The Nazi aesthetic in art, architecture, and popular culture was a celebration of Aryan virtues untainted by the ethnic influences Hitler considered impure and offensive. Art that didn’t conform to his “ideology of beauty” was labeled degenerate and demonized in public viewings before being appropriated by Nazi officials and private collectors, sold to raise funds for the Third Reich, or destroyed. (An exhibition on view through June 30 at New York’s Neue Galerie, “Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937” is the largest U.S. museum exhibition devoted to the infamous Nazi display of modern art since the 1991 show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.)
The 1997 book by Héctor Feliciano, The Lost Museum: The Nazi Conspiracy to Steal the World’s Greatest Works of Art, identified 20,000 missing artworks and led to numerous restitution cases filed in subsequent years by heirs of Holocaust victims. More recently, The Monuments Men, the 2009 biography by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter and the recent film it inspired under the same title by George Clooney, has brought renewed interest to this dark period in world history.
For those interested in delving deeper into the topic, the Georgia Museum of Art is presenting the documentary film series “Crimes Against Culture: Art and the Nazis” on Thursdays, from May 1 to 15.
The film retrospective kicks off with The Rape of Europa (2006), directed by Richard Berge, Bonni Cohen, and Nicole Newnham. A richly detailed and fascinating look at Hitler’s systematic theft and destruction of Europe’s art treasures, the film uses the theft of artist Gustav Klimt’s masterpiece Portrait of Adele Block-Bauer by a German officer in 1938 as a starting point. It is estimated that one fifth of Europe’s fine art was stolen by Nazis during WWII, but The Rape of Europa is more often inspirational than downbeat due to the heroic efforts of art historians and curators to catalogue, hide, and save such masterworks as the Mona Lisa and Winged Victory from state-sponsored looting and private plunder.
The 1989 documentary The Architecture of Doom presents Swedish filmmaker Peter Cohen’s provocative thesis of how Hitler’s failure to be accepted by the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna (he failed the entrance exam twice) resulted in his obsessive determination to redefine Western culture through his role as Germany’s leader. Not only are Hitler’s perversely subjective and rigid ideas of artistic beauty dissected but so are his attitudes toward Cubist and Expressionist work that led him to condemn modernism as a degenerate avant-garde movement created mostly by Jewish and Soviet artists.
Andrew Shea’s Portrait of Wally (2012) focuses on a world famous painting that became a universal symbol of the thousands of works looted by Nazis during the war. Subtitled “The Face That Launched a Thousand Lawsuits,” the documentary traces the journey of Egon Schiele’s portrait of his mistress, Walburga (“Wally”) Neuzil, from being seized in 1939 from Lea Bondi, a Jewish art dealer, to its mysterious reappearance in 1997 at a Museum of Modern Art exhibition. The discovery resulted in a historic lawsuit and Shea treats it as a classic courtroom thriller with a fascinating cast of characters that includes art collector Rudolf Leopold, Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau, Ronald Lauder (MoMA chairman, cofoundeer of the Neue Galerie, and founder of the Commission for Art Recovery) and members of the Bondi family.
The Georgia Museum of Art in Athens will show The Rape of Europa on May 1at 7 pm, The Architecture of Doom on May 8 at 7 pm and Portrait of Wally on May 15 at 7 pm.
Jeff Stafford is an Atlanta-based art and lifestyle writer.