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FORBIDDEN ART : A Big L.A. Show Commemorates Masterpieces the Nazis Called Degenerate

February 24, 1991|WILLIAM WILSON | William Wilson is The Times' art critic.

IF ADOLF HITLER TOOK TIME TO reflect in July, 1937, it's easy to imagine him entertaining smug thoughts. The year had started well for him when Franklin Roosevelt admitted in his second inaugural address that the Vereianigten Staaten were still in deep economic trouble. In England, Neville Chamberlain was now prime minister and would soon come to sue for peace. Hitler's Junker and Heinkel bombers had recently annihilated the little Basque town of Guernica.

The Fuhrer was unlikely to have known that, in Paris, Picasso was at work on a painting, "Guernica," protesting that attack against unsuspecting civilians. Hitler thus had inspired the greatest of anti-war paintings, rendered in a style of art he regarded as "degenerate." He had his own plan for taking care of that sort of dreck, and soon.

His campaign of purging German Kultur of undesirable, non-Ayran influences was evolving according to plan. By July 16, the camp at Buchenwald would open to receive Jews, Bolsheviks and homosexuals. High on Hitler's hit list were the experimental musicians, writers, performers and artists who had made Berlin into an international center for avant-garde art during the Weimar Republic. The jaded cabarets of the Kurfurstendamm had fertilized a nocturnal society of flaunted decadence. Those elitist weirdos had to be squelched. If he could not have them all liquidated, he would at least eliminate their art. He stood for chastity, aerobics and family values.

On July 18, he would inaugurate two art exhibitions in Munich. There would be a pageant to make Leni Riefenstahl proud. Obedient Germans in Volkstumlich costume. Stiff-legged SS men marching in jackboots. Swastika banners fluttering like buzzards. The exhibitions were to act as educational exercises to let the citizenry know which art was to thrill them under National Socialism and which art they were to scorn.

The stuff that was supposed to make them tingle was contained within the galleries of the new House of German Art in an exhibition called the "Grosse Deutsche Kunstaustellung" (Great German Art Exhibition), where Hitler delivered the opening address.

He personally helped select pieces for the approved showing. It was a collection of soupy genre paintings plus sterile muscle-bound marbles of men and women representing the Nordic Aryan ideal, all reflecting the dictator's own failed attempts to become an artist. About the only art in the official show we would credit with virtue today was the work of George Kolbe.

The forbidden art exhibition encompassed artists Hitler called "chatterers, dilettantes and art forgers"; henceforth, they would be "picked up and liquidated." "For all we care, those prehistoric Stone-Age culture barbarians and art stutterers can return to the caves of their ancestors and there can apply their primitive international scratchings."

The show--assembled under the direction of Reichsminister fur Volksaufklarung und Propaganda Joseph Goebbels--was housed across Hofgarten park from the official show in a former archeological institute. This "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art) survey included 650 works representing every major German art movement of the century.

The fervent, wild innocence of Dresden's "Die Brucke" (The Bridge) was there in works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff and the rest. Munich's visionary "Der Blaue Reiter" (The Blue Rider) was held up to derision in examples by masters such as Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc, who had been killed near Verdun in World War I. Berlin's mordant Neue Sachlichkeit (New Realism) was put on show in the surgical satire of Otto Dix and George Grosz. The idealistic Bauhaus school was also included out. Emil Nolde must have been dismayed to find himself black-listed, since he was an early party member. There was some confusion. The sculptor Hans Belling was included in both exhibitions.

Hitler could not have known that the degenerate exhibition would outdraw the official show by five to one. By the time "Entartete Kunst" finished touring Germany and Austria, more than 3 million visitors had made it the most popular exhibition of modern art, ever. Most visitors, according to witnesses, came to deride an art that already confused and frightened them. They were helped along by a slipshod presentation intended to make the art look bad and by denunciatory texts scrawled on the walls.

This month, some 54 years later, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art opens an exhibition re-creating this landmark cultural blot, in a version reassembled by curator Stephanie Barron, which includes 175 of the original paintings, sculpture and graphics. Titled "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany," it runs until May 12.

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