Among the many imponderables of the Neue Galerie’s splendid Degenerate Art exhibition is an uncanny sense of repeating a forgotten ritual. After spending half an hour in a queue that curls on to Fifth Avenue, you find a wall-sized black-and-white photograph of a similarly orderly crowd in Munich in 1937, inching towards the original version of the same show.

You have waited patiently to see a collection of Klees, Kirchners, Dixes and Beckmanns. And so, all those decades ago, did those other viewers, perhaps to sneer or be repulsed, but maybe not.

The Nazis were barbarians with an erratically refined taste in art, and they seem to have loved even works that they loudly claimed to detest. They confiscated unsanctioned avant-garde art from German museums – then tucked much of it away in their homes. They deemed modernism worthless – and sold it to fund the Reich. They declared it toxic – and invited the public to see it.

Hitler, a failed artist and avid collector who dreamed of creating the ultimate museum, ordered up the Entartete Kunst exhibition, which toured various German cities. That anthology of contemporary masterpieces, presented in horrified mockery, turned out to be a spectacularly successful blockbuster. In Munich, 2m viewers filed through galleries filled with 600 works purged from state-owned collections. At the same time, a few blocks away, a lavish official display of muscular nudes and glowing soldiers, painted on heroic scale, opened in a new and chilly temple to Nazi aesthetics. Hardly anyone went.

The Neue Galerie show faces history’s paradoxes squarely. Curator Olaf Peters has reunited a bouquet of rarely seen painting and sculpture from the 1937 travelling exhibition, intermingling them with postcards, photos of the original installations, and films. He has also judiciously included the kind of kitsch that the Nazis favoured. The Entartete Kunst organiser, Adolf Ziegler, painted a triptych of the “Four Elements”, represented by a klatch of clunky nudes. Hitler hung this mess above his mantel; Peters deploys it as a foil to Max Beckmann’s harrowing and mysterious triptych “Departure”.

The show and its excellent catalogue sharpen plenty of questions and refuse simplistic answers. What, for instance, was degenerate art? The term was popularised by a doctor and rabbi’s son: Max Nordau published the bestseller Entartung (Degeneration) in 1892-93, diagnosing the condition as a mental illness caused by the traumas of modernisation. He prescribed a three-step treatment: “Characterisation of leading degenerates as mentally diseased; unmasking and stigmatising their imitators as enemies to society; cautioning the public against the lies of these parasites.”

The Nazis later refined Nordau’s formulation by giving it a racial origin. An incendiary pamphlet singled out the international avant-garde as the “poisonous flower of a Jewish parasitical plant, grown on German soil”. For the Nazis, degenerate art was not just foreign but urban, communist and anti-realistic – a fearsome conflation of aesthetic and political sins.

'A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brücke)', 1925-26, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner
'A Group of Artists (The Painters of the Brücke)', 1925-26, by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner

“Being German means being clear,” Hitler declared; ambiguity was considered a form of cultural treachery. And yet, even Nazis vacillated. The Neue Galerie has Ernst Barlach’s “The Berserker”, a small bronze of a chubby ninja swinging a fat sword that Goebbels adored. It nevertheless wound up on the “degenerate” list. A few artists had the distinction of being included in both the Entartete and Great German shows.

One of the most powerful artefacts is a short, slickly outraged propaganda film that purports to chronicle the sudden decay of a German culture in the grip of Jews. First come the golden ages: classical statuary, Roman gods, Michelangelo’s “Creation” – the whole lineage of what Hitler weirdly called the “Greco-Nordic” tradition – file by to a Bach toccata. The second part shifts to a soundtrack of jiggly jazz and a montage of modernist grotesques. The film is appalling but effective, because it taps into an emotional truth. Modernism was indeed belligerent, political, enraged and self-loathing. It did plumb mental illness; it did aspire to rattle the public and foment revolution. One thing that Die Brücke, the Dadaists, Grosz and the Bauhaus crew shared with the Nazis was a belief in the subversive power of art.

Thus the most fervent ideologues reacted to modern art with an almost erotic repulsion – condemning, hoarding and leering at it all at once. “If we were to identify the symbols that are expressed in the majority of paintings and sculptures from that time, they are the idiot, the whore and sagging breasts,” gasped Paul Schultze-Naumburg in his 1928 screed Art and Race. “It is a veritable hell of sub-humans spread before us here, and we exhale when we leave this atmosphere.” If Nazis held their breath in the presence of degeneracy, it was because “Entartete Kunst” bottled the stink of their subconscious. Nazis created art full of sunshine and purity and a real world of murder, mutilation, lunacy and chaos; modernists wanted it the other way around.

To its credit, the Neue Galerie tackles a topic that most museum exhibitions shy away from: money. The Nazis labelled each work in Entartete Kunst with the sum that a state museum had paid for it, the point being to demonstrate how the Jewish art world bilked German taxpayers at a time of widespread suffering. One of the most chilling objects here is a ledger documenting every item confiscated and subsequently sold or destroyed. That little tour de force of bureaucratic record-keeping begins to address the question that clings to each work on the walls: then what happened?

After 1937, the items that had appeared in Entartete Kunst entered a bog of murky laws and squishy provenances that is still being drained. Hitler’s government, which was venal but not astute, dumped such a large trove on the market that prices collapsed, and a collector could buy a modern masterwork for the cost of a pair of shoes. Alfred Barr, the first director of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, took advantage of the bargains to beef up MoMA’s fledgling collection.

The irony is that, while the Nazis effectively wiped out German culture by silencing composers, burning books and driving film-makers into exile, they saw art as a useful commodity. Their twisted connoisseurship and dumb philistinism preserved the works now at the Neue Galerie: horrified by all the era’s greatest art, the Nazis spat it out of the fatherland and thereby ensured its survival.

‘Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany’, to June 30.

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