“Night Terrors: The Degenerate Art Show of Nazi Germany, 1937,” on display at the Station Gallery, deals with the implications of a propaganda campaign implemented by Adolph Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and their subordinates.
They condemned all forms of modernist art, including Expressionism and Impressionism, saying they posed a dire threat to German culture and society.
And so, Nazi officials opened two exhibitions in Munich in 1937.
The Great German Art Show had a portfolio aesthetically pleasing to Hitler and his associates. The Degenerate Art Show presented works by artists such as Max Beckmann, Otto Dix and Marc Chagall; the artworks were hung sloppily, with labels identifying them as grotesque art created by sick minds.
The Munich shows were followed by ongoing acts of repression: seizures of many works of art, the burning of thousands of artworks by the Berlin Fire Brigade in 1939, directives forbidding selected artists to purchase art supplies.
At the Station gallery, curator Peter Svoboda references both the Munich exhibits and the larger campaign against modern art. He displays prints of six pieces from the Great German Show to provide a sampling of “acceptable art.” And he presents 80 prints of works whose creators were condemned just for making art.
This is a broad-based roster of artists including Gentiles and Jews, leftists and a few supporters of the German government, prominent artists and those careers were just taking off.
It’s also a group with significant accomplishments. Indeed, “Night Terrors” gives viewers an opportunity to view works such as the following: Beckmann’s “Self-Portrait with Horn”; “L’Arraignee” by Pablo Picasso; “Water Serpents” by Gustav Klimt; Chagall’s “Ukrainian Village.”
Yet, the show is more than just a survey of European art from 1910 to 1940. It’s poignant, as texts accompanying the prints tell the stories of artists who not only had works banned from galleries and museums but also were murdered in concentration camps. “Night Terrors” is dedicated to all those who suffered under Nazi tyranny.
For example, the exhibit displays a self-portrait by Felix Nussbaum depicting him at the Saint-Cyprient internment camp in France. He was jailed as “a hostile alien” at that facility which was administered by a Vichy government collaborating with German forces. Later, he and his wife were transported to the Auschwitz concentration camp and killed there.
And Gertrude Kauders, a Jewish Czech artist, was imprisoned and murdered at a death camp, Majdanek. Before being arrested, she hid 700 paintings in a Prague house. In 2018, a work crew demolishing the house found the works, recovering them for posterity.
In addition, “Night Terrors” displays “The Song Is Over,” by Pavel Fanti, another Jewish Czech artist. He did artworks portraying Hitler as a clown. In 1944, his wife and son were murdered. A year later, Fanti was shot en route to a concentration camp.
Beyond that, the exhibition details the effects of Nazi rule on other artists. Beckmann, reviled as a cultural Bolshevik, fled Europe and ended up in New York City. Karl Schwesig, a member of the German Communist Party who openly opposed the Nazis, was arrested, jailed and tortured. He did a series of sketches portraying the acts of torture.
Not every artist opposed the regime. Pol Cassell, whose career was ruined by inclusion in the Degenerate Art Show, joined the German army and was sent to the Eastern Front. Captured by Russian soldiers, he died in a prisoner-of-war camp.
The Station show, with its extensive display of art and brief biographies of artists, carefully develops key themes. Although the campaign against modernist art sounds absurd, it did have some success as a propaganda ploy. The Munich shows traveled to 11 other cities in Germany and Austria; they were seen by over 3,000,000 viewers.
Second, “Night Terrors” honors and remembers a generation of European artists. Beckmann, photographer Fred Stein, and Chagall all escaped from Europe. On the other hand, Felix Nussbaum and other artists perished. Viewers will wonder what Nussbaum could have accomplished artistically if he had lived out his life.
Third, the exhibition provides concrete information about all of the artists, discussing which artistic movements influenced them. This isn’t an exercise in art-history trivia. Rather, it helps place the artists, and their work, in context.
That amount of information reflects a lot of research by Svoboda who first envisioned a Degenerate Art Show in alternative format roughly 20 years ago. He traveled to several European nations and thought about various possibilities for an exhibition.
“Night Terrors” is on display through Dec. 15 at the Station Gallery, located on the third floor at 400 Burnet Ave. That’s in an old train station at the corner of Burnet and Catherine Street.
The gallery is open from noon to five p.m. Sunday through Tuesday and from noon to nine p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. Admission is $12.00.
The gallery is closed on Oct. 28, 29 and 30 for an immersive experience, “The Thinning of the Veil,” put on by Deviant Dance Tribe.
“Night Terrors” is cosponsored by Two Flights Up, the Pinnacle International Center, and CNY Artists. For more information, call 315-391-5115 or access TheStation.design.
Carl Mellor covered visual arts for the Syracuse New Times from 1994 to 2019. He continues to write about exhibitions and artists in Central New York.