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Donald Kuspit on Danish Avant-Garde Art During The Nazi Occupation

Installation View of Helhesten: Thirteen Artists in a Tent. Shin Gallery, New York, 2020. Courtesy of Shin Gallery.

Helhesten: Thirteen Artists in a Tent

Shin Gallery

October 21 through November 29, 2020

By DONALD KUSPIT, December 2020

In 1941, one year after the German Army occupied Denmark, thirteen Danish artists held an exhibition in a tent in a park just north of Copenhagen.  The artists were all members of the collective Helhesten (Hell Horse), all self-taught, and all defiantly avant-garde, at a time when avant-garde art was under attack as “degenerate” by the Nazis.  It was the same year when the first issue of the collective’s journal Helhesten appeared, spreading the good avant-garde word about art, literary as well as visual.  The exhibition and the journal were defiant acts, made at a time when Denmark was a de facto protectorate of Nazi Germany, the Danish king and government functioning as they did before the occupation, which is perhaps why the exhibition was tolerated, or simply ignored, by the German occupiers.  Or perhaps it was because “they were sure to face fewer problems” if the Danish, particularly those in Copenhagen, the Danish capital, “were kept entertained,” as the cultural historian Alan Riding said was the reason the Germans tolerated, even encouraged, avant-garde art in Paris, the capital of occupied France.  Avant-garde art was indeed a novel kind of entertainment, certainly distracting and unsettling and unexpected enough to draw amused attention to it.  Perhaps more to the point, the Helhesten magazine and exhibition were not censored because, as Riding writes, “Hitler even enjoyed the idea of the French wallowing in their degeneracy”—presumably also the Danish.  “Let them degenerate,” Hitler gleefully declared, “all the better” for the German occupiers—the master race—if they lost their “spiritual health.”(1)

The situation changed seriously when Denmark was placed under direct military occupation by Nazi Germany in 1943.  By that time cultural resistance, not to say creative sabotage—which is what the Helhesten artists and literati intended their works to be—was beside the point, not to say futile:  six issues of the journal appeared in 1941, one in 1942, three in 1943, two in 1944, the last year of its appearance.  And there never was another group exhibition by the Helhesten artists.  The Helhesten collective was never overtly censored by the Nazis, but became irrelevant when the war with them became a matter of life and death, which required more than intellectual and creative courage, when avant-garde ideas and art seemed frivolous and irrelevant, not to say beside the historical point, indeed, grossly unrealistic.  With his critical divining rod, not to say his unerring sense of significance, Hong Gyu Shin has re-staged the “Thirteen Artists in a Tent” exhibition in his gallery, acknowledging its enduring importance.  Some of the works in the gallery exhibition were made before the tent exhibition, some after it, but they were all made by the artists who exhibited in the tent exhibition, and all are exemplary of the works they exhibited in it.  Like an archaeologist who has found a treasure trove, Shin has rescued the Helhesten artists from undeserved oblivion, for his exhibition makes it clear that their works are not simply relics of an art historical past put radiate with presence.                      

Else Alfelt, “Det land Henning rejste til” (The country Henning traveled to), 1952. Watercolours on paper, 11.8 x 18.8 in. Courtesy of Shin Gallery. 

Every last one of the works in the 1941 tent exhibition was abstract—abstract art was the exemplary degenerate art for the Nazis, as the avant-garde works on display in the Degenerate Art Exhibition the Nazis staged in Munich in 1937 made clear.  They were in effect put on trial, and many were condemned to death, and later destroyed, among them Otto Freundlich’s abstract sculpture The New Man, which appeared on the cover of the guide to the exhibition.  The Nazis preferred the old Aryan strongman, not to say superman, as the muscular, hyper-masculine supercharged classical figures of Arno Breker, Hitler’s favorite sculptor, makes clear.  Hitler thought they expressed the “mighty momentum and will power” of Nazi Germany.  Breker’s heroic, self-dramatizing figure symbolizing The (Nazi) Party, The Great Torchbearer, 1940 was his exemplary masterpiece.  Freundlich’s grotesquely distorted head, all the more monstrous and intimidating because it was not clearly human, epitomized all that was wrong—degenerate and destructive—about avant-garde art for the Nazis; Breker’s self-dramatizing heroic naked male figure epitomized all that was right—Aryan and regenerative—about Nazi ambition, determined to restore a Germany that had been destroyed and humiliated in World War I to power and dominance.  To say this another way, nightmarish avant-garde art reminded the Nazis of the nightmare of Germany’s defeat in World War I. 

Hans Schlerlig’s Portrait of the Son Peter as a Baby, 1935 is the only work in Shin’s Helhesten exhibition that is not abstract.  But the head and belly of the baby have been given a geometrical roundness that makes them seem unnatural, and the body as a whole is flattened and simplified, and with that subliminally abstract.  The skin is pink and unwrinkled and with that unnaturally smooth.  The black outline hermetically seals the body, turning it into a kind of mannequin.  No neck connects the head and body, adding to the figure’s aura of unreality, dare one say surreality.  Indeed, it seems to be implicitly absurd, a composite of dream and reality, all the more so because it floats on a white cloud in a blue sky, suggesting that it is the father’s dream come true.  Surrounded by the aura of the white cloud and with feet unsupported by the earth, it is an oddly transcendental mirage—oddly abstract.  But most of the works in the exhibition are a sum of painterly gestures, some bold, some tentative, some richly, some subtly colored, some densely packed, some loosely strewn, that add up to an inconclusive if oddly cohering whole, as in Egon Mathiesen’s Untitled, 1956, Else Fischer-Hansen’s The Family, 1947, Abstraction (undated), and Composition, 1949, Else Alfelt’s The Country Henning Traveled To, 1952, Svavar Gudnason’s The Mill, 1942, and the somewhat more dramatic, not to say turbulent biomorphic gesturalism of Filer Rille’s Untitled, 1949.  

Generally speaking, they all have an air of constrained freedom.  They’re not experimentally  original, but rather epitomize and summarize avant-garde ideas and attitudes that developed in Paris and Munich.  Some of them have the naivete, not to say child-likeness, that the Blue Rider movement celebrated—but theirs is a deliberate rather than uncalculated naivete--before the Nazis conquered Europe and the Degenerate Art exhibition was held in Munich.  There is an air of nostalgia to them, as well as a certain innocence—a nostalgia for freshness, the innocence of experimentation--a domesticated originality, a stylized spontaneity.  Broadly influenced by Kandinsky’s abstract expressionism, the abstract expressionism of the Helhesten artists lacks the same will to power—blind force, instinctive energy, dramatic fervor.  It has been said that Kandinsky’s early abstract expressionism was apocalyptic in principle; the later Helhesten abstract expressionism suggests the calm after the storm.  But if Helhesten art is truer to the letter than the spirit of the pre-war avant-garde—if it is not as radical, original, innovative but imitative--it preserves what the Nazis attempted to destroy.  It is why it holds its own—has an important place as a kind of holding action--in the history of avant-garde art. 

Egon Mathiesen, Untitled, 1956. Watercolors on paper, 23.2 x 16.5 in. Courtesy of Shin Gallery.

All the works are engaging, all show the avant-garde’s will to survive, all rescue avant-garde art from the graveyard of the Degenerate Art exhibition, from mockery and denigration.  It is to the credit of the Danish artists that they defied the Nazis, if to no avail at the time.  One would have liked to know what the contemporary response was to the exhibition.  How many people attended it?  Certainly not as many as attended the Degenerate Art exhibition.  In retrospect, the Helhesten works seem like memento mori of a sad time for abstract art, more broadly avant-garde art.  But the works still live, have quality and subtlety, even if they have lost their social meaning as rebellion, resistance, and refutation of the Nazi ideology of art and the Nazi occupiers of Denmark.  For me two of the works stand out for their aesthetic brilliance, concentrated form, and intensity:  Mathiesen’s constructivist Composition, 1957, an ingenious geometrical painting alluding to an industrial building in a landscape, as the intersecting flat green planes suggest, and Ejler Bille’s expressionist sculpture The Animal, 1937, a bizarrely twisted figure that seems to have sprung from hell, as its devilish intricacy suggests.  Both works are compact and complex, the scene and figure hermetically insular almost to the point of unrecognizability and indecipherability:  they are abstract art given monadic perfection.   

The idea of degeneracy hung over the avant-garde like a shroud.  To be labelled “degenerate” was the kiss of death.  Hitler defined degenerate art as works that “insult German feeling, or destroy or confuse natural form or simply reveal an absence of adequate manual and artistic skill.”  In September 1934, three years before the Degenerate Art (Entartete Kunst) exhibition opened in 1937, he denounced modern artists as “incompetents, cheats and madmen,” and declared that there would be no place for modernist experimentation in Nazi Germany.  Among other insulting slogans, “madness becomes method” and “nature as seen by sick minds” were written on the walls of the Degenerate Art exhibition, and never removed.  For the Nazis “degeneracy” was a symptom of “decadence,” “weakness of character,” “mental disease,” and “racial impurity.”  

The idea of degenerate art, and with it of personal and social degeneration, gained serious credibility with the publication of Max Nordau’s book Degeneration (Entartung) in 1892.  In his monumental work, Nordau presents case studies of (then) modern artists and thinkers, among them Oscar Wilde, Henrik Ibsen, Richard Wagner, and Friedrich Nietzsche, all of whom he regards as degenerate, more particularly mentally disturbed.  Their emotional sickness—degeneracy--is embodied in their unhealthy, “mad” art—art which in fact often dwells on madness, even seems to celebrate sick emotions, certainly conveys deep emotional suffering.  For Nordau their unhealthy degenerate art was symptomatic of degenerate modern society, seriously informed by its degeneracy, however much sometimes trying to defensively transcend it by way of estheticism, for Nordau a species of exoticism, and mysticism (Robert Motherwell regarded abstract art as a form of mysticism).  Ambiguously defensive against and emblematic of the pernicious degeneracy that came with—indeed, seemed an unavoidable and inescapable consequence of--modernization, that informed modern life and modern art like an incurable disease—but the Nazis thought they had the cure in regression to a simulated (neo-) and machismo classicism—Nordau argued that it was the result of society’s rapid and unrelenting urbanization and technologization in the 19th century, and the weakening of social and intimate relations that came with them, and with that its dehumanizing and depersonalizing effect.

 A physician and psychiatrist by training—he studied with the famous Parisian neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot, who specialized in treating hysteria—Nordau was concerned particularly with the effect of modern life on the human body.  Freud also studied with Charcot; Freud’s Studies on Hysteria, written with Josef Breuer, published in 1895—three years after Nordau’s Degeneration—shows the same concern with the body, but for Freud its problems were caused by the unconscious not by society.  And just as Nordau thought degeneracy was a mental illness that required treatment, so Freud regarded neurosis as a mental illness that required treatment.  But was Nordau was more aware of the social factors that caused mental illness—that had a psychopathological effect on the body--while Freud was more aware of the emotional factors that caused it.

Nordau was not alone in thinking that modern society had a degenerative effect on the body.  Almost a quarter of a century before he wrote his book, in 1869 the American neurologist George Beard argued that neurasthenia was a condition that afflicted busy society women and overworked businessmen, in other words, modern hyperactive urban human beings.  Neurasthenia remains a diagnosis in the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases.  Americans were said to be particularly prone to neurasthenia, no doubt because the United States is a constantly modernizing technological society, not to say a seemingly manically busy society.  The symptoms of neurasthenia are fatigue, anxiety, headache, heart palpitations, high blood pressure, neuralgia, and depressed mood—thus our modern and even postmodern “Age of Anxiety.”  They are symptoms of physical and emotional disorientation and disintegration, not to say existential deterioration.  Rapid change, which brought with it “the sensation of newness,” was not always or necessarily for the best. 

Crucially, Nordau connected degeneracy with “a willful contempt for the traditional views of custom and morality”—and with that for traditional art.  He correctly saw it as a phenomenon of fin de siècle in Europe, and above all as an urban phenomenon, its centers being modernizing Paris and London, where avant-garde art arose and developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  With remarkable prescient social perception, he noted that “society was becoming more and more inclined to imitate what they see in art.”  In fashionable Paris and London society “every single figure strives visibly by some singularity in outline, set, cut or color, to startle attention violently, and imperiously to detain it.  Each one wishes to create a strong nervous excitement, no matter agreeably or disagreeably.”  Late 19th century French society’s fascination with “exotic types or individuals,” among them gypsies and criminals, extended to proto-avant-garde artists, such as Oscar Wilde and Audrey Beardsley.  Certainly Picasso and all the other inhabitants of Bateau-Lavoir and all the Jewish artists who came to Paris at the beginning of the 20th century were regarded as exotic and their art seemed criminal—a crime against traditional art, a low blow against high art.  Nordau connected “the fin de siècle disposition,” and the “mystic, symbolic and ‘decadent’ works” to which it gave birth, with hysteria and neurasthenia, both indicative of degeneration, that is, the deterioration of the body and malfunctioning of the mind—more pointedly, for Nordau, the failure of the individual to come to terms with modernity, to survive it without suffering from it.  

What Nordau called social degeneracy the French sociologist Emile Durkheim called anomie, which he described, in 1893, as “derangement,” and “an insatiable will,” more broadly the breakdown of moral values and standards, and with that the breakdown of social bonds, that is, alienation and with it “anything goes,” as seems the case in modern and post-modern avant-garde, indicating that it suffers from what Durkheim called “the malady of the infinite” that comes with normlessness.  It also brings with it what the psychoanalyst André Haynal calls the “ephemerization” of life, often masking itself as spontaneity—but spontaneity is ephemeral—a sense of “nonpermanence,” “an accelerating rate of change and loss of stability in our surroundings and semiotic environment,” and with that uncertain values (2).    

Else Fischer-Hansen, Composition, 1949. Oil on canvas, 17.7 x 25.5 in. Courtesy of Shin Gallery.

The Nazis were not wrong about avant-garde art, particularly abstract art; they just didn’t realize that it reflected the times.  They just didn’t realize that abstract art, which initiated the disintegration of realist art, and with it the representation of the human body—alienation from it implies self-alienation, for the material body is the first ego, as Freud said (the so-called dematerialization—dare one say degeneration?--of art is its suicidal consequence, all the more so because it implies a certain disillusionment with art)—is a symptom of modern anomie and anxiety.  The nihilistic treatment of the body in Braque’s and Picasso’s Analytic Cubist figures—“analysis” means destruction for them—is the beginning of the end of the body in avant-garde art, for it was a source of anxiety, as Picasso realized when he elevated Cézanne’s anxiety to a place of aesthetic honor, and unwittingly acknowledged that art has become pathologized in modernity, along with the body.  Similarly, the rapid turnover of avant-garde styles, one quickly following the other, each claiming to be more advanced than the other, more of the technological essence of modernism, as Constructivism claimed to be, or more indicative of its anxiety, as Expressionism seems to be, epitomizes the sense of nonpermanence that pervades modern life, not to say the ephemerality of newness.  There is no normative avant-garde art, no measure of avant-garde value, however much the modernist critic Clement Greenberg insisted that truth to the material medium is the foundation of avant-garde art, a provincial view considering the ever-changing variety of would-be avant-garde arts and the fact that art doesn’t advance but changes, or at least what we understand to be or willing to call art does.    

Today the Helhesten exhibition, however daring and important as it was in 1941, when the outlook for avant-garde art was bad, when it seemed to have no future—that had to wait for the immigration of European avant-garde artists to New York--and however far from cosmopolitan Paris provincial Copenhagen was—and the art in it was a kind of provincialized avant-garde, as the rural titles of several of the works suggests--seems like an echo of avant-garde art in its heyday of originality.  But the Helhesten artists also clearly distilled and confirmed its values—truth to feeling, however disturbing and self-estranging, and curiosity about form and mark, conveyed with a certain undercurrent of urgency.  It is the sense of urgency that informs the art in the gallery exhibition, the sense that the works are still alive with existential meaning, that they have inner necessity as well as social importance, that gives them more than routine art historical meaning.  They do not conventionalize unconventional avant-garde art values, reify them into cliches, stereotype them to undermine their originality, but present them as inescapable facts of pure art—in-your-face facts to the Nazis who despised them.  They seem familiar today, but they were once unfamiliar, alive rather than relics of a remote time.  Was avant-garde art—particularly abstract art--degenerate, as the Nazis thought?  No, it was naïve, for it thought it would be welcomed for telling the emotional truth about modern life, but telling the troubling truth is always anathema to the powers that be, especially when they are fascist. WM


1. Alan Riding, And The Show Went On: Cultural Life in Nazi-Occupied Paris (New York:  Knopf, 2011), 50-51

2. Andre Haynal, Depression and Creativity (New York:  International Universities Press, 1985), 64

Quotations are from Wikipedia unless otherwise noted. 

Donald Kuspit

Donald Kuspit is one of America’s most distinguished art critics. In 1983 he received the prestigious Frank Jewett Mather Award for Distinction in Art Criticism, given by the College Art Association. In 1993 he received an honorary doctorate in fine arts from Davidson College, in 1996 from the San Francisco Art Institute, and in 2007 from the New York Academy of Art. In 1997 the National Association of the Schools of Art and Design presented him with a Citation for Distinguished Service to the Visual Arts. In 1998 he received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2000 he delivered the Getty Lectures at the University of Southern California. In 2005 he was the Robertson Fellow at the University of Glasgow. In 2008 he received the Tenth Annual Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Newington-Cropsey Foundation. In 2013 he received the First Annual Award for Excellence in Art Criticism from the Gabarron Foundation. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, Fulbright Commission, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, Guggenheim Foundation, and Asian Cultural Council, among other organizations.

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