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Vorspung durch Kunst: the revolution of German Art

This week saw a new auction record for German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann, when his Hölle der Vögel  made £36 million at Christie’s in London on Tuesday evening. The painting has been referred to as ‘Germany’s Guernica’, a reference to the influential painting Picasso made in 1937 depicting the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. 
Max Beckmann, Hölle der Vögel (Bird's Hell), oil on canvas, 1937

Beckmann’s work was also painted in 1937 soon after he had fled Germany for exile in Amsterdam, and as such it not only stands as a withering indictment of the violence he saw at the hands of Hitler’s Socialist Nationalist revolution, but also as a chilling forewarning of its catastrophic future. The buyer, reportedly, was US billionaire Leon Black, who also purchased Munch’s The Scream from Sotheby’s in 2012.

Watchers of International Contemporary Art have long-reported the rise in prices (and popularity) of Germany’s post-war artists. This Beckmann sale now extends this reach to its pre-war era, although the subject matter remains the same: Man’s inhumanity to Man. As Britain marches towards an uncertain future, and America sends itself off onto an altogether more terrifying tangent, the great irony of today is that the two victors of the Second World War appear to be abandoning their twin peaks of globalism and liberalism, leaving it to their vanquished enemy to carry on the good work instead.

Germany has worked hard to reconstruct itself from the ashes of War, and one of the ways it has done so is by developing a national network of contemporary art museums (the Kunstverein). These have in turn championed the voices of its most outspoken artists. Think Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Günther Uecker and Anselm Kiefer, all of whom emerged through this system in the 1960s and 1970s, and continue to be at the forefront of International Contemporary art, with rising auction prices to match. Germany has consistently used its artists to give vision to its national sense of shame, unifying the country in a spirit of collective healing in an effort to overcome its recent past.

Another example of this very public act of soul-searching is the role its historical museums have played in restituting paintings stolen during the Nazi era back to their rightful (mostly Jewish) owners. Hitler had damned the Expressionists as Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art), and set about eradicating as many examples of it his henchmen could find. Ironically, in 1937 Hitler mounted an exhibition of Entartete Kunst to show to the German public how terrible this art was. Unfortunately for him, it became the most attended exhibition of his regime. 

Hitler, Goebbels and other senior Nazis at the
“Entartete Kunst” exhibition in Munich in 1937

If that was not enough, most of Hitler’s seizures were not actually destroyed (as he had ordered) but found their way into German state museums, and it is these museums that have spearheaded the effort to return stolen artworks back to their original owners. Later this year, museums in Bonn and Bern will exhibit a large selection of works from the collection of Hidebrand Gurlitt, Hitler’s most zealous henchmen. Employed by the Third Reich to oversee the seizure and destruction of banned art works, he preferred to squirrel them away in his own personal collection. In effect, he had inadvertently become the world’s most important collector of Entartete Kunst, amassing over 1400 works either directly stolen or purchased at derisory sums from their original owners. The collection was eventually found behind fake walls in his son’s Munich apartment in 2012 (with an estimated value of over €1 billion). It is hoped the exhibition will encourage extant owners to come forward and claim what is rightfully theirs.

Also in 1937, Hitler opened the Haus der Kunst in Munich, a national gallery with the purpose of showing what he considered to be non-degenerate or ‘proper’ German art. As such, it was the Third Reich’s first monumental structure of Nazi architecture, but was strangely missed by the allies during their bombing campaigns. When the gallery reopened in 1949, it did so with the largest German Expressionist exhibition ever mounted; the very art that Hitler had tried to eradicate on view in the very building he himself had commissioned. Two years later, the gallery held the first major retrospective of the works of Max Beckmann and his nightmarish Hölle der Vögel was the star attraction. 

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