Max Peiffer Watenphul
German Degenerate Art and Biennale
Iconoclasms have been quite common over the course of history: new ideas, largely religious in nature, arose. The old was fought against, and the old symbols and images removed and destroyed.
One of the best organized iconoclasms was that of National Socialism, against everything that did not provide artistic service to its ideas. That was comfortably termed “Degenerate Art,” and it had to be removed. Generally, this attitude was thoroughly agreeable to the mass of the middle class, who greeted it with great joy. Finally, there was no need any more to guess around about a work of visual art. Instead, one could take pleasure in paintings that looked like colorized photographs and served an idea or offered cheap fantasies of wish-fulfillment.
Painters who accommodated these Party demands were courted, compensated, and much celebrated. Painters who did not conform to these requirements were, at least in theory, preordained to starve to death. They could not exhibit, could not sell, and, since not members of the Reich’s Chamber of Culture, they received no painting supplies.
Naturally, it was different in practice. Artists continued to be supported by their old collectors; friends gave them paint and painting supplies (for which there
was a black market of sorts), and thus, nearly all the artists declared to be degenerate survived this critical time. None had a bed of roses.
An infamous exhibition in Munich displayed specimens of what was to be understood as degenerate. Every important name in modern German art was represented. People from special commissions made the rounds at every museum in Germany, indiscriminately removing every modern painting.
The outcome of these cleansing offensives is appalling. Every German museum lost its entire holdings of modern art. Since foreign artists were not given
special treatment, the paintings of Pablo Picasso, André Derain, Georges Braque, Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, and others were also indiscriminately removed,
and the museums deprived of very important works. In this way, the Munich gallery, for example, lost ninety-eight paintings, the significant museum in Mönchengladbach, 100 paintings, Nuremberg, 120 works, Hanover, 270 works. Some of these were sold at a famous auction in Lucerne. Others disappeared, and no one knows what became of them. The artists themselves continued to work in Germany in quiet anonymity. George Grosz and Max Ernst left the country in advance of National Socialism, and others emigrated later: Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Klee.
Many spent most of their time abroad (Max Peiffer Watenphul, for example), and others, like Otto Dix, lived very quietly in the countryside.
For the artists of older modern art, artists who were already formed and already had their artistic vision, the time was difficult, but bearable. It was catastrophic for the young people and the pupils who lived entirely cut off from the world, who did not know what was being done on the outside, and who never had the opportunity to see a modern work of art.
Naturally, the international public had a very great interest in German art, art that, having lived so long behind an iron curtain of its own, was, at last, now able to appear again at an event like the Biennale. What had German artists achieved in the intervening years? Where were the youth?
Unfortunately, the disappointment in the German section of the Biennale was quite great. Most of the familiar names were represented, along with certain young artists, but they absolutely could not keep up with the otherwise high level of the exhibition. This is most regrettable, though less attributable to the momentary accomplishments of German artists than to entirely other matters. The German art works were assembled in great haste at the last minute. There were difficulties in transportation, limitations in dimensions, and other complications. The German section can hardly be accepted as an overview of what has been done in Germany in recent years. In addition, certain very important names (Emil Nolde, Beckmann, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, and others) were missing. Others who were once regarded as representatives of German art were hung separately (Klee, Kokoschka). Others living in Italy (Peiffer Watenphul, Eduard Bargheer) were also not hung in the German section.
Thus, the German space provides absolutely no proper impression of German art over the last fifteen years. Dix is very weakly represented, and likewise, so is Karl Hofer, Max Pechstein, and Erich Heckel.
The middle generation is almost entirely absent, and not one of the young artists on display shows a face of his own; they all paint in the manner of Klee, Picasso, or Ernst. Just like how the young painters paint in Buenos Aires, Rome, London, and New York.
Here, it is most important to note again the great influence of the Bauhaus (Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Lyonel Feininger taught there, among others). The experiments that were made there in 1921 by a small, dismissed circle have now become common knowledge, and almost popular (I call to mind only the steel furniture that the Bauhaus propagated, the clear, simple, bright walls without patterns, the entirely modern architecture).
A collection like the Guggenheim, and the section, for example, devoted to young Italians, has exactly the same effect as one of the Bauhaus exhibitions of the time, with numerous experiments by students in glass, wire, metal, and other materials and the various compositions and abstractions. But what was novel and unique then, often seems empty and antiquated today, for unique things cannot be repeated. The first paintings by Klee and Picasso were a deed, a daring, and an adventure into regions unknown. The students’ repetitions and the imitations are an empty, worthless affair that will not turn further the wheel of art.
In Max Peiffer Watenphul. Werkverzeichnis, vol. I. Grace Watenphul Pasqualucci and Alessandra Pasqualucci, eds. (Cologne, 1989).