Art’s Survivors of Hitler’s War

Published: November 30, 2010

BERLIN — The past still thrusts itself back into the headlines here, occasionally as an unexploded bomb turning up somewhere. Now it has reappeared as art.

Marg Moll’s “Dancer,” from around 1930, is one of the found works in the “Degenerate Art” show at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

Researchers learned the bust was a portrait by Edwin Scharff, a nearly forgotten German modernist, from around 1920. It seemed anomalous until August, when more sculpture emerged nearby: “Standing Girl” by Otto Baum, “Dancer” by Marg Moll and the remains of a head by Otto Freundlich. Excavators also rescued another fragment, a different head, belonging to Emy Roeder’s “Pregnant Woman.” October produced yet a further batch.

The 11 sculptures proved to be survivors of Hitler’s campaign against what the Nazis notoriously called “degenerate art.” Several works, records showed, were seized from German museums in the 1930s, paraded in the fateful “Degenerate Art” show, and in a couple of cases also exploited for a 1941 Nazi film, an anti-Semitic comedy lambasting modern art. They were last known to have been stored in the depot of the Reichspropagandaministerium, which organized the “Degenerate” show.

Then the sculptures vanished.

How they ended up underground near City Hall is still a mystery; it seems to involve an Oskar Schindler-like hero. Meanwhile a modest exhibition of the discoveries has been organized and recently opened at the Neues Museum, Berlin’s archaeological collection, the perfect site for these works.

Like the sculptures, the museum lately rose, all these years later, from the ruins of war. In the architect David Chipperfield’s ingenious, Humpty Dumpty-like reconstruction of the building, it has become a popular palimpsest of German history, bearing witness, via the evidence of the damage done to it, to a violence that not even time and several generations have been able to erase.

I can hardly express how moving this little show is, unexpectedly so. Its effect ends up being all out of proportion to the objects discovered, which are, in strictly aesthetic terms, fine but not remarkable. They are works of quasi-Cubism or Expressionism, mostly not much more than a foot high, several newly cleaned but still scarred, inspiring the obvious human analogy.

The poet and Holocaust survivor Paul Celan came up, in a different context, with the metaphor of bottles tossed into the ocean “at the shoreline of the heart,” now finally washed ashore. They’re like the dead, these sculptures, ever coming back to us, radiant ghosts.

In a country that for decades has been profoundly diligent at disclosing its own crimes and framing them in the context of history, it makes sense that the exhibition was installed to share a courtyard with Assyrian friezes from a long-ago regime that made an art of totalitarian rule and with an ancient frieze describing the eruption of Vesuvius, which preserved priceless objects, buried in the ash, that have found sanctuary in institutions like the Neues Museum.

Archeologists have so far determined that the recovered works must have come from 50 Königstrasse, across the street from City Hall. The building belonged to a Jewish woman, Edith Steinitz; several Jewish lawyers are listed as her tenants in 1939, but their names disappear from the record by 1942, when the house became property of the Reich. Among its subsequent occupants, German investigators now believe, the likeliest candidate to have hidden the art was Erhard Oewerdieck, a tax lawyer and escrow agent.

Oewerdieck is not widely known, but he is remembered at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Israel. In 1939, he and his wife gave money to a Jewish family to escape to Shanghai. He also hid an employee, Martin Lange, in his apartment. In 1941 he helped the historian Eugen Täubler and his wife flee to America, preserving part of Täubler’s library. And he stood by Wolfgang Abendroth too, a leftist and Nazi opponent, by writing him a job recommendation when that risked his own life.

The current theory is that when fire from Allied air raids in 1944 consumed 50 Königstrasse, the contents of Oewerdieck’s office fell through the floor, and then the building collapsed on top. Tests are being done on ash from the site for remains of incinerated paintings and wood sculptures. How the lost art came into Oewerdieck’s possession in the first place still isn’t clear.

But at least it’s now back on view. Scharff’s bust, of an actress named Anni Mewes, brings to mind Egyptian works in the Neues Museum. Karl Knappe’s “Hagar,” a bronze from 1923, twisted like knotted rope, has been left with its green patina of rust and rubble, making it almost impossible to decipher, save as evidence of its fate. On the other hand, Freundlich’s “Head,” from 1925, a work made of glazed terra cotta, gnarled like an old olive tree, loses little of its power for being broken. The Nazis seized the Freundlich from a museum in Hamburg in 1937, then six years later, in France, seized the artist and sent him to Majdanek, the concentration camp in Poland, where he was murdered on the day he arrived.

Across the street from the Neues Museum contemporary galleries showcase the sort of work the Nazis hoped to eradicate but that instead give Berlin its current identity as a capital of cool. This is a city that resembles the young masses who gravitate here: forever in a state of becoming, wary, unsure and unresolved, generally broke, but optimistic about the future, with the difference that Germany can’t escape its past.

Farther down the block the Deutsches Historisches Museum’s Hitler exhibition, today’s version of a “Degenerate” show, means to warn viewers about succumbing to what present German law declares morally reprehensible. How could any decent German have ever been taken in? the show asks.

From The New York Times

That happens to be the question the Nazis’ “Degenerate” show posed about modern art. Many more Germans visited that exhibition than the concurrent one of approved German art. Maybe Oewerdieck was among those who went to the modern show and saw these sculptures in it. In any case, today’s Germany has salvaged them and has organized this display. Redemption sometimes comes late and in small measures.


Claes Oldenburg

Claes Oldenburg was born in 1929 in Stockholm, Sweden. The son of a Swedish Consul General, he came to Chicago in 1936. After finishing his studies at Yale University, New Haven, he started to work as a reporter. In 1952 he attended a course at the Chicago Art Institute, published drawings in several magazines and began to paint pictures that were influenced by Abstract Expressionism.

In 1956 he moved to New York where he met Jim Dine. In 1958 he met Alan Kaprow and took part in his Happenings. In 1958-59 he arranged his first sculptural, Neo-Dadaist assemblages of plaster and garbage soaked in striking colors. These led to his environments (The Street, The Store etc.). He also started at this time to make replicas of foods like hamburgers, ice-cream and cakes, which prepared the ground for his soft sculptures. In 1964 and 1968 he was represented at the Venice Biennale, and in 1968 and 1972 at the documenta”4″ and documenta “5”, Kassel.

In 1972 he arranged his Mouse Museum. A comprehensive retrospective of his projects, documents and sketches was shown at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1969. The Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, gave him a retrospective in 1970. From 1976 he collaborated on large-scale projects with Coosje van Bruggen, whom he married in 1977. He was represented at the documenta “6”, 1977, and documenta “7”, 1982, at Kassel. The Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and the Kunsthalle Tübingen gave him a retrospective of his drawings in 1977. His environment Mouse Museum / Ray Gun Wing was arranged in 1979 at the Museum Ludwig, Cologne.

In 1983 he made his large sculpture of a toothbrush for the Museum Haus Esters, Krefeld. In 1984 he made his proposals for the large project The Course of the Knife for Venice, which was then shown in collaboration with the architect Frank Gehry at the Campo dell’Arsenale, accompanied by performances which he took part in himself. He then went on to collaborate with Gehry on other projects that related to architecture in Boston and Los Angeles. In 1989 the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum, Duisburg, organized the exhibition “Claes Oldenburg -Coosje van Bruggen, A Bottle of Notes and Some Voyages.”


Louise Bourgeois Quotes

Louise Bourgeois created “Maman”, the giant spider currently being assembled outside the National Gallery of Canada. When I went there today, the spider only had five legs, and was hanging from a crane. A second crane was there, presumably, to attach the legs.

* * *

“My childhood has never lost its magic, it has never lost its mystery, and it has never lost its drama.”

“When I was born my father and mother were fighting like cats and dogs. And the country was preparing for war, and my father who wanted a son got me, and my sister had just died. Please let me breathe.”

“For me, sculpture is the body. My body is my sculpture.”

“What interests me is the conquering of the fear, the hiding, the running away from it, facing it, exorcising it, being ashamed of it, and, finally, being afraid of being afraid.”

“My mother was a restorer, she repaired broken things. I don’t do that. I destroy things. I cannot go the straight line. I must destroy, rebuild, destroy again. My rhythm is not the same. My mother moved in a straight line: I go from one extreme to the other.”

“An artist can show things that other people are terrified of expressing.”

“My work disturbs people and nobody wants to be disturbed. They are not fully aware of the effect my work has on them, but they know it is disturbing.”

“In real life, I identify with the victim. . . . In my art, I am the murderer. I feel for the ordeal of the murderer, the man who has to live with his conscience.”

“Sometimes it is necessary to make a confrontation – and I like that.”

“Art is a guarantee of sanity. That is the most important thing I have

Elie Nadelman, Birthday

Born into a middle-class Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland, Elie Nadelman was encouraged to study art and music from an early age. During his early twenties, he spent time in Munich, where the important collection of early classical Greek sculpture in the city’s Glyptothek museum made a deep and lasting impression. By 1904, he was living in Paris, where he became a part of the avant-garde circle of artists and intellectuals that included Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Guillaume Apollinaire, and Gertrude Stein (who wrote a prose portrait of Nadelman). At a time when many dismissed classical art as outmoded and inimical to modernism, Nadelman daringly asserted its enduring validity as the ultimate standard of aesthetic and formal beauty. In his own work, he struggled to discover and emulate classicism’s underlying principles of balance, harmony, and proportion. Intense and melancholic, poor but utterly passionate about his art, the young sculptor “seemed to live on plaster,” wrote the poet André Gide.


With the outbreak of World War I, Nadelman moved to New York. Although his first impression of the United States was not positive-he described it as “a country of bluffers and snobs”-he soon became enamored of the energy and optimism of American life. Thanks to the support of prominent New York art world figures, such as Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, his career blossomed. His sources of inspiration also began to take on a new and decidedly American cast, and included the popular culture of his adopted country. Nadelman was delighted by vaudeville performances and other popular amusements, which he sometimes incorporated into his work. He was also fascinated by American folk art, which he admired for its directness of expression, simplicity, and charming lack of pretension. In 1919, he married a wealthy American widow, Viola Flannery, and together they formed a collection of American and European folk art that eventually exceeded 10,000 objects. In 1926, a portion of their country estate in Riverdale, New York, was transformed into the Museum of Folk and Peasant Arts, the first museum of its kind in this country.

The crash of the stock market in 1929 devastated Nadelman financially and emotionally, and forced him to close his beloved museum. He became increasingly withdrawn, stubbornly refusing invitations to exhibit his work. The artist was, however, coaxed into lending three works to an exhibition of American sculpture at Carnegie Institute in Pittsburgh in 1938 after initially declining the institution’s invitation for submissions. In 1946, plagued by debts, illness, and depression, he took his own life. At the time of his death, Nadelman’s studio was filled with hundreds of small figurines-none of them ever exhibited-created during the last decade of his life.

Nadelman’s first fame and commercial success in America came from bronze and marble busts that overtly-in style, subject matter, and technique-paid homage to the classical past. A number of exceptionally beautiful examples are on view, among them his Woman’s Head (Goddess) (marble, ca. 1916), whose serene expression, idealized features, and crisply chiseled contours are derived from ancient Greek images of female deities. Although Nadelman soon began to experiment with subjects and forms derived from American culture, classical art remained-albeit sometimes quite subtly-a source of inspiration throughout his life. For example, the exhibition includes Woman with Leg Raised, a marble of ca. 1930-35: While the figure’s softly rounded, rather plump physique owes little to canons of classical art, her pose is modeled after the Thorn-Puller, a famous Hellenistic image of a young boy pulling a thorn from his foot.

Folk Art
Beginning around 1917, Nadelman began to incorporate references to European and American folk art in his sculptures. The apparent crudeness of these images, often made of painted wood and carved with doll-like features and limbs, startled many admirers of Nadelman’s classicizing sculptures. (One critic accused him of making a bizarre and grotesque joke.) Today, they are regarded as among Nadelman’s most original and visionary works. The exhibition features a number of these homages to folk art, including the celebrated Orchestra Conductor (Chef d’orchestre) (1918-19, carved 1919-23). In this deceptively simple work, the figure stands stiffly at attention, on clothes-pin like legs; and yet the image is imbued with an extraordinary elegance of line and economy of form.

Dancers and Performers
Another significant and very American source for Nadelman’s art were performers from the circus and vaudeville stage, who astonished him with their athleticism and feats of coordination. One of the most famous works in this genre is Dancer (High Kicker) (ca. 1918-19), in which a female figure is balanced on the tiny ball of one foot as she thrusts her other leg high in the air. Carved from cherry wood, the smooth, simplified forms of the dancer are reminiscent of American folk art. In fact, however, it is a work of enormous sophistication, whose carefully orchestrated curves and counter-curves emulate the formal harmony of classical sculpture. This section also includes The Acrobat (bronze, 1916-20) in which Nadelman captures the fleeting moment of equilibrium in a hand-stand.

Modern Life
Nadelman was an astute observer of the habits and fashions of contemporary life, which he often, quite wittily, transposed into classical high-art modes of representation. His Man in a Top Hat (bronze, ca. 1924), for example, is strikingly similar to antique conventions for representing great military leaders, which showed them bust-length, bearded, and with their helmets pushed high on their head. The exhibition also includes what is undoubtedly Nadelman’s most famous classicizing take on contemporary life-Man in the Open Air (1915). In this life-size bronze, a young gentleman wearing a derby hat strikes a casual pose against a stylized tree. The contrapposto stance, with the weight on one leg, is a hallmark of Greek sculpture. Specifically, the Nadelman bronze alludes to a well-known sculpture by the Greek master Praxiteles, showing a marble faun resting one arm on a tree trunk.

The Late Work
During the last decade of his life-a period of financial hardship and increasing ill health-Nadelman spent his time in seclusion, obsessively producing hundreds of small clay figurines of young girls. The exhibition features forty-three of these works, which were never exhibited during his lifetime and whose purpose remains a mystery. Most are small enough to be held in the hand, and, indeed, must be, for they cannot stand on their own. Plump and child-like in their proportions, some assume coy and flirtatious poses, others appear to be giggling, still others stare out in solemn silence. The so-called Tanagra figures, small clay sculptures of females produced during the Hellenistic period, have been cited as a possible classical source for these works. Some of Nadelman’s figurines wear the conical hat typical of many Tanagra figures. However, many of these diminutive nymphets also bear a striking resemblance to fun-house kewpie dolls. Once again, Nadelman seems to have deftly combined “high” and “low” art, popular imagery and classicism, in the creation of something totally original.

Marc Quinn’s blood portrait

Each portrait is made with 10 pints of the artist’s blood. Quinn says he will continue to make a new version every five years

Each portrait is made with 10 pints of the artist’s blood. Quinn says he will continue to make a new version every five years

The National Portrait Gallery (NPG) is hoping to buy Marc Quinn’s Self, a frozen sculpture of the artist’s head, made out of his own blood. Quinn produces a new version every five years. The most recent, dating from 2006, is being offered to the NPG by the artist’s gallery White Cube for £350,000. Its open market value is said to be over £1m.