Freedom & creativity

Two exhibits at the Israel Museum show how culture suffered from the rise of Nazism because it stands against hate and aggression.

Works from the exhibit ‘Man Ray: Human Equations’ (photo credit: ELIE POSNER / ISRAEL MUSEUM)
Works from the exhibit ‘Man Ray: Human Equations’
Art and culture often suffer at times of historical and political upheaval. Artists and their works stand for individual freedom and creativity – principles that oppose totalitarian and authoritarian power – and, so, are targeted by individuals, groups, and regimes that seek to consolidate power within their society.
The strategies used to do this vary. They can include cultural boycotts seeking to demonize and delegitimize a particular “other,” which use social pressure to bully people into hatefully targeting individuals belonging to a designated group. They can also involve creating bureaucratic hurdles that oppress the means of cultural production. Or, they can be manifested in the destruction of cultural objects.
Regardless of how insidious or belligerent, these actions are always violent, and threaten the principles on which open and democratic societies are built.
At a time when such forces abound across the globe – from the anti-Israel boycott campaigns in Europe and the United States, to proposed limits on non-governmental organizations in Israel, to the outright devastation of museums and historical sites in Syria and Iraq – two exhibitions at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, feature artworks made in Europe in the period leading up to and just after World War II – “Twilight Over Berlin: Masterworks from the Nationalgalerie, 1905–1945” and “Man Ray: Human Equations.”
Expressing the conflagration of confusion and hope that emerged out of widespread conflict, these exhibits also show the ways that culture suffered from Europe’s darkest days – precisely because it stood for principles that countered the powers of hate and aggression.
“Twilight Over Berlin,” curated by the Israel Museum’s Adina Kamien-Kazhdan in cooperation with the Nationalgalerie’s Dieter Scholz, was initiated by Israel Museum Director James Snyder together with Berlin Museum Directors Michael Eissenhauer and Udo Kittelman as the centerpiece of a trio of exhibitions marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Israel and Germany. It includes modern German masterpieces labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis in the years leading up to Hitler’s military assault on Europe – a cultural offensive that culminated in the Degenerate Art Exhibition (“Entartete Kunst”) opening in 1937, in Munich, and traveling throughout Germany and Austria, which exploited great artworks for ideological ends.
Hitler and his cultural gatekeepers seemed to understand that real art was more conducive to social influence than made-to-order propaganda, and that exhibiting the large number of powerful paintings that emerged after World War I would have a stronger effect than merely eradicating them from the cultural scene.
Though opened alongside the “Great German Art Exhibition,” the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” was the real popular success, with more than a million visitors coming to see the works in the first six weeks. From today’s perspective, this can seem like a silent protest against Hitler’s attempt to demonize the open culture in which these works were created – and proving that they were interesting to people.
But, the fact that so many people flocked to see “degenerate” art could also illustrate Hitler’s victory in harnessing great artworks to raise the level of hate and aggression in German society. The exhibit made it clear to many of those million people exactly who the enemies were and what kind of art they created and appreciated. Anyone associated with modern art, or supporting democratic ideals that encourage open expression, would immediately be labeled “degenerate.”
A similar twist was enacted on the images this art created: the attempt to show the price of war was put up as the picture of social degeneration in order to foment even more war. The Nazis used the art, along with the images it created, against itself – turning its critique into the image of social deviancy.
“THE AVANT-GARDE had the courage to expose the damage,” says Kamien-Kazhdan, referring to post-WWI works showing mutilated bodies and faces. “The art meant something – it was making a statement.” Kamien-Kazhdan says it was easier to find “degenerate” art than it was to find “great” art – and points out that most of the “degenerate” art was confiscated but not destroyed, suggesting the Nazis were aware of its value. “Why create a stage for something you want to demonize?” she asks. “Maybe because they understood the power of art to educate – or brainwash – the public.”
The formal definition of degenerate art was any work that “insulted German feelings, or destroyed or confused natural form or simply revealed an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.” But, in practice, artworks given this label were made by the avant-garde, mentally ill, Jews, or Communists – even though these groups did not always have anything in common. Artists who painted in a socialist realist style – which had no connection to “degenerate” tendencies like Dadaism, New Objectivity, Bauhaus, or German Expressionism – would still be labeled “degenerate” for being politically aligned with Communism.
The result was sometimes absurd, such as the case with German artist Rudolf Belling, who had a piece in each show – a figurative sculpture in the “Great Art” exhibit and a modernist work in “Degenerate Art.” Or Christian Schad, a painter connected to Dadaism and New Objectivity, whose realistic portrait “Sonja” (1928) was in “Great Art” while Otto Dix’s similarly stylized “Portrait of the Art Dealer Alfred Flechtheim” (1926) was in “Degenerate Art.” Or painter Emil Nolde, a member of the Danish Nazi Party, whose works were labeled “degenerate” and who saw more than 1,000 paintings pulled from German museums.
Overall, the exhibition features masterworks by artists including Nolde, Dix, George Grosz, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Max Beckmann, along with Georg Schrimpf, Curt Querner, and Alice Lex-Nerlinger.
Perhaps of the most iconic works from this period, and included in the show, is Otto Dix’s “Skat Players” (1920). While known to many for its striking image of amputated war veterans playing a card game in what seems to be a dark café, the real painting is many times more powerful than its reproductions. The difference is in the details – and the difficulty of capturing them in a single image. The left player includes stark details such as an exposed penis, a pasted passport picture of Dix on the jaw, and a suit that is not painted but collaged with what appears to be burlap. The middle player has a sex scene literally painted “on the brain,” shown faintly on his metal plate – which appears shiny and metallic thanks to the use of tin foil.
THE SAME foil is used in several other details, including the left player’s jaw and the right player’s nose pipe, giving the painting a three-dimensionality. Even the left player’s use of his foot to hold his cards, since he has no hands, is given depth by the use of real cards and the extension of his painted toes from the canvas to the paper cards themselves. And in the top left, where a bulb shines, a closer look reveals the lit outline of a skull. The work’s great power is found in the correlation of technique and message: collage representing prosthetics to cover the damage of war.
Such meticulousness is difficult to appreciate without the original painting – and the same goes for the potential it held even for Nazi officials who, looking at such a work, had to think about how to best exploit its power while negating its true anti-war significance.
“It wasn’t always easy to say what was degenerate and what wasn’t,” explains Kamien-Kazhdan. “Was it style? Political association? Subject matter?” She refers to scholar Dana Arieli- Horowitz’s essay in the exhibition catalogue, which reveals arguments between Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and intellectual commissar Alfred Rosenberg about whether German Expressionism should be considered “degenerate” – with Goebbels suggesting that perhaps it should be considered “great.”
“The German Expressionists felt they were German,” adds Kamien-Kazhdan. “But their work searches for democracy. So it’s degenerate.”
Germans were not the only artists affected by the “degenerate” label. During this period, the Nazis took down more than 16,000 works from the walls of German museums, including those of Van Gogh and Picasso, as well as those of Dada and Surrealist artist Man Ray.
Born Emmanuel Radnitzky in 1890, the child of Jewish immigrants from Russia, Ray moved to New York in 1912 and to Paris in 1921 – joining the revolution that was changing the face of modern art in the 20th century. This “new” art represented everything the Nazis would oppose just a decade later – the symbol of an existence that’s creative, free and open.
In “Man Ray: Human Equations” – co-curated by Kamien-Kazhdan with Wendy A. Grossman from the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, Andrew Strauss of Sotheby’s France, and art scholar Edouard Sebline – the artist known mostly as a photographer is shown embodying such freedom on an artistic level. Ray is present as a multimedia pioneer working in photography, painting, sculpture, and film long before such cross-sectioned approaches were applied in contemporary art.
In the search for liberty, Dada and Surrealism employed or invented new techniques. One of these included the photogram – a camera-less photo that shows only the trace of an object – which Ray dubbed the “Rayograph.” By doing this, the artist relinquishes control, presenting poetic forms that surprise him no less than the viewer. “After World War I,” says Kamien-Kazhdan, “with the loss of control over one’s life, you understand the centrality of life. [Man Ray] tried to embrace this and bring it with him into his artistic practice.”
Some of these works included veiled references to Ray’s own immigrant roots – like the famous “The Enigma of Isidore Ducasse” (1920) or “The Gift” (1921) – incorporating tools like sewing machines and irons, observed in his father’s tailoring business, and transforming them into mystifying or paradoxical art objects. His idea was to take everyday objects and remove them from their functional context, transforming them into provocative objects. His practice, which combined elements that didn’t normally work together, often involved several stages – creating the objects and photographing them using his eye for light and form, bringing them to life through effects that created mystery.
At the time he created these works, Kamien-Kazhdan explains, Man Ray cared less about their permanence as physical objects and more about their being traces of creative activity. Many of the objects he photographed were later dismantled, destroyed, or lost – in part because of the moving he did to stay ahead of World War II.
In 1940, as the Nazis invaded France, Ray made his way back to the US and settled in Hollywood, where he married dancer Juliet Browner and returned to his earliest artistic media – drawing and painting.
Many of his paintings from this time were created from photographs he had made in Paris using geometric models of mathematical equations, which he had been exposed to by fellow artist Max Ernst. The exhibition, “Human Equations”, emphasizes the fluidity of Ray’s artistic practice by including the original mathematical models, borrowed from the Institut Henri Poincaré in Paris, alongside Ray’s photographs of those objects from the 1930s and his paintings of the same objects from the 1940s.
THE PAINTINGS were part of a series called Shakespearean Equations, with each work named after a play by Shakespeare, and incorporated the black and white images he had photographed a decade earlier – now transformed into color objects in a stage set meant to invoke Shakespeare’s characters. Kamien-Kazhdan suggests that this practice underlined a deeper principle of Ray’s art – the metamorphosis of the object that took disparate elements and put them together to create a spark of beauty.
In 1951, Ray returned to Paris, with his wife Juliet, and during that decade met Arturo Schwarz – an Italian writer, publisher and gallerist who began promoting the legacies of Dada and Surrealist art throughout Europe in the 1950s. In the 1960s, explains Kamien-Kazhdan, Schwarz had the idea of recreating editions of Man Ray’s objects.
Again, the photographs Ray had taken in the 1920s and 1930s became essential, as their images documented the objects that had been lost to history. Having never fetishized the importance of the original objects, Ray did not see a problem in recreating them, and this philosophy was expressed in one of his well-known quotes: “To create is divine, to reproduce is human.”
As a photographer – often creating several versions of the same image through different negatives, contact sheets, and prints – Ray was comfortable with the idea of multiplicity. He also embraced the unknown, believing that mysteries shouldn’t be solved, and instead focused on the power to bewilder and amaze. He even claimed that he could never finish a detective novel because he was never interested in who committed the crime.
This kind of approach, which is interested not in results but in process, made Ray’s artwork a target of Nazi oppression – no less than his Jewish background would have done had he not escaped Paris. His return to Europe in the 1950s, and his reproduction of the lost objects he had created there before the war, is a protest of sorts against the kind of ideology that had tried to silence the human impulse for freedom and creativity. His rising influence as an artistic figure in postwar Europe and America shows that, once repressive regimes no longer hold sway, the human capacity for wonder can again be awakened to inspire individuals.
This gives us hope that in our time, too, the power of creativity will outlive that of oppression and destruction – and that the hate and aggression that is growing throughout the world will be met with an equally forceful struggle for freedom.