The Last Laugh

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The New York Sun

Attendance is up 50% in recent weeks at the Neue Galerie, the museum reports, and the draw is “Degenerate Art,” a recreation of an exhibit by the same name put up by the Nazi regime in 1937. The crowds waiting to get in Friday stretched around the block in a 21st century rebuke to Hitler’s hostility.

“Degenerate Art” borrows the name of the Nazi exhibit to draw attention to Hitler’s “campaign against modern art,” as the museum describes it. The show features works by artists whose careers were cut short by Nazism, as well as those who thrived outside of Germany or in the post-war era. Of this latter group, the most prominent is Max Beckmann, whose “Departure,” a triptych painted from 1932 to 1935, evokes enigmatic qualities of the epic genre.

Having been branded “degenerate” by the Nazis, however high the honor, does not in itself confer any merit, and some of the works on display are unmemorable. Others, like Oskar Kokoschka’s “Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist,” are immortal.

The painting is well-placed at the Neue Galerie, whose founder, Ronald Lauder, was once our ambassador at Austria. In Kokoschka’s 1937 self-portrait, the artist stands with arms crossed, smiling faintly if uneasily in an expression that seems to convey defiance tinged with anxiety. It’s a deeply moving expression of artistic independence.

Neue Galerie’s exhibit has arrived at an opportune moment, with questions over art looted or extorted by the Nazis in the headlines (and, via “Monuments Men,” movie theaters), nearly 70 years after World War II. As recently as Wednesday, Cornelius Gurlitt, the reclusive heir to a huge cache of artworks of highly dubious provenance, many believed to have been seized from Jews by the Nazis, announced he would be returning the works to their rightful owners or their descendants.

The Neue Galerie itself holds as its star attraction a painting seized by the Nazis in 1938, Gustav Klimt’s 1907 portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer. Austria fought for years to keep the painting in Vienna’s Belvedere Palace, but in 2006 it was returned to Ms. Bloch-Bauer’s niece. “This is our Mona Lisa,” Ambassador Lauder beamed at the time of the purchase, a then-record-setting $135 million.

The “Degenerate Art” exhibit does not focus entirely on art stolen or denigrated by the Nazis; it also presents a handful of works endorsed by the fascist regime. These include a terrifying triptych by Hans Schmitz-Wiedenbrück called “Workers, Peasants and Soldiers.” Painted in 1941, it is a propagandistic depiction of shirtless coal miners, an earnest farmer and his bull, and members of the armed forces posing heroically, eyes glittering, one holding a Nazi banner aloft.

There is also a 1937 painting by Adolf Ziegler, “The Four Elements: Fire, Earth and Water, Air,” which features four female nudes against an azure sky. The work has gained a certain notoriety for having been placed over a mantelpiece in Hitler’s own apartment. Critics like Holland Cotter have dismissed it as a “kitschy hyperrealist” work.

In featuring these paintings, the Neue Galerie has run the risk of repeating an argument recently made at the Guggenheim’s recent “Chaos and Classicism” exhibit, where the same Ziegler work appeared as a similarly provocative gesture. That show sought to trace the links between the rise of fascism and neo-classical movements, citing a craving for a “return to order” in both politics and art during the 1920s. Taken too far, this can unfairly tar neo-classical, or even merely representational, art with the smear of fascism.

That very insinuation, along with a backlash to Stalin-endorsed “Socialist Realism,” helped to foster the popularity of abstract and other non-representational art movements among the cognoscenti after World War II, with implications for the art world that resonate to this day. The exhibition now up at Neue Galerie is evidence that “Degenerate Art” has, by and large, had the last laugh.

“Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937,” through June 30, 2014 at the Neue Galerie, 1048 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY, (212) 628-6200, neuegalerie.org.


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