“Inventur — Art in Germany, 1943-55” tries to overturn the idea that these years were a creative black hole. Organized by Lynette Roth and accompanied by a 430-page catalogue, the exhibition has been mounted by Harvard Art Museums, which is home to the Busch-Reisinger Museum, North America’s only public collection dedicated to the art of German-speaking Europe.
Interest in modern German art has traditionally focused on the early part of the 20th century — the heydays of German expressionism and the Bauhaus — and the long stretch from 1960 to the present, when artists such as Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke and the Düsseldorf School of photographers made German art impossible to ignore.
What happened in between?
“Inventur” is a clear-eyed attempt to come up with an answer. Roth and her Harvard team have systematically scoured not only the Busch-Reisinger’s collection but museums in Germany, selecting more than 160 works, most of them small-scale, by nearly 50 artists. With only a few exceptions, the lenders, both private and public, are German.
Embracing painting, sculpture, photography, printmaking, drawing and even wallpaper design, the show makes the case that modern artists who had, under the Nazis, been stigmatized, sacked, mocked, blacklisted and worse nonetheless continued to create. It is hard to overstate the courage of their persistence. Adolf Hitler believed modern art, even when not made by Jews, was a Jewish perversion, the contaminated expression of an inferior race. His own taste, which became official Nazi taste, was for kitsch, Aryanized nudes in a heroic, neoclassical vein he termed — with no sense of its absurdity — “Greco-Nordic.”
The show demonstrates that when the war ended, Germany’s extant modernists made work that not only reflected the atmosphere of crisis but also resuscitated ideas that had prevailed earlier — before Hitler’s anti-modern agenda did all it could to crush them.
Although, for instance, the Bauhaus — the influential modern-art school merging art, craft and design — closed under Nazi pressure in 1933, its philosophies, which famously took root in the United States after many of its key figures immigrated here, also lived on in Germany.
The show is arranged chronologically. The first of its three, rather crowded galleries feels thick with trauma. Time and again, the photographs and figurative works show cities in ruin. Alice Lex-Nerlinger’s drawing “Bombed Out,” Karl Hubbuch’s drawing “That Was Once His Home” and Erwin Spuler’s painting “Bombed Out Buildings” all stand as a bitter corrective — an almost cosmic comeuppance, you could say — to Albert Speer’s perverse theory of the “ruin value” of architecture.
Speer, the Nazis’ chief architect, sold Hitler on the idea that German architects should anticipate the way their buildings would appear as ruins, after centuries of neglect. Just as the Colosseum, even in its decayed state, expresses the spirit of ancient Rome, Speer wanted new Nazi buildings to be designed to reveal to later epochs the greatness of the Third Reich.
One artist, Wilhelm Rudolph, started drawing the bombed-out ruins of Dresden the day after Allied air raids began razing the city in February 1945. The bombardment destroyed Rudolph’s home and his life’s work. In response, he drew the city street by street, and by year’s end he had made more than 200 drawings.
Rudolph’s compulsive drawings, later titled “Dresden Destroyed,” can be seen as a kind of stocktaking, or inventorying. The show’s title, “Inventur,” is German for inventory and is borrowed from a poem by Günter Eich, the German lyricist and former soldier. In the poem, written in an American POW camp in 1945, Eich lists his few humble belongings: “This is my notebook,/this is my rain gear,/ this is my towel,/ this is my twine.”
Eich’s plain-spoken list has an existential quality. It chimes with Roth’s theory that German art of this era is not about nationalism — the search for a new German identity expressed through its art — but about more basic questions. For many artists, it was less a case of “What is the future of Germany?” than “What is the future of art?” Any answer had to involve a kind of stocktaking.
When the war ended and Germany started to rebuild, its artists were often starting from scratch. In many cases their studios and earlier work had been destroyed. But they cherished their restored independence. They refused to be pinned down to any single idea or aesthetic philosophy, and they didn’t restrict themselves to any one medium.
The period’s almost aggressive eclecticism makes sense as a response to the Nazis’ determination to impose a unified aesthetic. But eclecticism was also, perhaps, a symptom of dismay. “There is a lot of confusion,” art critic Will Grohmann wrote in 1948. “Right now everything is being tried out again.” That searching spirit prevailed for at least a decade after the war’s end.
Who are the artists from this period whose names we should remember?
Familiar greats such as Hannah Höch and Otto Dix have been included, but because their heyday was earlier, they are more commonly associated with the Weimar period. The dynamic abstract artist K.O. Götz features prominently. And early work by Otto Piene, who had a celebrated postwar career in the United States, is also here.
But Roth has tried hard to draw attention to less familiar and, often, female artists. One of the most interesting is Jeanne Mammen, an illustrator turned avant-gardist who defied Nazi aesthetics and, after the war, used miscellaneous materials — discarded wire, cardboard, foil and even doilies — to make works that are full of invention. “Simply everything has to be used,” she wrote.
Her somber, semi-abstracted cityscape “Falling Facades (Berlin Ruins)” opens the show. Her sculptures, which she never exhibited, include two abstracted heads in fired clay, painted gray, adorned with floral transfers.
Willi Baumeister is another crucial (and better known) figure. Four of his paintings had been exhibited in Hitler’s notorious 1937 “Degenerate Art” exhibition, which paraded, for public mockery, modernist work deemed out of step with Nazi aesthetics.
In the early 1940s, Baumeister met regularly with fellow artists Oskar Schlemmer and Franz Krause in a lacquer factory in Wuppertal. Covertly, they made abstract panels experimenting with chance effects on various surfaces. In look and technique, these works echo the automatic writing of the surrealists and contemporaneous experiments by Jackson Pollock.
When the war ended, Baumeister’s output accelerated. He published a defense of modernist aesthetics, “The Unknown in Art,” in 1947, and produced a body of abstract work that is bright, playful and — given all he had been through — astonishingly upbeat.
Inventur — Art in Germany, 1943-55 at Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass. Through June 3. 617-495-9400, harvardartmuseums.org