São Paulo

Lasar Segall, Eternos caminhantes (Eternal Walkers), 1919, oil on canvas, 54 3/8 x 72 1/2".

Lasar Segall, Eternos caminhantes (Eternal Walkers), 1919, oil on canvas, 54 3/8 x 72 1/2".

Lasar Segall

Museu Lasar Segall

Lasar Segall, Eternos caminhantes (Eternal Walkers), 1919, oil on canvas, 54 3/8 x 72 1/2".

Recent Hollywood films such as The Monuments Men (2014) have dramatized the Nazis’ confiscation of modern art and its postwar recovery. Among the artists whose work had been confiscated was the Brazilian painter Lasar Segall. The notorious exhibition “Entartete Kunst” (Degenerate Art), inaugurated in Munich in 1937, targeted modern art through various didactic slogans, including “Nature as seen by sick minds,” and declared the diseased origins of the art on display. That exhibition included eleven works by Segall—selected from among nearly fifty that were confiscated by the Nazis after having been collected by German museums during the Weimar period. “A ‘arte degenerada’ de Lasar Segall: Perseguição à arte moderna em tempos de guerra” (The Degenerate Art of Lasar Segall: Persecution of Modern Art in Times of War) explores a related history, but one left out of such films and seldom recounted within art history: that of modern art’s persecution across the Atlantic in Brazil. Featuring a selection of these confiscated works, it documents in particular the remarkable journey of Segall’s painting Eternos caminhantes (Eternal Walkers), 1919, which explores the theme of exodus later taken up more explicitly in his wartime Navio de emigrantes (Ship of Emigrants), 1939–41, on display in the museum’s permanent collection.

Segall, a Lithuanian Jew born in 1891, was educated in Berlin and Dresden, Germany, but moved permanently to Brazil in 1923. Eternos caminhantes, which had been acquired by the Städtische Gallery Dresden in 1920, was found by French officials in the basement of a Nazi official’s home; in 1958 it was returned to Segall’s family (a year after the painter’s death), after having been auctioned and acquired by a private collector. The curators document other Segalls, still missing, through photographs and empty frames, dramatizing their absence. But as the exhibition persuasively makes clear, claims of modern art’s degeneracy circulated not only in Germany but in Brazil, for instance in 1924 with Mário Guastini’s attack on Segall’s first exhibition in the country as “visual hallucination.” Such sentiments were echoed almost twenty years later when one critic lambasted Segall’s 1943 show at the Museu Nacional de Bellas Artes in Rio de Janeiro as “porcaria”—trash, or filth.

Against this backdrop, another narrative of Brazil of the 1940s emerges, evoked by, among other works, previously unseen photographs by Kurt Klagsbrunn (an Austrian émigré) of anti-Fascist demonstrations, and documentation related to the exhibition “Arte condenada pelo Terceiro Reich”(Art Condemned by the Third Reich), organized by Miécio Askanasy in 1945. The latter, explicitly framed against fascism, exhibited 119 works by thirty-nine artists, many of whom were featured in “Entartete Kunst.” Curiously, rather than showcase his aesthetic of the 1910s and 1920s—the Expressionist work targeted by the Nazis—in Askanasy’s exhibition, Segall presented, in his words, “more balanced work, without great deformation and exaggeration,” precisely so as to not tap into the very critiques conservatives waged against his art.

Demands for cultural purity have been resurfacing in Brazil lately, now on social media as well as in the press. Last September, in response to a performance piece in the thirty-fifth Panorama of Brazilian Art, one of many detractors wrote, “The curator of this garbage deserves to be beaten.” By returning to the story of Segall and “Entartete Kunst” in parallel with the attacks on contemporary art in Brazil and elsewhere, the curators present a timely intervention that might prompt us to wonder on what political grounds, if any, are we prepared to condemn a work of art?

Kaira M. Cabañas