This Friday, Wagner College art historian Laura Morowitz will be an invited speaker in a Duke University speaker series on “Art, Conflict and the Politics of Memory.”
Her subject: the odd retrospective exhibition of Gustav Klimt’s works staged by Vienna’s Nazi-installed governor, Baldur von Schirach, at the Secession gallery in 1943.
In a blog written earlier this year for the Neue Galerie’s “Degenerate Art” exhibition, Morowitz writes about how Klimt, a product of fin de siècle Vienna, escaped the Nazis’ “degenerate” label that dogged so many of his contemporaries, despite his close association with Jewish patrons, several of whom became subjects for his paintings.
Klimt’s Beethoven frieze in the Secession, Morowitz wrote, is an example of why Nazi cultural officials tolerated, even acclaimed his work.
“Klimt’s frieze hails the triumph of idealism over materialism,” she explained, “an idea often found in Nazi aesthetics. The rescuing knight around whom the frieze revolves can easily be read as a proto-Fuhrer figure, leading his people to a higher realm.”
Yet Klimt’s extremely sensual subject matter made his work at least suspect to many, even in pre-Nazi Vienna.
“Although not specifically deemed ‘degenerate,’ Klimt was certainly an artist whom the leaders in Berlin considered decadent,” wrote cultural journalist Monica Strauss of the 1943 Klimt retrospective in an article for The Forward. “Nevertheless, von Schirach, with the confidence of a Nazi favorite — he had headed the Hitler Youth movement, and his wife was the daughter of Hitler’s official photographer — was not averse to stepping out of line when it came to culture.”
Von Schirach took a risk, promoting the Klimt retrospective as an example of the glories of Germanic art, Morowitz said — and populating it with numerous works that had been confiscated from the families of Klimt’s Jewish patrons while also being careful to conceal their connection to the Jewish community. For example, Klimt’s two portraits of Adele Bloch-Bauer, a Jew, were retitled “A Lady with a Gold Background” and “Lady Standing.”
Von Schirach opened the Klimt retrospective on Feb. 7, 1943, just 5 days after the German defeat in the Battle of Stalingrad, widely considered to be one of the decisive turning points in World War II. Two years later, Von Schirach surrendered to the Allies and was tried for deporting 65,000 Austrian Jews to the Nazi death camps. He was one of only two high German officials who renounced their allegiance to Hitler during the Nuremberg war crimes trials. He served 20 years in Spandau prison.
LAURA MOROWITZ received her B.A. from Brooklyn College and her M.A. and Ph.D. from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. She taught at many colleges — including Hunter College, the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Art and Science, Yale University and the Pratt Institute — before joining the faculty at Wagner College in 1996, where she is currently a professor of art history.
Morowitz’s scholarship focuses on a variety of issues and periods. While her books, “Artistic Brotherhoods in the Nineteenth Century” (with William Vaughan) and “Consuming the Past” (with Elizabeth Emery) highlight medievalism in 19th century Europe, Morowitz has also written on forms of popular culture, including television sitcoms and artistic exhibits in department stores and world’s fairs. Examining issues of nationalism, consumerism, historiography and gender, Laura Morowitz has published on artists including Paul Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gustave Moreau, Vincent Van Gogh and Edouard Vuillard as well as important writers and cultural figures in nineteenth century France.
With Laurie Albanese, Morowitz co-authored a historic novel, “The Miracles of Prato” (William Morrow 2009). It brought to life the romantic story of the famed painter-monk Fra Filippo Lippi and the beautiful Florentine nun who was to become his muse, lover, and the mother of his children.
Morowitz is currently at work on a second historic novel focusing on the art and cultural legacy of the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt, for which she and Albanese received a 2011 Hadassah-Brandeis Research Award.
She is teaching an honors course next semester on "Art and Aesthetics in Nazi Germany." "One of the most murderous regimes in history, the Third Reich was also one of the most deeply invested in all areas of art and aesthetics," Morowitz wrote. “This course proposes that we cannot fully understand National Socialism without understanding the aesthetic ideology of the party and of Adolf Hitler. ‘Hitler … is someone for whom culture was not only the end to which power should aspire but the means of achieving and keeping it.’ ”