April 18, 2018
At some point during World War II, Juro Kubicêk picked up a copy of “Mein Kampf” and set about revising it. He renamed the book “Mein Krampf” (“My Cramp”), an allusion to Hitler’s digestive problems, and probably a good deal else. Kubicêk planned to fill his artist’s book with satirical photomontages and cartoons.
In retrospect, it seems a risky undertaking by any German, let alone one who, like Kubicêk, had been drafted into the Nazis’ propaganda department. At any rate, Kubicêk did not get far. Wounded in 1944, he returned to Berlin to find his studio and most of his work destroyed by Allied bombing. To continue making “Mein Krampf,” he would need a new archive of images—also art supplies.
Such basic needs take center stage in a challenging and informative exhibit, “Inventur—Art in Germany, 1943-55,” at the Harvard Art Museums. Many if not most of the nearly 50 artists represented will be unfamiliar to viewers. The best-known German artists of the period tend to be those who fled, among them Max Beckmann, Paul Klee and George Grosz. Many chose exile after the Nazis relieved them of teaching posts or pronounced their work degenerate.
Assisted by the extensive collection of German art in Harvard’s Busch- Reisinger Museum, “Inventur” (or “inventory”) trains a belated spotlight on those who stayed. In a handsome catalog accompanying the show, curator Lynette Roth notes that only about a quarter of the more than 100 artists declared degenerate left the country. “Inventur” makes a solid case that those left behind are essential to a full understanding of modern German art.
In the war’s immediate aftermath, these artists may have been deemed complicit in Hitler’s totalitarian regime, and thus deservedly ignored. Yet not all were doomed to obscurity. Though the show regrettably omits them, Käthe Kollwitz and Emil Nolde both stayed and, to varying degrees, were persecuted by the regime.
Nevertheless, as the exhibit makes abundantly clear, artists require a certain level of support to thrive. Also clear, many who stayed expressed resistance through art. One of Kubicêk’s photomontages presents Joseph Goebbels enjoying the company of two obscenely drawn prostitutes.
Protest is registered less directly in works expressing the horrors of war. (If this exhibit has a leitmotif, it is rubble.) Erwin Spuler’s painting “Bombed-Out Buildings” (1946/48) contains a repeating pattern of roofless structures, their windowless facades resembling skulls. Abstract and figurative art merge in this black-and-white record of ruin; in what remains of a city square, a skeletal equestrian figure waves jauntily, like a man unaware he has been shot.
Wilhelm Rudolph survived the bombing of Dresden and, street by street, feverishly sketched the
devastation. The nine drawings on display, culled from more than 200, crackle with adrenaline, as though Rudolph had arrived within minutes of the strike.
After Hitler’s defeat came confusion and experimentation. Individual artists resisted adhering to a single style or medium. Some sought to revive modernism, but a public still in the Nazis’ ideological thrall proved hostile. Further, with Germany’s economy in ruins, few were buying art.
Artists shunned political themes in favor of art for art’s sake. Objects of everyday life were elevated, as in Emil Schumacher’s childlike, two- dimensional rendering of a stove. Shop windows became a favorite subject.
Materials continued to be scarce, inspiring innovation. Works in “Inventur” incorporate nails, string, sheet metal, wire, cardboard and candy wrappers. Louise Rösler added a bit of blue foil to her playful collage “The Room” (1951). Two poignant watercolors by Werner Heldt were executed on field post paper, originally issued to soldiers for letter writing. K.O. Götz used a
bicycle pump and watercolors to create delicate lavender Rorschach blots.
As prosperity returned, many artists worked at designing household objects. Several struck hopeful notes connected to peacetime recovery. Gustav Deppe’s fanciful “Industrial Plant” (1945) turns towers, coils and utility poles into a Klee-like assemblage of white, black and green against a pinkish ground. Peter Keetman’s photographs taken at a Volkswagen factory find poetry in car parts.
The charmer of the show may well be Konrad Klapheck’s satiny black “Typewriter,” painted as a still-life exercise in 1955, when he was just 20. Unlike the other artists of “Inventur,” Klapheck had the luck to be born during rather than before the Nazi period, so he was not forced to reckon with totalitarianism’s rise. As a child, he adored the ruins that were everywhere and was dazzled by bomb-lighted skies.
His “Typewriter” looks forward, to an age in which people would be associated with, and perhaps comforted by, their objects. A spotless piece of paper, innocent of words about the past, has been fed through the platen. Klapheck painted more than 40 of these blameless machines by the time he was through.
Ms. Andersen is the author of the memoir “Portable Prairie: Confessions of an Unsettled Midwesterner” (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin’s) and writes frequently on the arts.