The world is not black and white.
Words by Naomi Mishkin & artwork by Naomi Mishkin
When I was a kid I asked my Safta (Grandma in Hebrew) how she knew her friend Rifka. We had just run into her walking down the street in Brooklyn, New York. “Oh, we met on the selection line,” she replied casually.
Like many second-generation descendants of Holocaust survivors, the history of those years was told to me orally, and casually, as I sat in the comfort of a couch, half paying attention as someone cooked dinner. But there is a reason we, as children, only half paid attention — we knew how the story ended. Safta lived and the bad guys died. (Somewhere in there was also a reason I couldn’t wear blue and white striped PJs to bed.)
In many ways, it is an easy children’s story to tell, one with clear good and evil, right and wrong. Grey haired Safta, good; scary dead Hitler, bad. But as any history book will tell you, the world is not that black and white. To discern the grey, the nuance, is the mark of an adult. Even more, to expose that nuance and debate the grey is the role of the artist.
Starting in 1933, with the establishment of the Reichskulturammer, Adolf Hitler turned his political power towards the arts only six months after being elected Chancellor. This attack on the arts was an attack on free thinking, on nuance. He needed the masses to get in line and propaganda was his greatest weapon against the critical mind. As historian Fritz Stern wrote in 1984, “[w]hat was so irresistible about National Socialism…was the promise of absolute authority; there was a clarity…a sense of un-ambiguity.”1 By 1936, Goebbels had banned all art criticism on the grounds that, ironically, the public should “make up their own minds.”2
Mounting a cultural war on Modernism, Hitler stigmatized the avant-garde by calling them and their work degenerate (entartete in German). The term had been used in the nineteenth century to denote creatures that had morphed beyond the scientifically defined boundaries of their own species. The term was first applied to the arts by Max Nordau in his 1892 book Entartung (Degeneration in English) when he wrote about Modern artists who painted “distorted and irregular forms mirroring their own nervous deformities and stunted growth.” 3
Those deemed to be degenerate artists were stretching the boundaries of their genre as they abstracted, collaged, and selected their works. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich’s Minister for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, described degenerate art as that which was “so far beyond the confines of what is accepted that it is, in essence, ‘non-art.’” 4
By applying such a biological term to art, Nordau had anthropomorphized and, as a result, empowered the art objects. The Reich feared that Modernism would poison its audience and lead to a degenerate nation. Just as the Reich sought to eliminate those members of its society it found unfit, so too did they seek to eliminate those artworks. Just as Jews and gays and Gypsies and the disabled were considered outside the boundaries of the great Aryan Race, so too was degenerate art considered outside the boundaries of great German art.
By 1937, Goebbels and his team had pilfered 16,000 avant-garde Modernist works from the nation’s museums. No institution was safe from the purge as curators who had championed Modernism were fired and Boards were prevented from purchasing new works.
Of these confiscated works, which once removed from these institutions became property of the German government, Goebbels sent 650 to Munich for an exhibition entitled Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art). This was a show of how not to paint, how not to sculpt, and most importantly, how not to think. It was an exhibition that defined the unacceptable grey outside the Reich’s black and white world.
For humans, Hitler had his Final Solution; for artworks, he had the Degenerate Art exhibition.
But if only 650 were shown in Entartete Kunst, what happened to the rest of the 16,000 works confiscated from public institutions? The majority of these ‘dregs,’ as Goebbels called them, were either sold to foreign buyers for hard currency or burned outside Berlin’s central fire department in 19395. Others simply disappeared. But to eliminate 16,000 artworks from the cultural dialogue is an issue of logistics, one that required some sort of, shall we say, solution.
Every once in a while, my Safta would mumble under her breathe during a story “you know, the Germans were not as efficient as they would have liked you to believe.”
Part of the Reich’s solution included the Schloss Niederschönhausen. Located in Berlin’s borough of Pankow, the former Prussian palace was used during the Nazi era for art exhibitions and housed the government’s official art department. During the purge, it was also used as a wildly luxurious storage facility. The guards were tasked with guarding and recording the works in their de facto collection. In addition to photographs of the inventory, Hugo Kückelhaus, one of the guards, illustrated much of the stored art. For many of these works, these visual inventories are all that remain of them.
These images are documentation of the grey, as it sits, stripped of its potential for nuance, awaiting its black and white destruction. But to print, and to choose, and to collage, and to publish, and to critique is one way to keep them grey in all their glory.
The following images are collages made from the photographs and drawing of degenerate art stored at Berlin’s Schloss Niederschönhausen.
- 1. Fritz Stern, “Der Nationalsozialismus all Versuchung,” in Otfried Hofius, ed., Reflexionen finsterer Zeit (Tübingen: Mohr, 1984), Page 9. ↵
- 2. Mosse, George L. “Beauty without Sensuality/The Exhibition Entarte Kunst.” The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Stephanie Barron, Ed. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 1991. Print. Page 27. ↵
- 3. idem, ibidem. Page 26. ↵
- 4. Barron, Stephanie. The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany. Stephanie Barron, Ed. Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art. 1991. Print. ↵
- 5. idem, ibidem. ↵