On Saturday 13 October, I attended the ECA-NGS symposium entitled, ‘Why Degenerate? From Nordau to Nolde and Beyond’. The conference was organised by my supervisor, Dr Christian Weikop and ECA PhD candidate, Frances Blythe, under the aegis of the Research Forum for German Visual Culture, and in collaboration with the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, whose exhibition on Emil Nolde (1867-1956), one of the key artists featured in the Nazi’s infamous degenerate art exhibition of 1937, ends on 21 October 2018. Seeking to expand the debate around degeneracy beyond the defaming Nazi exhibition of 1937, the symposium gathered an international selection of world-leading experts in the field. Chief Curator and Deputy Director at the SNGMA, Keith Hartley, introduced the conference at the Scottish National Gallery, touching briefly on the gallery’s longstanding history of acquisitions and long loans of German Modernist art, including Oscar Kokoschka’s Self-Portrait as a Degenerate Artist (1937), Ernst Barlach’s The Terrible Year (1937), and Paul Klee’s Old Man Calculating (1929).
The symposium’s keynote speaker, Dr Aya Soika (Bard College, Berlin) is currently co-curating exhibitions at the Brücke Museum and the Hamburger Bahnhof. Her research assesses heretofore inaccessible archival material from the Nolde estate, prompting a fresh look at the oeuvre of Emil Nolde, a fascinating figure who problematises conventional victim-perpetrator dichotomies applied to German artists active during the Nazi era.
Other speakers from Germany included Dr Meike Hoffmann (Freie Universität, Berlin), specialist member of the Taskforce Schwabing Art Trove, formed to research the provenance of the Gurlitt collection following its discovery in 2012; Dr Maike Steinkamp, curator at the Nationalgalerie in Berlin and expert on the reception of ‘degenerate’ art post-1945; and Dr Lucy Wasensteiner, newly-appointed lecturer at Bonn University and curator of the recently opened London 1938 exhibition at the Liebermann Villa in Berlin, which reconstructs an important counter-exhibition held in the capital in response to the touring degenerate art show in Germany.
Internationally-renowned scholar and Professor of Architectural History at the University of Edinburgh, Iain Boyd Whyte, considered the term ‘degenerate’ in the context of the plurality of architectural styles adopted by the Nazi regime, while Prof Neil Gregor (University of Southampton) focused on the often inconsistent notions of degeneracy and ‘atonalism’ in music, as defined by the National Socialists. Independent art historian with a special interest in so-called ‘degenerate’ and émigré art, Dr Ines Schlenker, examined sculpture’s role in the 1937 exhibition, with reference to its popular reception as well as intriguing elements of audience participation. Former Watson Gordon Professor of Fine Art at Edinburgh University and curator of multiple international exhibitions on late nineteenth-century French art, Prof Richard Thomson, turned his analysis to the art Max Nordau encountered in the Parisian Salon when drafting his seminal 1892 diatribe, Degeneracy.
The conference was preceded on Friday afternoon by an ECA workshop for early career researchers. PhD candidate and Junior Research Fellow Mary-Ann Middelkoop (History, University of Cambridge) presented a paper on the instrumentalisation of Expressionist art by the Weimar Republic’s foreign policy, while PhD candidate MaryKate Cleary (History of Art, University of Edinburgh) examined surprising examples of officially-sanctioned tolerance of French Modernism by Nazi Germany. Cole Collins, a PhD Graduand from ECA on Kurt Schwitters’ representation of women, identified accusations of degeneracy in Schwitters’ reception, long predating the 1937 degenerate art exhibition. Finally, applying the notion of degeneracy as an aesthetic strategy deployed by artists in the wake of WWII, PhD candidate and conference co-organiser, Frances Blythe, delivered a paper on the landscape paintings of Anselm Kiefer.
From a personal perspective, I thought it was particularly significant that the conference speakers were in attendance for these presentations on Friday evening, facilitating a dialogue between two respective generations of established scholars and early career researchers. It was equally rewarding to bear witness to such a fruitful collaboration between the department and the Scottish National Galleries, both of whom demonstrated their readiness to invite PhD candidates to co-organise high-profile events. As a nascent researcher myself, focusing on Berlin Dada and its satirical precedents, I have no doubt that this dynamic insight into current debates in the field will prove to be a formative experience at this early stage in my research.