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Nazi 'Degenerate Art' is displayed at New York's Neue Galerie through Sept. 1

Nazi 'Degenerate Art' is displayed at New York's Neue Galerie through June 30
"Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937" catalogue, Prestel-USA publishers

"Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937", recreating part of the infamous Munich exhibit of seized paintings Hitler had termed "filth for filth's sake", is at New York's Neue Galerie through Sept. 1.

The current exhibit is especially timely, with the George Clooney film "The Monuments Men" about finding and recovering Nazi-looted artworks, plus the recent discovery of two caches totaling almost 1,500 such masterpieces by Renoir, Picasso, Gauguin, Chagall and many German expressionists, valued at more than $1.5 billion.

The Neue (New) Galerie display is the first U.S. exhibition devoted to the infamous Munich "Entartete Kunst" ("Degenerate Art") since a 1991 presentation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

The exhibit is so popular that the Neue extended its run by two months.

What Nazis termed "degenerate art" was created mostly by Jews and by abstract art pioneers, especially expressionists of the Dresden-based "Die Brücke" (The Bridge) movement co-founded by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Erich Heckel.

(Kirchner and the "The Bridge" artists are major focal points of a German modern art exhibit at Washington's National Gallery of Art now through June 29.)

Highlights of the Neue display include many works shown in the 1937 Munich exhibit, including:

  • Kirchner's "Winter Landscape in Moonlight". In 1937, Nazis confiscated more than 600 of his works from German museums, and either destroyed or sold them. Due mainly to this, Kirchner shot himself through the heart and died at age 58 in 1938.
  • Emil Nolde's "Still-Life with Wooden Figure", "Red-Haired Girl", and "Cows". Nolde belonged briefly to "The Bridge" and to the Nazi party. But the Nazis confiscated more than 1,000 of his works -- more than from any other artist. Nazis also prohibited Nolde from oil painting in 1941, so he worked secretly in watercolor, and termed them "Unpainted Paintings". Some are included in this show.
  • Karl Schmidt-Rottluff's "Pharisees". He introduced Nolde into "The Bridge", and also introduced the group to lithography. In 1937, Nazis seized Schmidt-Rottluff's work from German museums and art galleries, and in 1941, they forbade him to paint.
  • Max Beckmann's "Cattle in a Barn" and four others by this "Bridge" member are in the exhibition. They're among some 500 Beckmann works that Nazis confiscated. Beckmann fled Germany a few days after Hitler's speech opening the 1937 Munich exhibit.
  • Paul Klee's "Masked Red Jew", "The Angler", "The Twittering Machine", "Ghost Chamber with the Tall Door".
  • George Grosz's "Portrait of Max Hermann-Neisse". The German museum it was confiscated from bought it back after the war.
  • Oskar Kokoschka's "The Duchess of Montesquiou-Fezensac" -- and "Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist".

The display includes a Nazi inventory and destiny of the works, marking them sold, traded, of burned. In March 1939, some 5,000 "degenerate" artworks were burned along with thousands of books in Berlin.

Hitler was a failed artist. When he was 18, he moved from his hometown Linz to Vienna to study art. But he was rejected -- twice -- by Vienna's Fine Arts Academy. His drawing was deemed "unsatisfactory", and he failed the entrance exam. When he applied a second time, he wasn't even allowed to take the entrance exam.

Almost three decades later, the would-be artist proclaimed, "It is not the mission of art to wallow in filth for filth's sake, to paint the human being only in a state of putrefaction, to draw cretins as symbols of motherhood, or to present deformed idiots as representatives of manly strength."

That quote was emblazoned on the Munich art gallery where the Nazis displayed hundreds of seized artworks.

Many of the thousands of artworks that Nazis looted remain missing. Some 1,500 of these pilfered works were found last November in Munich and last February in Salzburg, in the homes of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who dealt in stolen art along with Hitler's propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels.

For more info: "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937", Neue Galerie, www.neuegalerie.org, 1048 Fifth Avenue (at 86th Street), New York, N.Y. 212-628-6200 or museum@neuegalerie.org. Now through June 30. Catalogue published by Prestel-USA.