Neue Galerie, New York City
Through June 30
“It was one of the most infamous exhibitions of the 20th century; it was also one of the best attended,” said Jason Farago in The Guardian (U.K.). In 1937, more than 2 million people rushed to see the Munich showing of a touring collection of avant-garde art that the Nazis considered entartete, or “degenerate.” Max Ernst, Paul Klee, Otto Dix, and Wassily Kandinsky were among the 112 modernists singled out for derision, but while only six of those 112 were Jewish, the organizers used wall labels to pointedly blame Jews for the cultural contagion the show intended to warn against. In revisiting that portentous event, New York’s Neue Galerie wisely decided not to re-create the 1937 exhibition. Though the museum’s 80-work show feels “a little thin in parts,” it excels at illuminating context.
“Context means a lot” here, and the curators don’t shy from highlighting paradoxes, said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. As the catalog explains, the originator of the term “degenerate art” was Jewish himself, while the Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels deeply admired German expressionism before Adolf Hitler ordered him to demonize and destroy it. Painter and printmaker Emil Nolde, who led all artists in the number of his pieces included in the “Degenerate Art” show, later spent years trying to win Nazi Party membership by making anti-Semitic statements. But many martyrs show their faces here too. An unfinished 1937 self-portrait by the expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner gains symbolic power once we learn that the artist would be an exile and suicide within one year.
Hitler’s artistic preferences also win space here, said Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker. At the same moment that the Munich public was flocking to the “Degenerate Art” show, it was mostly ignoring a simultaneous exhibition dedicated to so-called Great German Art. But Hitler nabbed a triptych from the less popular show to hang above his fireplace, and it appears at the Neue alongside a 1933 Max Beckmann masterpiece whose side panels depict various acts of sadism. The juxtaposition of Beckmann’s The Departure with Adolf Ziegler’s The Four Elements asks us to consider whether we’d have known in 1937 which to rate higher. Ziegler’s four Aryan nudes are “kitschy enough,” but they’re also handled well enough that “the pleasure imparted is disturbing.” Would tastes have evolved entirely differently if Hitler hadn’t inadvertently boosted the expressionists by blacklisting them? We’d like to think not, but “divorcing our thinking about modern culture from the residual consequences of ‘Degenerate Art’ probably can’t be done.”