‘Kosher art’

A retrospective of some of Berlin’s most avant garde and degenerate art makes its debut at the Israel Museum – coinciding with Israel and Germany’s celebration of 50 years of diplomacy.

‘Self portrait of the artist,’ Man Ray, 1941 (photo credit: THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
‘Self portrait of the artist,’ Man Ray, 1941
(photo credit: THE ISRAEL MUSEUM)
The Israel Museum’s golden jubilee events roll on. The milestone anniversary festivities opened in March with the highly entertaining and visually arresting “1965 Today” retrospective with, naturally enough, 50 artworks.
The half-century celebrations appear to have built up a healthy head of steam, with fully five new exhibitions unfurled this week, on October 20, that offer the public a veritable cornucopia of intriguing, esthetically striking and eye opening items.
The centerpiece of the pentamerous display is the almost overwhelming “Twilight over Berlin: Masterworks from the Nationalgalerie, 1905-1945” show, which comprises paintings from 1905-45 loaned to the Israel Museum by the Berlin National Gallery. It is also another installment in the ongoing sequence of events marking the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel. The starting date of the exhibition, explains curator Dr. Adina Kamien-Kazhdan, coincides with when German expressionism really took off, and became an important component on the evolving global arts scene of the 20th century.
The Berlin show opens with documentary film footage taken in Berlin in the early years of the last century. There is no sense of foreboding in the film, Walter Ruttman’s A Berlin Symphony of a Metropolis, made in 1927. It depicts the normal flow of life, with Berliners going about their business – hurrying to work, lounging about at cafés and children arriving at school. Kamien-Kazhdan says she wanted to set the scene for the exhibition, so that the viewers get an idea of the zeitgeist that fueled the creation of the works.
“I felt that it was important, both for the posters from our collection, and these posters are of exhibitions, and people having fun and buying products, just everyday life with a sense of the city so you can understand what these avant garde artists are reacting to. You get some sense of normal life and then the avant garde commentary on that.”
The latter was a painful thorn in the side of the establishment and, eventually, of the ruling Nazi Party.
Part of that was, of course, the freefor- all, decadent spirit of the 1920s and early 1930s, which began petering out with Hitler’s rise to power. But, even as more and more sanctions were placed on the liberty of Jewish Germans, some artists defiantly continued painting and sculpting as their muse dictated, with no regard for the Nazi’s abhorrence of their non-realistic ethos, and their refusal to play the Nazi-orientated sycophantic role.
There are some wonderful early 20th century posters near the video screen that depict the feel of insouciant Berlin of the times, but the core of the exhibition is the works the Nazis considered to be unacceptable and even depraved.
The majority of the Berlin-based display comprises works that were first unveiled to the public at the “Degenerate Art Exhibition” organized by Adolf Ziegler and the Nazi Party in Munich July 19 to November 30, 1937. Degenerate art was officially defined as works that “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.” And, just in case the German and Austrian public missed the point, the day before the exhibition opened, Hitler delivered a speech declaring “merciless war” on cultural disintegration, and vilifying “chatterboxes, dilettantes and art swindlers.” Jews, communists and anyone suspected of being “un-Aryan” were primarily the target of the Nazi propaganda exercise.
The old adage in Hollywood, about stars not objecting to negative media exposure as long as the papers spell their name correctly probably went for the Degenerate Art Exhibition, too.
“Three million people saw the exhibition between 1937 and 1939,” Kamien- Kazhdan notes. Presumably, the Nazis must have been more than a little irked by the success of the event.
“That’s the thing,” continues Kamien- Kazhdan. “They created the show, and as a contra to that show, they had the ‘Great German Art Show’ for what was deemed ‘kosher art.’” It seems, however, that the Nazis occasionally got their ideological wires crossed, as was the case with Christian Schad’s 1928 painting Sonja. “Schad was an avant gardist, but because of his realist style, he mistakenly got put into the Great German Art show,” says the curator. The painting is anything but “kosher.” “Here we have Sonja, a café worker, but she’s the new woman of the Weimar Republic, when there are still hopes of a democracy. She looks a bit decadent, it’s the crazy ’20s, she’s semi-androgynous, she has a short haircut and transparent clothing and she’s smoking Camel cigarettes.”
One of the star turns of the “Twilight over Berlin” exhibit is the fabulously suggestive Potsdamer Platz, by German expressionist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, painted in 1914. In 1933 his work was duly branded as “degenerate” and, four years later, more than 600 of his works were either sold off or destroyed. Kirchner committed suicide the following year.
The display is divided into five categories, with the Kirchner work sharing the “Expressionism: From Utopian Vision to a Critique of Civilization” section, which, in turn, is subdivided into four themes – religion, primitivism, nude in nature and metropolis. In Potsdamer Platz, Kirchner proffers his take on prostitution and the ambivalence of German society on the subject – and in a definitively strident manner. One surrealistically proportioned figure, for example, appears to be gingerly making his way towards the two “ladies of the night” in the foreground, as if struggling to span the chasm between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
One of the women also wears a widow’s hat and veil, through which Kirchner airs his negative view of war and the devastation it wreaks. Other sectors of “Twilight over Berlin” address the range of artistic styles applied during the Weimar Republic – with Otto Dix’s The Skat Players, from 1920, a particularly savage attack on military hostilities, conveyed through an abundance of grotesque and darkly humorous elements.
Intriguingly, the religion subsection features Emil Nolde’s stark 1926 Christ and the Adulteress, which appears in the background of a photograph taken in 1937, when Goebbels visited the Degenerate Art Exhibition.
The Man Ray “Human Equations” exhibition is a wonder to behold, and a highly enlightening presentation of the American-born Jewish multidisciplinary artist. The show is quizzically subtitled “A Journey from Mathematics to Shakespeare,” but all is revealed as you walk through the rooms and gradually discover that there was far more to Ray – née Emmanuel Radnitzky – than the trademark monochrome prints he took of, for example, the delectably oval-faced model Kiki with a similarly shaped mask.
The show comprises five sections – or “acts,” and one interim slot, which span the spectrum from mathematics to Shakespeare’s works. It seems that Ray was greatly taken with mathematical models used at the Institut Henri Poincaré mathematics research institute in Paris to convey to its students the mysteries of the science in a three-dimensional and tactile way. Ray took the clearly delineated shapes and ran with them every which way, turning sharp crisp lines and angles into softer, more inviting figures. The mathematics teaching aids also inspired painted portrayals of Shakespeare’s plays, and the artist also had a liking for crisscrossing the contrary areas of the human and the non-human – as demonstrated in the “Humanizing the Object / Objectifying the Body” sector of his exhibition. The human-object interplay comes through particularly forcefully in works like Aline at Valcour, which shows a reclining figure that resembles the wooden models used by art students, and Endgame, with two of the figures engaged in a game of chess among a mass of shapes.
Interestingly, in a documentary screened in one of the side rooms, featuring an interview with Man Ray, the artist claims to prefer being accepted to being understood. The exhibition experience will be enhanced at a later date by a symposium devoted to “Man Ray and A Hundred Years of Dada.”
The highly eclectic exhibition spread also takes in the “New Types – Three Pioneers of Hebrew Graphic Design” show, which looks into the origins of some of the most iconic components of Israeli society. Meanwhile, “We the People” examines the identity of the individual within the collective, with “Dürer and Friends – German Renaissance Prints” completing the sumptuous set of five.
The exhibitions will run until early 2016.
For more information: imjnet.org.il/