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The art that was forbidden

Eleven sculptures unearthed while digging out the new U5 station in front of the Rotes Rathaus tell the story of thousands of pieces of ‘degenerate art’, purged by the Nazis in the 1930s and '40s. They’re now on display at the Neues Museum.

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Photo courtesy of Zentralarchiv, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

The thick drifts of snow on the glass roof of the Neues Museum’s Griechischer Hof lets only the faintest bit of natural light shine down onto the little courtyard. The walls are stripped to reveal raw brick. Standing on the wide, white floor that was open to the sky for nearly 60 years before the roof was completed in 1921, you suddenly feel small.

Entartete Kunst im Bombenschutt (Degenerate Art in the Rubble) opened this year on the historically loaded date of November 9.

The exhibition displays 11 sculptures that lay underground for some 70 years before they were discovered when workers were digging for the new U5 underground station in front of the Rotes Rathaus. Buried deep under a building that was bombed during an air raid and burnt down, the sculptures have literally risen from the ashes. The latest finds, made on October 25, include three small female sculptures by Naum Slutzky, Gustav Heinrich Wolff and an unknown artist. Though the long hibernation took its toll on the works, their rounded modernist shapes are still distinct.

“Nature as seen by sick minds”

Looking at the sculptures, which stand on pillars in the light courtyard, it’s hard to imagine why they were found so subversive to Hitler in the 1930s. True, they don’t look like the classical artworks Hitler idealized, but the Expressionistic and Cubist-inspired works don’t exactly provoke either. With their round features, scarred by fire and dirt, they look almost fragile and vulnerable. But to the Nazis, they were. The sculptures are among 16,000 pieces deemed ‘un-German’ by Joseph Goebbels in the 1930s, when he served as Reichsminister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.

In 1937, an exhibition touring major German cities displayed the ‘degenerate’ works, crammed on walls, accompanied by mocking phrases designed to incite audiences, like “an insult to German womanhood” or “nature as seen by sick minds”. A significant number of the sculptures, which includes works by renowned artists like Expressionist Emil Nolde and Picasso, were then burned or kept in Nazi officials’ private homes.

How these sculptures ended up underground is still not clear. One hunch is that it has something to do with Erhard Oewerdieck, a German tax lawyer and escrow agent who hid a Jewish man in his apartment and helped at least two families into exile. During the war, his Königstraße 50 apartment was close to where the sculptures were found, but was burnt to the ground by bombings. Miraculously, the artworks were preserved. The rough surfaces of the bronze statues are marked by fire. Segments have eroded, leaving the statues wounded and coarse, some even broken. How Oewerdieck got hold of the forbidden artworks remains unknown.

Pieces of evidence

The sculptures themselves are not aesthetically remarkable – it’s history that brings them to life. Otto Freundlich’s “Kopf” (1925) is a terracotta bust of a man’s head, the top peeled off by war and decades spent in the earth. Its mouth is closed, as if faltering between tears and anger. In 1943, after his work was shown in the Degenerate Art exhibition, Freundlich, a German Jew and one of the first generation of abstract artists, was taken to the Majdanek concentration camp near Lublin. He was killed the day he arrived.

Otto Baum’s “Standing Girl” expresses material decay as much as it displays the subject of the statue itself. The green, weathered bronze is like a shining patina of bruises, left as it was found by the excavators. Contrastingly, Marg Moll’s “Dancer” was partially polished, leaving the face and one of the arms smooth and shiny, while the rest of the statue remains rough and damaged. Thus the exhibition sharply displays the time and events the little piece has endured, practically telling its whole story in that silent way.

German skills required

With only 11 sculptures, the exhibition is small. Its real value is as a posthumous recognition of artists silenced in their lifetimes because they didn’t fit Hitler’s vision of art derived from classical forms. At the exhibition, the background story is written on a table, with visuals of the works as they appeared originally. However, the ‘un-German’ art has perhaps become too German. None of the written material about the exhibition is translated into English. So bring a German or pray that Neues Museum will soon translate, so that non-Germans can go and enjoy these little survivors of degeneration.

Entartete Kunst im Bombenschutt (Degenerate Art in the Rubble) | Neues Museum. The exhibition is ongoing.