TO walk through "Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), is to stand at the threshold of hindsight and be yanked back into the disturbing vortex that engulfed art and culture in Nazi Germany. Stephanie Barron, the museum's curator of 20th-century painting, built the show to replicate the "Degenerate Art" exhibition mounted by Hitler and his minister of culture, Joseph Goebbels, in 1937.
In that exhibition, 650 works were selected for public display and ridicule - chosen from the nearly 16,000 pieces of art confiscated from 32 German museums due to content deemed "subversive, immoral, Jewish, or otherwise unGerman."
The works, many of which are now recognized as seminal examples of modern art, were crammed into the narrow rooms of the Munich Archeological Institute, tacked up on makeshift walls, often hung intentionally upside down and surrounded by vilifying graffiti. Captions told the viewers how much of their taxes had been spent by national museums on this "Jewish-Bolshevist garbage."
Nearly 2 million curious Germans filed through the show, responding to a massive Nazi propaganda campaign that said they would witness an "art show of horrors" featuring the worthless outpourings of a socially, physically, racially, and sexually decrepit lot.
In fact, of the 112 artists included, some of whom were dismissed from universities or museums overnight, forced into creative exile, or to flee, only six were Jews. Many also happened to be modernism's most revered innovators: Marc Chagall, Vasily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, Max Beckmann, and others.
LACMA took on a controversial, highly sensitized issue without lowering itself to sensationalism and without backing off from feeling. Frank Gehry designed the installation. Ms. Barron and Mr. Gehry worked together to show both the terror of the times and the intrinsic value of the works.
This was accomplished by easing viewers into Germany in the 30s. Before we saw the art, we passed by walls covered with the actual words of artists and thinkers whose lives were derailed by this cultural witch hunt. Max Beckmann, Paul Klee, and George Grosz fled the country, painter Ernst Kirchner killed himself, and Ernst Barlach died not long after the show.
The exhibit included a 22-foot model of the actual Nazi exhibition rooms, documentary photos, film footage of crowds at the original show, and film footage of a concurrent 1937 art show called "The Great German Art Exhibition." This second show, claimed to show off "proper, respectable, truly Germanic" art (amid floats, pageants, and Rhine maidens dressed like goddesses).
The LACMA exhibition showed excerpts of films censured by Nazis, books set on fire in festive rallies, and volumes earmarked as required Nazi reading. In the music room, the music sponsored by the Reich played along side the outlawed jazz and experimental music of composers such as Arnold Schonberg.
By the time we reached the gallery containing the artworks, we had a palpable sense of the illogical hysteria behind Hitler's attack on the avant-garde. For example, the Nazis denigrated the dark works of Edvard Munch then changed their tune when they feared offending Norway, Munch's homeland and a potential war ally.
Works by sculptor Paul Bindel were violently denounced in the "Degenerate" show then withdrawn when it was noticed that his "Boxer" hung right down the street as an example of all that was good about art.
The famed expressionist Franz Marc was lumped in with "unGerman" artists although he was wounded and heavily decorated fighting for Germany.
Emil Nolde (whose gripping works form a true high point of this presentation), was openly pro-Nazi yet failed to escape their wrath.
In the LACMA show, the 175 artworks that could be regrouped by Barron from the original show were hung using the nonsensical Nazi categorization. There were works that insulted the Divine; works by or about "inferior" races (Jews and blacks); works that offended womanhood; works that offended nature, and so on.
We saw incandescent masterpieces such as Nolde's sensual landscapes, and his riveting religious scenes like "Christ Among the Children." Beckmann's "Descent From the Cross" is today a penetrating statement of human grief and spiritual quest.
While much of the work was disturbing, almost all of it was eminently worthwhile and honest. The penetrating insight and free expression of the work is what threatened the Nazi power structure.
German artists had picked up and recorded the pathos of their times with raw, visceral intensity since the Middle Ages.
Examples include the twisted faces on Gothic cathedrals, and the unidealized, anguished spirituality that seems to distort the figures of German Renaissance artists like Matthias Grunewald and Albrecht Durer. In this century, the German Expressionists and the Bauhaus architects and designers were among the first to respond to the modern era.
The show was a reminder that art is not separate from the bulwark of social fiber, not a luxury item. Art remains a mirror and barometer of its time.
The show opens at the Art Institute of Chicago on June 12.