German Art Without Jews: Neue Galerie and Harvard Art Museums Look For Signs

With diligence and even-handedness, the Neue Galerie has sorted the pictures in Before the Fall: German and Austrian Art of the 1930s, into categories, such as “Still Life,” “Landscapes,” and “The Individual.” But the images here, with their sometimes-gloomy and sometimes-magical subjects, pumped with the adrenaline that comes before a fight, keep willfully reshuffling themselves in my mind. Before the Fall, opening this week, is the third show in a trilogy curated by Olaf Peters, focusing on art that signaled and responded to the fissures in German and Austrian culture and politics, ultimately rupturing and leading to war and the Holocaust. Whether they intended it or not, the artists who made these paintings, drawings, photographs, and graphic works during the first decade of the Nazi regime were witnesses and messengers—or, as the Austrian painter and graphic artist Wilhelm Traeger put it, they were seismographs of upheaval.

Unlike the often gritty, experimental, and perplexing work at Harvard Art Museums’ Inventur: Art in Germany 1943-55, which is running contemporaneously, the art in this exhibit was made while the disaster was still unfolding. Social and political conditions were disintegrating, but the future hadn’t arrived; the art was laden with intimations of the tragedy to come, and this is incorporated in the installation design with its gigantic mourning veil and blackened tree roots projecting down from the gallery’s ceilings. Most of the artists remained in Germany or Austria and skirted their way cautiously around National Socialist constraints (in at least one case, even embracing them). Several were attacked as degenerate artists and lost their jobs. Some were internationally famous, such as Max Ernst, Oskar Kokoschka, or Max Beckmann, and chose to live abroad in exile. The selection includes a number of Jews—Felix Nussbaum, Hans Ludwig Katz, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, Erwin Blumenfeld, Erika Giovanna Klein, and Helmar Lerski—each of whom experienced a different fate. The images are almost entirely figurative and stylistically diverse, reflecting principles of Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity) and Surrealism, but also reaching back to Romanticism and sometimes even farther back to vanitas still lifes with flowers, figurines, and pinned butterflies. The anachronisms, particularly the still lifes with odd juxtapositions—a Japanese doll and a wilting poppy, for instance—are chilling harbingers of something deeply unsettling.

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