Art doesn’t always serve to expand one’s mind or represent complex ideas or culture. The context in which people present art influences how viewers perceive it. Picasso said painting “is an instrument of war, an offensive and defensive weapon against an enemy.” Sometimes art can be used maliciously, as the Nazis did in the years leading up to and throughout WWII.
The potential of art to be used as propaganda is the foremost issue in the new documentary “Hitler vs Picasso and The Others.” The Broadway Metro theater in Eugene is showing the film during a special one-night-only event on Wednesday, April 4 at 6:45 p.m.
The film tells the story of how the Nazis looted museums and people’s personal art collections across Europe. It describes how the regime portrayed many stolen works of art and their artists as a threat to its autocratic, white-supremacist society. Hitler, who was an aspiring professional artist in his younger years and rejected by Vienna’s Academy of Fine Arts twice, deemed modern works “degenerate art” and banned them across the empire.
The documentary revolves around five exhibitions, starting with the 1937 Nazi-curated Munich exhibit called “Degenerate Art,” which travelled to 12 cities in Germany and Austria. The exhibit intended to propagandize residents of those cities and cast 650 works of stolen art as contrary to Nazi ideals of Aryan beauty. The Nazis contrasted their framing of so-called “degenerate art” with the “Great Exhibition of German Art,” which glorified the appreciation of art they saw as purely Aryan.
The film then shifts to the story of the French-Jewish art collector and gallery owner Paul Rosenberg, who was a friend of great artists such as Picasso and Matisse, whose work was confiscated by the Nazis. In 1910, Rosenberg opened a gallery called “21 rue La Boétie” in Paris, but in 1942, the Nazis stripped Rosenberg of his French citizenship and took every piece of art in his collection. Rosenberg’s granddaughter and Huffington Post Editorial Director, Anne Sinclair, tells his story in the film.
The final set of exhibitions featured in the film take viewers to present-day Germany. In 2010, German customs officials stopped a train to Munich for a random passenger check. Cornelius Gurlitt, the son of one of Hitler’s primary merchants of stolen art, Hildebrand Gurlitt, was on the train and questioned by the officials. They ultimately discovered that Gurlitt was still hiding works by Monet, Picasso and Matisse in his apartment. This section of the film focuses on two paired exhibitions in Bern and Bonn, Germany featuring the works that Gurlitt had kept hidden.
“Hitler vs Picasso and The Others” will leave viewers with a greater understanding of how the Nazis used art to shape their wretched national identity. The stories of struggle and loss during the Nazi reign featured in the film offer a fascinating, new look at a familiar part of history.