Friday, August 19, 2016

Nazi-Era Art at Berlin's Hamburger Banhof

Detail from "Night over Germany" by Horst Strempel

It was a happy coincidence that the Ringling Museum hosted a lecture on Nazi-era looted art about a month before I headed to Berlin. The talk --which focused on "degenerate" art in the Ringling's collection--was fascinating.

Although I knew about the Nazis' confiscation of artistic treasures for their personal collections, I didn't know that the Nazis had swept Germany's museums for works deemed "degenerate." Approximately 650 of these works were put on display in the Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art Exhibition) as a visual representation of the world the Nazis were fighting.  After its run in Munich, the exhibition traveled to other Nazi strongholds.  It is estimated that over 3 million people visited the show. 

"Studio Corner" by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

The Ringling had been gifted 12 works of art from the show by UPI war correspondent Edward Beattie in 1954. (Once the Entartete Kunst closed, the artwork was put on sale to raise foreign currency. The works that were not purchased were burned.) The big reveal was that Ringling Fellow Lauren von Bechmann had identified the museums from which the works were stolen. The Ringling is now in the process of returning the works to their rightful owners. (To read more about this story, click here for the article I wrote for Florida Weekly.)   

This is a long-winded way of explaining why I was so excited when Wendi and I came upon an exhibit at Hamburger Banhof featuring works the Nazis had labeled degenerate (as well as a few paintings that had received the Nazi stamp of approval).  

"Large Reclining Nude" by Picasso

The paintings in the show were all produced, acquired or confiscated during Nazi rule and are now owned by the National Gallery (of which Hamburger Banhof is a part). The description of the exhibit explained, "The collection...not only reflects stylistic developments in the history of art; it also sets out the complex relationships between artist, artwork, society, state and museum in a period marked by dictatorship, war and holocaust."  
"Melancholy" by Edvard Munch

In order to work in the field of art during the Nazi era, artists, art writers and art policy makers had to be able to prove their Aryan bloodline. Jewish artists were not only prevented from publicly displaying their work; they were forbidden to create artwork given its inherit degeneracy.

But being of Aryan ancestry and supporting Hitler's regime did not exempt an artist from having his work confiscated and ridiculed. "Modern" art--especially work by German expressionists--was frowned upon as well.  And so Edvard Munch (of "The Scream" fame) fell into disfavor despite both Joseph Goebbels' and Hermann Goering's appreciation for his work.

"The Fichtel Mountains" by Georg Schrimpf

The exhibit also included some examples of paintings that Hitler lauded as "not this so-called modern art, but true and eternal German art." Georg Schrimpf was an artist who walked the fine line between being an approved and sanctioned artist. The fact that his work developed in part from the cubist tradition did not operate in his favor, nor did his previous membership in the Social Democratic and Communist Party. But the empathy that Walter Darre, Nazi Minister of Food and Agriculture, felt for Schrimpf's "The Fichtel Mountains" overrode any concerns about his background. It is thought that Darre, who believed agriculture was all-important to the Nazis' dominance, saw his world view reflected in Schrimpf's painting.

Standing in front of these paintings brought the issues surrounding Nazi-era art to life in a way looking at artwork on a page (or a computer screen) cannot.  Kudos to the National Gallery for maintaining public awareness about this aspect of Germany's dark history. 

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