those acquainted with the critical writings of Voss would have recognized an additional agenda: to highlight artists, mostly women, whom the standard heroism of German museum politics tends to neglect. In this exhibition, there was the brilliant Hannah Ryggen, whose fearless antitotalitarian textiles mix experimentalism with ancient Norwegian craftsmanship; the equilibrist portraitist Laserstein; and Lohse-Wächtler, extraordinary for her emotionally charged, pathological renderings.

This show also made clear that the distinction between heroic avant-garde artists on the one hand and Nazis on the other is a simplification. For example, Heinrich Ehmsen, an artist who moved in the same circles as Klee and Kandinsky in the 1920s, was considered “entartet,” and his works were confiscated; after submitting an official application to the Reichskammer der bildenden Künste (Reich Chamber of Fine Arts) in which he proved his Aryan extraction, he was once again allowed to receive state commissions. Or there is the bizarre case of Emil Nolde: In 1933, his works decorated the apartment of Joseph Goebbels, who even considered announcing Expressionism as the official movement of the Nazi state. Soon after, however, Nolde was branded degenerate, despite his continued appeals to Nazi authorities that he belonged on their side.

In the late ’30s, behind this confusing muddle of conflicting styles and philosophies of art, the icy logic of culture’s propagandistic role in nationalism through the racist politics of Nazism became increasingly evident. On this subject, “1938” was not ambiguous at all. Like all other professional realms, the art world consists of people. After 1938, many of them would soon be gone.

Daniel Birnbaum is director of Moderna Museet in Stockholm and a contributing editor of Artforum.