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The Art That Would Not Die


"Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany," organized in 1991 by curator Stephanie Barron at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, was a landmark event. Barron re-created part of Adolf Hitler's infamous "Degenerate Art" show, mounted in 1937 to discredit modern art, and created a context for the vilified artworks in related displays of printed matter, music, photographs and vintage film footage.

Traveling from Los Angeles to Chicago, Washington and Berlin, where it closed last year, Barron's show drew huge crowds and critical praise. Times Art Writer Suzanne Muchinic talked with Barron about what inspired her exhibition and awakened public interest in it, leading to a film that airs Sunday night on KCET.

Researching this period of history and tracking down the artworks that Hitler ridiculed took an enormous amount of time and energy. Why did you take on such a complex project?

While I was working on an exhibition of German Expressionist sculpture in the mid-1980s, I realized that many great works of art had last been seen in the "Degenerate Art" show of 1937, which the Nazis put together for the sole purpose of condemning the artworks. The fact that the Nazis felt that the art had such power interested me tremendously.

In America, the Nazis were equated with the Holocaust. The concept that the arts were a fundamental part of Nazi policy and ideology--that the arts were dangerous and that one needed to persecute the imagination--was not well known in this country.

The exhibition catalogue is a permanent record of your work. Why was a film necessary?

From the beginning, I passionately felt that I didn't want to make just an exhibition but a book and a film that would last. I realized that this was a story that had not only visual but emotional impact. It was not just about seeing great art. Also, there were things I couldn't do in the exhibition, such as eyewitness accounts, which could be brought to bear more gracefully in a film.

What was your original concept of the film?

I never wanted the film to be a behind-the-scenes documentary of how the exhibition was organized. I was interested in translating the experience of being in the show--what the show was about conceptually in its multidimensions--and turning that into a film experience.

How did you proceed?

I needed a collaborator, someone with film experience who shared my passion. I wanted to find someone who would rely on me for the building blocks as well as a spin--the spin being the exhibition--then take that and tell the story. I was extremely lucky to get David Grubin. He never lost sight of the big picture that we wanted to get out of it.

How did the collaboration work?

Film issues were left to him. When it came to content, he generally went with what I said. I suggested interviewees and helped to get them. He wrote the script and questions, and we reviewed them together.

What were your biggest challenges?

Fund-raising (for a project that cost between $700,000 and $800,000). And finding interviewees to achieve the right balance of scholarship, film presence and American and German accents. It is always a challenge to get interviewees to say what you need to communicate. You have to ask questions that move the story along but allow for spontaneity.

You originally planned an American itinerary for the exhibition. Did the addition of Berlin have an impact on the film?

It presented the opportunity of filming there and finding more German interviewees. All the people I had found to interview thought the art was wonderful and what the Nazis did was terrible. David said we needed another point of view, so we ran advertisements in senior citizens newspapers and homes in Berlin, asking for people who had seen the original exhibition and would be willing to be interviewed. We got Kurt Assis that way. He had been taken to the exhibition by his teacher and he thought the art was terrible.

While we were in Berlin we also found Gert Werneberg, who knew (artist Emile) Nolde, worked at the Schloss Schonhausen where the Nazis stored confiscated works of art and went to the auction of "degenerate art" in 1939 at the Galerie Fischer in Lucerne. She is one of the most powerful interviews on the film. She added such dignity, both in her presence and in what she says. Finding her was extraordinary.

"Degenerate Art" air s on KCET Sunday at 10 p.m.

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