Hadassah-Brandeis Institute

Why Gustav Klimt Escaped the Degenerate Art Show

June 30, 2014

By Laura Morowitz

There's someone missing from the fascinating exhibition at the Neue Galerie, "Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany."

The exhibit is chock full of Modernist luminaries from the German-speaking world: Oscar Kokoschka, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Otto Dix, Paul Klee and the radicals of the Bauhaus. But one artist is conspicuously absent. Gustav Klimt, the modernist provocateur responsible for inspiring Austrian expressionism was never labelled "degenerate." His strange "escape" lays in the way his art — full of metaphysical speculation and reference to the Germanic tradition — appealed to Nazi sensibility. And while his works were never banned or labeled as inferior, they too were imperiled under the Nazis.

Klimt's omission from the "Degenerate Art" show is strange when one considers that even in his own life-time, Klimt was seen as a radical and morally questionable artist. His deeply pessimistic and disturbing paintings created for the University of Vienna caused a scandal. His brazen nudes, with their lurid gazes, swimming in primeval fluids, offended almost everyone. He took both the young Kokoschka and Egon Schiele under his wing. But what is even more confounding is that Klimt's art was deeply associated with the circle of Jewish patrons and artists that lit up fin-de-siècle Vienna. Among the wealthy and cultured Jewish families of the time — the Gallias, the Lederers, the Bloch-Bauers — Klimt was the portraitist of choice.

Klimt died in 1918 at the close of the first World War and thus escaped the fate of exile, ridicule and censor that many of his contemporaries suffered. But how did his art escape all of the Nazi Schandaustellungen (exhibitions of shame) and the widely used label entartete (degenerate)? Not only was Klimt never condemned as degenerate, but the largest retrospective of his art ever held took place in 1943, under the auspices of the highest ranking Nazi in Vienna. How?

Politics alone seldom saved an artist from attack (Emile Nolde, loyal Nazi party member since the early 1920s, appears in number at the Neue Galerie). We are forced then to ask the question: Is there something in Klimt's art that lent itself well to Nazi appropriation? What is in Klimt's paintings that might have accorded with Nazi aesthetics and ideology? Raising the question does not imply that Klimt could have known how his art would later be seen: a less political artist can hardly be found, and Klimt enjoyed the friendship and affection of his Jewish associates all his life. Artists are not to blame for the uses to which their creations are put.

We need to turn to the art itself, for example, Klimt's "Beethoven Frieze," a mural created for the upper walls of the Secession Building in 1902 (and currently the subject of a lawsuit). Part of a larger multi-media exhibition to celebrate the German composer, the frieze was inspired by Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, played at the opening of the show. The symphony was later performed often at Nazi festivals and rallies for it was Adolf Hitler's personal favorite, even more beloved than the works of Richard Wagner. Klimt's frieze hails the triumph of idealism over materialism, an idea often found in Nazi aesthetics. The rescuing knight around whom the frieze revolves can easily be read as a proto-Fuhrer figure, leading his people to a higher realm.

So, too, certain mythic or ideological presuppositions prominent in Nazi aesthetics find an early echo in Klimt’s works. His murals for the University of Vienna and his allegorical works are deeply indebted to the German philosophical tradition — Schopenhauer, Nietzsche — that fed the Nazis too. His "Nuda Veritas" (1899) bears an inscription from Friedrich Schiller, a figure Adolf Hitler deeply admired.

Such works were easy enough for the Nazis to interpret according to their own world view. And the portraits of Jews? These works were simply stripped of their provenance and the names of their sitters, becoming generic icons of wealth and taste.

If Klimt's art escaped the fate of degenerate works, his art nevertheless suffered directly from Nazi appropriation. In a strange twist, it was precisely the value the Nazis accorded these paintings that led to their destruction. In spring 1943, when the Nazi war machine began to falter, tens of thousands of works were moved to storage in castles, monasteries and mines in the Austrian countryside, a tale told in George Clooney's film "The Monuments Me." A cache of 13 or 14 Klimt paintings were moved for safekeeping to the Schloss Immendorf in southern Austrian. In early May 1945, a retreating S.S. unit came across the castle and determined not to let the works within fall into Russian hands. They set fire to the castle, destroying all of the paintings within, including Klimt's most important early works.

The works of Gustav Klimt escaped the degenerate bonfires, but they did not escape being consigned to the flames.

Laura Morowitz is a professor of art history at Wagner College New York. She is at work on an article examining the 1943 Gustav Klimt retrospective instigated by Nazi Baldur von Schirach. In 2011, she and co-author Laurie Lico Albanese received a Hadassah-Brandeis Institute Research award to help them complete a novel exploring the creation, expropriation and restitution of Gustav Klimt's Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I, in the Neue Galerie, New York.