Degenerate Art and the New Regime in Washington

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November evening. West 112th Street, NYC

There’s a great exhibit on at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC:  Max Beckmann in New York

It highlights Max Beckmann (1884–1950) connections with New York City and includes works from his time living in New York as well as works from 1920-1948 that are in New York collections.

One of the  first works in the exhibit is a self-portrait from 1938.

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The card beside it reads:

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“The government’s campaign against so-called degenerate art.”

And this – being a few raw days after the equivalent of a bloodless coup on November 8th – it was easy to think of key Trump surrogate and associate Rudy Giuliani who, as mayor of New York City, railed against the “sick” and “disgusting” work of British artist Chris Ofili.

Giuliani’s specific target was Ofil’s 1996 The Holy Virgin Mary – a black Madonna – a painting that notoriously included some dried and varnished elephant dung. It was included in a exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999.

The Holy Virgin Mary- Chris Ofil 1996

The Holy Virgin Mary- Chris Ofil 1996

Giuliani brought a court case against the Museum, tried to withdraw its annual $7 million City Hall grant and threatened it with eviction. The museum resisted and filed a federal lawsuit against Giuliani for a breach of the First Amendment. 

The museum won the case.

It’s all a reminder that fascists, neo-fascists, dictators, autocrats and authoritarians of all stripes and degree are all very fond of declaring themselves the arbiters of taste, morality and free speech.

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Further in the exhibit there’s a triptych Beginning with scenes from Beckmann’s childhood. It was painted in Amsterdam while he was waiting for his visa to come to the USA.

The  third panel depicts a furtive young Max in a schoolroom displaying a picture of a naked woman.

The schoolmaster could be the infamous Sourpuss – the teacher in Truffaut’s cinematic masterpiece  Les Quatre Cents CoupsThe 400 Blows – with Max as the much put-upon and misunderstood Antoine Doinel.

Here Antoine is adding to the calendar pin-up being passed around the class.He is about to caught and hauled up by Sourpuss. If you have not seen the film you are missing something extraordinary and have a treat in store.


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Back to the exhibit. Here is Birds Hell from 1938: It’s not Thomas Kinkade.

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Bird’s Hell

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2 Comments

  1. I believe a significant number of these Beckmann’s are part of the Busch-Reisinger Museum in Cambridge. That collection was assimilated into the Fogg Museum at Harvard a few years ago. Before that they were shown in a wonderful, quirky building on Mass Ave. in Cambridge that resembled a castle. I spent many afternoons in there sitting (no one ever went there) looking at the paintings, always remembering that Beckmann spelled the New York Times (in his triptych) the New York Tims in the painting. An incredible artist- thanks for writing this piece.

  2. Thanks Stan. You would enjoy the exhibit. Not extensive but has a great self-portraits; hotel bar scenes, some mythical interiors and even some landscapes and outdoor scenes. I loved the NYC optician’s shop window.

    Remember “Glitter and Gloom”? – would love to see that again. And the perhaps something multimedia with music, poetry and film.

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