Depraved Art, my Uncle, and Me

Depraved Art, my Uncle, and Me
La Danse (The Dance) by Henri Matisse. One of the postcards of "depraved art" on my Munich dorm room wall

I had never heard the term, “Entartete Kunst,” German for “Depraved Art,” until I traveled to Germany, in 1969, to study at the University of Munich. I had also never heard the names Henri Matisse, Franz Marc, Otto Dix, George Braque, Max Ernst or any of the dozens of artists whose work was the subject of the “Twentieth Century Art” class I took at the university.  I had heard of Picasso, but had no idea of the philosophy or scope of his work, no idea what Cubism even meant, no knowledge that Picasso and Braque, both originators or Cubism, had been influenced by Cézanne, of whom I was also ignorant.

All that changed when I enrolled in a class called “Kunst im Zwanzigsten Jahrhundert,” –– “Art in the Twentieth Century.” That class, more than any other, transported me from zero knowledge of a subject on what seemed like an exponential learning curve. Certainly I had gleaned only the most rudimentary understanding of Twentieth Century Art, but I gained a vocabulary and a basic understanding that has stayed with me for more than four decades.

These are the first artists I seek out when I go to a museum. I’ll make a special trip to view an exhibit that focuses on any one these great Modernist masters. Perhaps that’s because they represent more than art to me. They represent a time in my life when I was on the cusp of adulthood, the first time living away from home, out of my city, out of my country. When I was learning a new language -- not just the language of German, but of art.

I had become so enamored with the artists we studied, I bought postcards or their work and plastered them on the wall of my tiny dorm room. Works by Matisse, Marc, Klee, Braque, Picasso, Chagall  kept me company as I studied and struggled with convoluted German grammar. They greeted me when I returned from hitchhiking forays through Bavaria, Austria, Italy––and every other destination my best buddy and I wanted to visit. I turned to find solace in their odd lines, brilliant colors, abstract depictions of the world as I navigated my own new world, making decisions, and living with the consequences, good and bad.

Yesterday in Augsburg, a beautiful university town not far from Munich, it was announced that some 1500 Modernist works, believed to have been confiscated in the late 1930s by the Nazis, had been discovered in a Munich apartment. The art world was set on fire. (See two NYT articles: "...A Triumph Over the Nazis' Will  and German Officials Provide Details on Looted Art).

Already a juggernaut of claims has been set in motion. They will probably take years, and plenty of acrimony, to resolve. But for me, this discovery lays claim to my personal journey.

As I was first learning about these works in my twentieth century art class in Munich, somewhere in the same city, perhaps not far from the university, a man was hunkered down, surrounded by hundreds of hidden twentieth century masterpieces, about which he was undoubtedly very well-informed.

It may seem odd to be including these ruminations on a blog about my uncle’s World War II letters, but there is a connection. In 1943, Frank Gartz was in training to fight and defeat the Nazis, just as Hitler was trying to create a world that reflected only his ideas of perfection. That meant that human beings who didn’t meet Hitler's standards of genetic perfection had to die. It meant that any art which didn’t glorify the Aryan ideal was “depraved” and had to removed from museums and private collections before it corrupted the German people.

Perhaps if  my uncle and his peers hadn’t been so well trained, hadn't  fought so hard, hadn't sacrificed so much, these works would no longer exist.

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  • Once again you've hit the mark, I just finished reading Orange is the New Black and prison responses also leave no room for reason.
    Some people love having authority and all it brings to their egos.

    As for the art, we were in Vienna a few years ago and I just drooled over the Gustav Klimt reproductions. If you have not read the book about the men who tried to recover all this purloined art, The Monument Makers, I think, do so. What a wonderful life you are and have led, Linda.

  • In reply to rapidreader:

    Thanks again for your valued input, Marian! That class was truly life-changing and has influenced my enjoyment of art ever since.

  • I learned about the artists you mention in my many art history classes, and my husband and I have had the pleasure of seeing their work in a variety of American museums.

    I'm grateful to all who did their part to ensure that the works of these great European artists are not lost to their owners (or descendants) and to the world.

    Now, I'm eager to get the story behind the discovery.

  • In reply to Lynette:

    I took a great Art History class in college, but it never got to 20th Century art. That's why this class in Munich was so meaningful to me. All the arts act like a mirror, and the other thing I found fascinating is the way these artist responded to the politics and social order of the day through their art. No wonder Hitler wanted to quash it. He was a man with little imagination -- hence anything different had to be "wrong." Like you, I'm eager to learn more about this discovery too.

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    Linda Gartz

    I was born and raised on Chicago's West Side, where the Gartz family lived and worked for most of the 20th century. After my mom died in 1994, my brothers and I poked around the the attic of my parents' home and discovered a trove of letters, diaries, documents, and photos that had been saved for almost a century. Taken as a whole, they focus a lens on the history of our city and life in another era, as seen through the eyes of regular folks. Go to Lindagartz.com where you'll find my blog, Family Archaeologist (a clickable link is on the "About Letters of a World War II Airman" page). There you can explore this historical treasure trove that illuminates history and our shared humanity. I started my blog, "Letters of a World War II Airman," on the 70th anniversary of the date my uncle, Frank Ebner Gartz, was drafted into World War II military service. You can see that first post and the first three months of 1943 letters at my website, Lindagartz.com. All future letters will be posted on this blog. I'm an author, archivist and television producer. Please visit my website, LindaGartz.com, to see my published articles and an overview of my television productions.

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