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Max - A Brief Introduction to the Modern Art Explosion and Hitler’s 'Degenerate Art'



Compiled by: Jack Foley

IN THE turbulent period between the two World Wars, modernism exploded, and with it came entirely new and radical notions about what could be expressed in art, and how.

Once relegated to the decorous, art suddenly became dangerous and public – and artists themselves were threatened by political ideology.

Perhaps nowhere in history was the intertwined tension between art and politics felt as strongly as in post-WWI Germany.

And it was here, remarkably, that the historical Adolf Hitler, as a young man, pursued his career as a struggling artist amidst a thriving movement of Dadaists, Futurists and radical performance artists, many of whom his regime would later brutally persecute.

Max takes a fictional route to explore Hitler’s unusual collision with the art world.

But the film and its title character clearly take their spirit from the daring, highly energized, irreverent art of the period, particularly the movement known as Dadaism.

As writer/director, Menno Meyjes, observes: "It was a time when people were looking to change the code of things, and with a new kind of art they could change the code and if you could change the code you would change the world."

The spirit of Dada and the other avant-garde art movements were forged in the trenches of World War One.

In the aftermath of a war that introduced the horrors of chemical and industrialized warfare for the first time, the world stood stunned by its own brutality, and Europe was reeling from a new urban reality made up of widows, the disabled, the starving and the unemployed masses.

Faced with this jarring and incomprehensible reality, poets, writers, painters and musicians responded with art forms never before imaginable.

Some called Dadaism the 'anti-art', a kind of electric shock to a society watching its values crumble and its past fall away without any clear vision of the future.

As Zurich Dadaist Tristan Tzara wrote of the modern art movement: "Art is going to sleep for a new world to be born."

Artists of the time took up entirely new subjects: urban grit, the notion of speed, the worship and fear of machines, the horrors of war, the very feeling of chaos, irrationality and uncertainty.

Some depicted a brave new world in which destitute war victims were as common a sight as classical European splendor; others looked optimistically to the modern future.

Fearlessly, many artists expressed deep political dissatisfaction in their work and put out the disquieting philosophy that society could not go back, but had to face a future with new ideas.

Dadaists pioneered new means as well as messages: they began working in wildly anarchic photo-collages and photo-montages that reflected the dynamism and randomness of modern life, and they also developed the first multi-media performance art acts.

The latter were often created specifically to push the audiences’ buttons – to anger, incite or titillate them, and cause them to question what they had just seen. In one early Dadaist exhibit, the gallery-goers were handed axes so that they could destroy the art they saw if they so chose.

Through the 1920’s, Dadaism spread like wildfire through Europe, especially cities such as Berlin, Zurich, Cologne, Hanover and Paris. In Germany, a country devastated by defeat in World War One and subsequent economic ruin, Dadaists such as George Grosz, Johannes Baeder, Hannah Hoch, Raoul Hausmann and Hans Richter rose to fame, becoming especially strong in the multi-media art of photo-montage.

But Dadaism and modern art in general clashed with another equally strong movement in Germany – a conservative, nationalistic movement that labeled modern artists as unpatriotic, decadent and criminally revolutionary.

Although Adolf Hitler had dabbled in modern art once upon a time after he came to power along with the Nazi Party, the art world was literally purged.

By 1937, Hitler had labeled all the art he didn’t like 'degenerate art' and those who created it were often brutally prosecuted.

Adolf Zieglar, whom Hitler appointed president of the Reich Culture Chamber, proclaimed of modern art: "What you are seeing here are the crippled products of madness, impertinence, and lack of talent . . .

"I would need several freight trains to clear our galleries of this rubbish."

Many of Germany’s most lauded artists escaped into exile but others died in concentration camps.

Few artists of that time, no matter what the subjects of their work, were able to pursue their creative visions without dire and legitimate fear, or worse.

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