The Archaeology of “Degenerate Art”

Here’s a fascinating excavation (and exhibition) in Berlin that I somehow missed at the time and just came across– that speaks volumes about both the creators and the dumpers.  The artifacts here show that high cultural tastes are weapons of both domination and resistance– that the archaeology of modernity is as important as the archaeology of antiquity– and that used as a means of telling alternative stories, archaeology has the power (eventually) to expose the banality of even the most violent cultural purification programs.

A journalist looks at a sculpture that was discovered during archaeological excavations in central Berlin and is now on display in the New Museum in Berlin November 8, 2010. The sculpture entitled "A Likeness of the Actress Anni Mewes" by Edwin Scharff is one of 11 pieces of art that were found during archaeological excavations in Berlin and initially thought to be of ancient origin. Research revealed that the pieces were part of the 1937 travelling exhibition "Entartete Kunst" (Degenerate Art): a collection of art the Nazis deemed un-German or Jewish and which they displayed in a manner that derided the works and their authors. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

From Der Spiegel Online November 8, 2010

Buried in a Bombed-Out Cellar

Nazi Degenerate Art Rediscovered in Berlin

By Charles Hawley

The works were thought to have been lost forever. Eleven sculptures, all of them shunned by the Nazis for being un-German, have been found during subway construction work in the heart of Berlin. But how did they get there?

An archeologist uncovers a bronze head by the artist Otto Freundlich in front of the Berlin city hall in August. The remains of the buildings on Königstrasse were simply bulldozed to make way for reconstruction. Photo: Landesdenkmalamt Berlin/ Manuel Escobedo

Digging new subway lines in Europe is no easy task. It’s not the excavating itself that is so problematic; modern machinery can bore through the earth with surprising speed these days. Rather, in places that have been inhabited for centuries, if not millennia, no one really knows what one will find. The delays for archeological research can be significant.

In Berlin, that hasn’t often been a problem. Aside from significant numbers of unexploded bombs dropped on the city during World War II and a few long-forgotten building foundations, construction tends to be relatively straightforward. The city, after all, spent the vast majority of its 770 year history as a regional backwater.

This autumn, however, an extension to Berlin’s U-5 subway line means the city can gloat over a world-class delay of its own. Workers in the initial phases of building a subway stop in front of the Berlin city hall stumbled across remains of the city’s original city hall, built in 1290. Archeologists were ecstatic.

On Monday, however, Berlin’s Mayor Klaus Wowereit announced a new series of finds that has generated even greater enthusiasm. In digs carried out throughout this year, archeologists have unearthed 11 sculptures thought to have been lost forever — valuable works of art that disappeared during World War II after having been included on the Nazis’ list of degenerate art. Most of them have now been identified and have been put on display in Berlin’s Neues Museum.

‘A Minor Miracle’

“We hadn’t expected this confrontation with this period of time, with these samples of degenerate art — it is a minor miracle,” Wowereit said at a press conference on Monday. “It is unique.”

The finds were made among the ruins of Königstrasse (King Street), a formerly bustling street in the heart of prewar Berlin. Allied bombs decimated the quarter, however, and much of the rubble was simply buried after the war to make room for reconstruction. Much of the archeological work currently under way consists of sifting through the rubble that remains in the intact cellars of the structures that once lined the street.

In early January, workers discovered a small bronze bust in the shovel of a front loader that was cleaning out one of those cellars.

“We thought it was a one-off,” said Matthias Wemhoff, director of the Museum of Prehistory and Early History in Berlin and a member of the archeology team looking into the finds. “It wasn’t immediately clear that it was linked to degenerate art.”

Soon, however, more artworks were discovered — all sculptures, all from early 20th century artists and all bearing clear indications of having been fire-damaged. Only at the end of September did it become clear that all of the art pieces — by such artists as Otto Freundlich, Naom Slutzky and Marg Moll, among others — were on the list of artworks branded as undesirable by the Nazis. All were thought to have been lost forever.

For the rest of this amazing story, click here.

For a slideshow of the recovered artworks, click here.

The Nazi leadership and their sneering cultural advisors visit the 1937 exhibition.

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